Is Tony Soprano a sociopath?

[This post is by Donna Andersen from Lovefraud.com and the Lovefraud Blog. The goals of Lovefraud are to teach people how to know when love is a con and to wake them up to the danger of sociopaths. ‘Is Tony Soprano a sociopath?’ was first published at Lovefraud blog on June 10, 2007.]

Tonight, in the final episode of the HBO series The Sopranos, we find out what happens to Tony. Will he get whacked? Will he
escape? Will he go into the federal witness protection program?

As a prelude, last week’s episode, called The Blue
Comet
, showed Tony as a man alone, losing his family,
friends and even his psychiatrist. Early in the show, Tony’s shrink,
Dr. Jennifer Melfi, is at a dinner party with other mental health
professionals, including her own shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupfenberg. The
conversation turns to sociopaths:

Doctor #1: I Googled stuff on sociopathic personalities.
Apparently the talking cure actually helps them become better
criminals. It was fascinating. The study was by Yochelson and
Samenow.
Dr. Melfi: Studies are turned around every few years.
Doctor #1: This other—I think it was Robert Hare—suggested sociopaths
actually quite glibly engage on key issues, like mother, family …
Doctor #2: I seem to remember that from residency.
Dr. Melfi: Me too, and I’ve read Hare, but who’s a true sociopath?

As the scene continues, it is revealed that Dr. Melfi is treating
Tony Soprano. Dr. Elliot Kupfenberg points out that she may face
moral and even legal consequences for keeping him as a patient. Later
in the show—after reading the study—Dr. Melfi dumps Tony.

Reasonably accurate

The dialog among the psychiatrists was essentially correct,
although I’m sure Dr. Robert Hare was not happy about them using the
term ‘sociopath‘. He always uses ‘psychopath.’

Still, I’ve been to two of Dr. Hare’s seminars, and I’ve heard him
discuss the research about talk therapy and sociopaths (psychopaths).
However, I believe the research related to incarcerated men mandated
to attend group therapy sessions. What happens is they learn the buzz
words to manipulate their prison psychologists and parole officers.
This allows them to get out of jail faster, or, if they re-offend,
talk their way into reduced sentences.

Of course, many Lovefraud readers who have attended counseling
sessions with sociopaths can relate to how they con the therapists.
And the line about “sociopaths glibly engage on key issues like
mother, family,” well, we all know that one.

For me, the best part of this scene was seeing a reasonably
accurate discussion of the sociopathic personality in a mainstream TV
show.

Is he or isn’t he?

Still, is Tony Soprano a sociopath? My first response is no. As
those of us who have experienced sociopaths well know, they feel no
guilt or remorse. Nothing is their fault, and they do not believe
anything is wrong with them. So although it may be great television
for a mob boss to go into therapy—not because he was ordered by the
court, but because he felt the need—it is not going to happen with a
true sociopath.

But in an article Friday in the St. Petersburg Times, Dennis Lehane, a writer for the HBO series
The Wire (my personal favorite), says Tony Soprano is a
sophisticated sociopath who fools everyone. And Allen Rucker, author
of three officially sanctioned books about The Sopranos,
says, “We were all the therapist being sucked in by the psychopath.
One part of Tony has the sensibility of a poet and another part is
the predator—which is why we love him.”

So is he or isn’t he? The sociopathic personality encompasses a
range of behaviors, and Tony certainly has some of the traits. Or
maybe he’s taken the personality disorder to a whole new level.
Luckily, Tony is a TV character and we don’t really have to decide.

But the good news is that the media may finally be getting the
idea that sociopaths are not all deranged serial killers. They’ve
graduated to mob hit men. I guess that’s progress.

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21 Responses

  1. I think Hare has a category for the “acculturated” psychopath,” someone grown up with crime, killing etc., and for whom social pathology is simply the norm of existence. I don’t think he considers such a person a true psychopath.

