Dexter: Sociopath or Physcopath?

Today I will be talking about a topic in psychology, admittedly, psychology is the section of biology I have the least academic experience in (in fact I struggle spelling the word every time I use it, anyone else have this problem?). To compensate for my limited knowledge I will discuss something I have lots of background in, that’s right: Dexter. Not only have I read some of the books, I have watched the entire series at least twice, and had many a nerdy conversation about America’s favorite serial killer. One of these conversations, (with my wonderfully dorky boyfriend, Jack), revolved around what Dexter is… a psychopath, a sociopath, mildly autistic, mentally abused?! Furthermore, what’s even the difference between these?

The words ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ have historically been used (like many psychological terms) incorrectly in social contexts interchangeably, however, more and more research suggests these are two extremely distinct conditions. Though they’re typically portrayed as rare and violent, sociopaths are actually more common than you think. It is estimated that 1 in 25 people are diagnosable sociopaths (Discovery News), they are individuals that have a conscience (AKA: they understand what is right and wrong), however, they are able to ignore their inner voice. Sociopaths seem to be the product of bad nurturing, rather than natural genetics, and usually arise from abuse. This usually results in low functioning individuals in society (cannot hold down a job, etc.) who are erratic and violent. Alex DeLarge from Clockwork Orange, Sherlock Holmes, Lex Luther, and perhaps even Don Draper are great examples of sociopaths.

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Psychopaths on the other hand lack a conscience completely and are usually the product of nature, in fact, most have abnormal brain function which can observed during a simple MRI. When shown a video clip of someone hurting themselves (stubbing a toe for example), ‘normal’ people’s brains tend to light up in the parts of the mind associated with empathy. However, psychopaths have no brain activity in these regions, in fact, their MRI scans light up in the pleasure center of the brain. That’s right, their brains are wired to feel happy when others are hurt. However, psychopaths are usually more intelligent, they’re better at being successful in society, and great at hiding their condition. Psychopaths are actually four times more likely to be CEOs (The Psychopath Test). Common popular examples of psychopaths are: Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Frank Underwood (House of Cards), and Patrick Bateman (American Psychopath).

Now to diagnose Mr. Morgan… is his condition nature or nurture? Well, we know that at a very young age he encountered the horrific murder of his mother (need I go into more detail?) suggesting that an environmental trigger could be to blame. However, we know that his brother Brian Moser also grew up to be a serial killer, though he was also present at the time of the murder, it is fairly unlikely that the same condition could be manifested in children raised separately without a genetic component. Furthermore, Harrison (though young) manifests some behaviors which are suggested to be consistent with psychopathy. Thus the answer to the nature vs. nurture question remains unanswered.

Though Dexter was never put under an MRI (though he imagined it in The Lion Sleeps Tonight) we know that he is extremely intelligent, but is also prone to schizophrenic episodes (for example, ‘ghost Harry’), or possibly a brain tumor, suggesting that his brain must be malformed. However, there is no clear evidence of this either way (perhaps he just has an over active imagination!) and thus the answer to brain abnormalities also remains unclear.

Is he capable of empathy, does he have a moral compass? Though the majority of the series suggests he does not follow a normal moral code (but rather Harry’s code), his emotional evolution throughout the last couple of series suggests that he is capable of caring about some people. For example, his relationship with Deb, his attachment (and flippantness) about Hannah, and his anger towards Harry seems too far for someone with no ability to connect with others. However, the fact that he is capable (and has the desire) to kill people, and only kills criminals due to a code that was ingrained in him from an early age, indicates that perhaps he lacks the ability to empathize.

Lastly, Dexter’s success must be considered. Dexter is a blood splatter analyst and is considered to be very good at what he does, he also is a successful boyfriend/husband and father through most of the series. These clues indicate that he is successful in society’s eyes, however, more must be considered. Dexter, despite being top of his class, dropped out of medical school, this decision is never fully explored, and most would probably decide this was due to Harry’s death, however, maybe there’s more to this plot point. Perhaps he dropped out because he is less functional than we are led to believe professionally. In addition to his professional life, Dexter also alludes to having many failed romantic relationships, indicating that he is not always able to fake emotions efficiently.

So what is Dexter? No idea. But I think perhaps that’s the point of the show/books.

Bonus theory: Dexter is actually autistic (though high functioning) and was emotionally abused by Harry Morgan who channeled Dexter’s aggression (perhaps due to the traumatic childhood event) into a weapon Harry could use against the criminals in Miami.

XKCD

XKCD

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