Monday, November 29, 2010

Demystification Monday: Psychotic vs. Psychopath

Psychotic. Psychopath. Same thing, right?

Nope. Please don’t mix them up. Especially if you’re a writer and you’re thinking of creating a character with either one of these conditions. Know which is which, peeps! And if you don’t, well, that’s what I’m here for!

As I prepare to explain, please keep in mind that there are entire textbooks written on these subjects, so this is the seriously condensed version:

First, psychotic. This means a person has lost touch with reality. A person experiencing psychosis might have:
  1. Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there) or
  2. Delusions (there are lots of different types, but these are beliefs in something that’s untrue—we will definitely cover this in a future post)
There are lots of different types of psychotic disorders, but schizophrenia is probably the most well known. Basically, being psychotic means a person is going to have a heckuva lot of trouble thinking clearly, making good decisions, completing daily tasks, and responding emotionally and logically to other people.

Oh! Does it mean a person experiencing psychosis is violent? I mean, just look at what we see on television—psychotic people murdering others in fits of bizarre, violent behavior. I believe there have been episodes like this on ER, CSI, other-shows-you-probably-know-but-I-have-not-seen … and yeah, every once in awhile, it does happen in real life (unfortunately, it sounds like that might be what happened here). But MOST people in a psychotic state are harmless, are frightened or paranoid (more on paranoia in a future post), and are more of a danger to themselves than to others.

By the way, IT IS A MYTH that people with mental illnesses, psychotic or not, are more dangerous than other people. Don’t fall for it.

Ah, moving on.

Psychopathy. This is a personality trait that includes a total lack of empathy for others and really amoral behavior (you know, little things like lying, stealing, assaulting, killing, etc.). Often, someone who is psychopathic appears outwardly normal (notice the difference here—a person who is psychotic will often NOT appear normal).

Serial killers are often found to have psychopathic traits. Like Ted Bundy, for example. Look him up. The dude was scarily smooth, had a degree in psychology, and even got involved in politics before it was discovered that he was brutally murdering young women.

Or, more recently, one of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris, was showing a lot of signs of psychopathy. If you want to read more about that, I highly recommend Columbine, by Dave Cullen. Riveting.

And on TV (and in literature), our favorite psychopath of all … you know who I’m thinking of?

Dexter Morgan.

He talks about how he has no real feelings, how he’s rehearsed all these behaviors so he can fool people into thinking he’s normal … he’s most definitely NOT psychotic. He’s totally sane. He knows right from wrong. He understands reality. He just doesn’t feel the same way other people do. It doesn’t hurt him to kill other people. He’s sort of detached about it most of the time. Dexter has most of the characteristics of a psychopath, though he’s been given many habits and traits that make him more sympathetic (trying to stick to “The Code”, for instance).

Now, believe it or not, you can’t really be officially diagnosed as a psychopath. The closest thing in our current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-IV-TR) is antisocial personality disorder. It looks like that may change in the upcoming DSM-V, but more on that another time.  

OK, I’m all done. Questions? Other examples?


  1. I found you through Justine Dell. Very interesting. I look forward to more informative posts.

  2. Excellent examples! I totally make sense now! I'm only slightly psychotic and not a psychopath. Good to know. ;-)


  3. Wow, great blog, Sarah. Can't wait to read more posts like this one. :D

  4. Interesting post! Just hopped over from Justine's blog. Looking forward to getting to know you.

  5. I heart Dexter. Even though he has that whole murderous side.

  6. Ironically, I just finished watching an episode of Dexter before reading this blog . . . :/ I was just saying to a friend this past weekend that it's funny (not ha ha funny, but the other type) how a series that is written well can have you rooting for the serial killer!
    Very interesting post. I look forward to reading more :)

  7. Jaime and Anne--I know. It's hard not to root for Dexter, which just shows how well done it is.

    And--thanks to all who came over from Justine's blog! I appreciate the support!

    AND--thanks JD. You're awesome.

  8. Count me in as another who came over from Justine's. It'll be nice to get to know you as something other than "the beta", lol.

    Congrats on the agent rep, BTW!

    I like psychopaths, they're more fun (from a fictional stand point, I mean).

  9. Hi, found you by way of Justine's blog. Congrats on getting your agent and being on your way to publication.Love your blog. Oh, and re: psychotic, do you know me? :o

  10. Great explanation. Thank you. And congratulations on your new blog. I too, arrived from Justine's.

  11. i'm in love with this post!
    one of my family members is schizophrenic, and he is a brilliant, creative, kind person. sure he has other problems, and sure meds really help him try to be "normal"- but the stigma and all-out hate from society because of his condition really pisses me off!
    i have a feeling this blog is going to rock! not only for writing advice, but also to help dispel some to the stigma that accompanies the mentally ill... although i don't see the hate here in the online YA writing community (just one of the many wonderful things about them!)
    i'm so glad you've decided to start blogging!
    we've heard so much about you!
    welcome Oz Beta! :)

  12. thank you for writing this. It drives me crazy when people mix these up. Also, psychopathy is an awesome word so props for writing a post with it.

  13. Hi, Sara! Over from Justine's... I have a psychopath (psycho) in one of my MSs... But so far no one's gone psychotic. Although I would love to go there w/a character~

    Thanks, and best of luck to you! :o) <3

  14. I'm coming over from Justine as well...(Congrats on the amazing agent success story, btw)

    I love posts with information I can sink my teeth into...not that I don't appreciate a good rant, of course. I'm looking forward to reading more of your angle on psychology!

  15. Carolyn, Em-musing, Tracy--thanks for the congrats. It happened so quickly! One week, I was reading all the success stories and feeling really happy for people ... but also wishing it would happen to me. And then--boom. So, be prepared!

    LTM--I'm planning on doing some posts about writing characters with various conditions ...

    Aspiring_x, Falen, and Liza--my hope is that I can give folks some useful information about some conditions that (and some people who) are often misunderstood.

  16. I like a lot of what you've said here, but I think there's one thing that is definitely lacking in this article: The differentiation between psychopaths and sociopaths. I understand why you would choose to leave that out, because had you not, you run the risk of your article becoming slight. Even still, many of the people you made mention of here are more sociopathic than psychopathic. But I digress. Great article, really :)