  2. Not sure about the terminology, but, probably not black or white, but charcoal gray.

    In one episode, Tony does have a dream — that the beautiful next-door neighbor woman is his mother (I can’t quite remember the plot).
    And he was protective about his children, rather than neglectful or abusive, necessarily.
    So there is some wiring there, leading to at least a frontal lobe function resembling a tiny dot of humanity.

    But, in another episode, Dr. Melfi asks Tony about his family, and if they ever had fun together. Tony responds that once his father fell down a flight of cement steps and cracked his head open and they all had a good laugh.

    And his sister — dissed by a husband, shoots him. Then she tells Tony (in the last episode, I think) she doesn’t have good luck with men, and they both laugh — and she says who else would understand why she laughed?

    My favorite episode was when he had sex in the reptile exhibit at the zoo. Wow.

  3. No, not a psychopath. Most of the characters on the show are extreme narcissists. Be charmed by them and you’re sweet, diss them and you’re dead. Apart from that, they do their jobs. There are some exceptions, though I don’t believe Tony is one.

    The psychoanalyst Glen O. Gabbard says in ‘The psychology of the Sopranos’ that Tony is not a true psychopath – that his mother Livia is much closer to it.

  4. Fiction rarely gets psychiatric disorders & mental illness symptoms true to life.
    I’d say the writers were trying to depict a “redeemable” sociopath.

    I think of the time I went to the movies with a friend who is a psychiatrist, to see the Michael Douglas movie called “Don’t Say a Word”, my friend was, as usual, put off by the mentally ill character. Apparently it was a real hack job as far as psychiatry is concerned.
    She said that it’s typical in movies, tv, and books, to put a hodge podge of different symptoms that wouldn’t normally go together, in the same character.

    And why not? How else can you give so many people the satisfaction of a monumental character change, unless you make the hopeless redeemable? How can you make an evil character lovable unless you give positive emotions or behaviours to a villain?

    Real life is never so ideal. Most people never change, sociopath or not.

    That’s why fiction that depicts this is so very compelling & attractive to many people, if not most people.

    That said I’ve never seen the Sopranos. Just not my bag at all.
    But if they show him contemplative, BY HIMSELF in a scene, showing signs of personal private remorse, guilt, or sadness, then the answer would be absolutely not a sociopath.

    And I think it’s important for potential victims, victims, family members, etc., of sociopaths to be informed that if the person is a sociopath, they don’t have some soft underbelly they “just don’t show to the world”. That’s a load of rationalizing crap that will just keep you hooked, keep you waiting for him to show that soft underbelly. It’s a futile exercise indeed to imagine them like some character on tv, secretly commiserating behind your back with guilt about how they’ve lost your trust, or done you wrong. They’re not sitting home crying alone over the loss of job or girlfriend, they’re already out looking for the next mark.

  5. Not sure of the terminology, and so to me, people can slide around from narcissist to sociopath, I suppose, maybe depending on their external stimulus — like you said, if you are nice, they are ok, but diss them and you’re shot.

    I thought Livia (the mother?) was wild. Did she plot with the Uncle to kill Tony? Wow.

    Chloe, I always go back to the biology — if the wiring isn’t there, it is really tough to retrain those synapses.

  6. chloe – Where a person like Tony Soprano is actually possible is a good question.

    Don’t wait for the soft underbelly! This would make a great name for a book.

  7. swivelchair – So you see narcissism and psychopathy as a kind of continuum? Or as to fairly distinct ways of being which hop-scotched between?

    Re retraining the synapses – it’s theoretically possible, right. If so, I suspect the program that will work will look nothing like teaching or practising empathy. I wouldn’t be surprised it it involves all kinds of occupational therapy-like activities like (guessing wildly here) weighing different size balls in ones hands, etc.

  8. DRsteve: Exactly. I’m not sure a person like that character is possible.

    I don’t know of course. Not just because I’ve never seen the show, but because I haven’t met every person on earth. 😉
    But I’m leaning toward – it’s entirely possible that a person like him could not physiologically/mentally/emotionally exist.

