Psychopath vs Sociopath: what truly distinguishes one from the other? Discover their true nature, unmask their chilling characteristics and unsettling personas.
Let’s begin with this:
- The best fictional psychopath is Anton Chigurh in “No Country For Old Men.”
- The best fictional sociopath is Raymond Reddington in Netflix’s “The Blacklist.”
Chigurh is exotic-looking, ruthless in killing, operates outside the conventions of justice and morality, is dedicated to his job, and always plans his next move.
Reddington is unorganized, nervous, agitated, and unpredictable, and has little empathy for most people. He used to have a normal family, life, and job until a traumatic fire and constant beatings took it all away from him.
Chigurh is cold and seems born with his criminality, while Reddington had a normal past and now suffers anxiety.
“Psychopaths are more dangerous than sociopaths because of a near-zero presence of guilt.”
Now, let’s dive into the sociopath vs. psychopath debate.
Psychopath vs Sociopath: What are the main differences?
“Psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably in everyday language, but there are some vital differences in their personality traits.
Here are the main differences between psychopaths and sociopaths:
- Origins and Causes:
- Psychopathy is linked to a genetic or biological abnormality present at birth.
- Sociopathy is likely the result of environmental factors, such as extreme adverse conditions or events, permissive styles of parenting, or the absence of a father figure.
- Psychopaths are often considered to be born with their condition due to a brain defect.
- Sociopaths typically develop their condition over time, likely as a result of environmental factors.
- Psychopaths make up approximately 3-15% of individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).
- Sociopaths constitute approximately 30% of individuals with APD.
- Psychopaths do not bond with anyone and lack guilt and remorse. They are less impulsive and more able to hide within the community.
- Sociopaths bond with a primary group but no other groups. They are more impulsive and erratic, and more likely to be arrested. They may experience some degree of remorse and guilt to the group identified with.
- Behavior Patterns:
- Psychopaths are more calculative and planning in acting out, easily fool others, and are not easily angered. They show a rank callousness.
- Sociopaths are characterized by excessive boasting, risk-taking, impulsiveness, antagonistic behavior, and a lack of interest in long-term relationships. They are more agitated and easily angered, leading to violent outbursts.
- Emotional Connection:
- Psychopaths do not bond with anyone, though they may give the impression they are bonding.
- Sociopaths bond with a primary group (e.g., family, gang) but with no other groups.
- Employment and Criminal Behavior:
- Psychopaths may have stable employment or minimal employment history and are less likely to be arrested. Treatment may help them become better at deviance.
- Sociopaths have difficulty maintaining employment and are more likely to be terminated from treatment programs. Their crimes tend to be more spontaneous and less well-planned.
- Neurological Aspects:
- Psychopathy has been scientifically suggested to be associated with a lack of proper brain development. They specifically have a defect in a structure in the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for fear conditioning. However, more research is needed to fully conclude its neurological underpinnings.
- Psychopaths have no known effective treatment and may become better at deviance through treatment intervention. They are not deterred by punishments. Psychopathic killers can kill for the thrill or excitement of it, drawing a rush or a sense of power from the act of killing.
- Sociopaths also have no known effective treatment and are more likely to fail treatment and refuse to cooperate with treatment staff.