  9. chloe – Yes, that’s what your previous comment has got me wondering. Is such a person psychologically implausible. Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. chloe – Yes, that’s what your previous comment has got me wondering – is such a person psychologically implausible. Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. Yeah, psychologically “implausible” is a good word to use for that.
    At best, I personally think it’s unlikely.

  12. DRSTeve on narcissism —>psychopath

    I think I’m just not that well versed in the terminology, so forgive if this isn’t strictly the DSM’d version

    Let’s take a CEO who manipulates people. Sometimes, attention for himself. (Narcissist). Sometimes, the jolt of the power thrill. (Psychopath). But the means are the same; it’s just what end point are they looking for.

  13. swivelchair – They do share many characteristics, you’re right. I guess that I go with and extrapolate McWilliams’ idea of being organised around particular principles: the psychopath around power, the narcissist around adoration. At the end of the day, these would be the fundamental motives – though one couldn’t tell from any one incident.

  14. Just writing on lovefraud about the dynamics of Tony Soprano. Today I was analyzing the characteristics and it amazes me HE FITS THE BILL! It is interested that the show is so popular and that they depict “real” people. No one questions, and it seems that possibly our society (because their are so many socios) is becoming a bit “numb”.
    Swivel-Yes, CEO’s and people of all kinds are socio,psych,narci’s. It does put not them in a better light. They all wreak their havo whether it be on a co-worker, friend, family member, or lover. The mission is to get what THEY want. By lying, cheating, conning, manipulating and charming anyone they need to!

  15. change06 – Thanks for your comment. I hope to get to my promised piece on Tony Soprano sometime soon – I want to try to show that he’s not a psychopath. I wonder if you’ll be convinced!

  16. Dr. Steve- In what way do you propose to do that?

  17. I would disagree that tony is a sociopath, definitely a narcissist, but he has true moral obligations and a genuine conscience. He at the very least trys to be “good” by his own standards.

  18. Tony Soprano was a full-fledged sociopath (far worse than a basically morally naive and self-absorbed narcissist) while it was discussed openly on the show. In Season 3’s “Second Opinion” Carmela sees another psychiatrist and they discuss Tony’s sociopathic nature and his basic unredeemability. She is told to leave him and take only the children. The psychiatrist recommends Tony turn himself in and serve time while reflecting “in his cell” each day for seven years to begin to a path to his own soul and self-redemption.
    Again it is discussed in the final few episodes when Melfi reads Yachov and Samenow’s dissertation about psychopaths and their basic inability to be treated, which Melfi had been told multiple times by many individuals throughout the shows running. It is in this same episode Melfi stops treating Tony.
    Tony, for all of his intelligence and leadership skills could have been something and someone very different than what he became and it became apparent throughout the show he was looking for something (anything!) to blame for his current bind. Even in Tony’s constant excuses “I gotta lot on my mind” “don’t know why I come here anymore” he always found some reason to shirk real work and growth and goes on the easy way his whole life. This character had himself to blame for all of his problems.

  19. […]             And the psychopath stands unrefuted – though hopefully alone.   [1]           To be fair, not everyone thinks Tony Soprano was actually a psychopath.  Most viewers would regard Tony as living by some kind of code.  That would be inconsistent with true psychopathy.  See this comment. […]

  20. I definitely think that Tony Soprano is a sociopath. He ticks all the boxes except for one, the one of remorse. But the bottom line is that that remorse is meaningless unless it changes any of his behavior, which ultimately towards the end of the show it appears as though it wont which is part of the reason Dr Melfi dumps him. So I guess I would go one further than Chloe, who says that he is a redeemable sociopath – a sociopath but one who, for entertainment value, appears redeemable. The path that we had been led down, of him being redeemable, in the end turns out to have come to the conclusion that he can’t be redeemed – he is a true sociopath and Melfi leaves him. I think the only thing the non sociopath arguement has going for it is that of his remorse but it seems none of it has changed any of his actions, so of what significance is it in effect?

    • Yes, you certainly want to bump into him in real life, would you?

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