|Genetic or biological abnormality present at birth||Likely the result of environment (e.g., extreme adverse conditions or events, permissive styles of parenting, absence of prosocial father or absence of any father figure)|
|Approximately 3-15% of Antisocial Personality Disorders (APD’s)||Approximately 30% of APD’s|
|Does not bond with anyone, though may give impression they are bonding through conning and manipulation||Bonds with primary group (e.g., family, gang) but to no other groups|
|As children, they present with impulsivity, insensitivity to the pain or suffering of others, problem externalization frequent antisocial behavior, and lack guilt and remorse. Adversarial home environment may desensitize the individual to emotional responsiveness||Adversarial experiences may desensitize the individual to emotional responsiveness and acceptance of aggression|
|Less impulsive, more likely able to hide effectively within community||More impulsive and erratic and therefore more likely to be arrested|
|Not likely easily angered, therefore less likely will exhibit angry outbursts||More agitated and easily angered, violent outbursts|
|Minimal if any sense of remorse or conscience||Experiences some degree of remorse and guilt to group identified with, not with others. Morality limited to only groups they identify with|
|May have stable employment or minimal employment history, may have poor employment history||Difficulty maintaining employment|
|Less impulsive, more planning in acting-out, able to hide deprecating attitudes, easily fools others, easily makes excuses for own behavior when caught to minimize consequences||Excessive boasting, risk-taking, impulsive, antagonistic, deprecating attitude towards the opposite sex, lack of interest in long-term relationships, acts without care or concern of repercussions or of what others think, act-out impulsively without regard for harm caused|
|No known effective treatment – appears to become better at deviance through treatment intervention; easily cons treatment staff to give more positive treatment success report but cons and deceives staff throughout treatment intervention||No known effective treatment – likely fails treatment and refuses to cooperate with treatment staff; more likely to be terminated from treatment program|
(Source: Johnson SA. Understanding the violent personality, 2019)
So, as we find, psychopathy is a personality disorder mainly characterized by a lack of empathy, remorse, and conscience. Sociopathy is also a personality disorder, mainly characterized by a disregard for the law and social norms.
Please note that the distinctions of these conditions can vary among psychology professionals.
Psychopathy: Origin & Etiology
The term “psychopath” was first coined by Hervey Cleckley in his 1941 book, “The Mask of Sanity.”
Cleckley described psychopaths as people who are superficially charming but lack empathy, remorse, and conscience. They are also often manipulative, deceitful, and impulsive.
In 1991, Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a 20-item rating scale that is used to diagnose psychopathy. The PCL-R has been shown to be a reliable and valid measure of psychopathy.
Psychopaths are thought to be born with a brain defect, which derails their processing of fear and social/moral inhibitions.
Researchers have found psychopaths have structural and functional differences in the brain compared to non-psychopaths. These differences include:
- Reduced activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that is involved in processing emotions such as fear and empathy.
- Reduced volume in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is involved in decision-making, planning, and impulse control.
- Increased activity in the striatum, a region of the brain that is involved in reward processing.
These findings suggest that psychopathy is a brain disorder characterized by faulty emotional processing, poor decision-making, and a high drive for rewards.
Psychopathy is not part of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).
Characteristics and Manifestations of Psychopathy
Psychopathy (Antisocial Personality Disorder or APD) is often associated with a certain degree of cold-heartedness and a lack of empathy.
Psychopaths are typically characterized by their callous lack of regard for others’ rights, feelings, and well-being. They are unbothered by punishment.
They are often manipulative, and deceitful, and have a high degree of superficial charm that they use to their advantage.
However, beneath this veneer of charm and normalcy lies a lack of conscience and a propensity for impulsive, reckless, and often dangerous behavior.
Overall approximately 1-3% of the general population is likely to have psychopathy (Hare & Neumann, 2008).
It is estimated that 11% of female violent subjects are psychopaths, as compared to 31% of male violent subjects who can be accurately labeled with APD (Grann, 2000).
Approximately 20 to 30% of the prison population is psychopaths (García & José, 2012). García & José also found that those prison inmates who lived in their original homes for a shorter time were more likely to be psychopaths.
“Findings suggest that the lesser the time subjects spent in their homes of origin, the higher their level of psychopathy will be. The subgroup of subjects diagnosed as psychopaths lived at their homes of origin an average of 13 years while inmates not diagnosed as psychopaths lived at their homes of origin an average of 18 years.”– García & José, Family and socio-demographic risk factors for psychopathy among prison inmates, 2012
How Is Psychopathy Diagnosed: Signs and Symptoms
Psychopaths are diagnosed based on three factors:
Factor 1: Interpersonal
Psychopaths often display glibness, superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and pathological lying. They are manipulative, lacking in remorse or guilt, and display a shallow affect.
Factor 2: Affective
Psychopaths are typically callous and lack empathy. They fail to accept responsibility for their own actions and exhibit poor behavioral controls.
Factor 3: Lifestyle
Psychopaths often have a parasitic lifestyle, with a lack of realistic, long-term goals. They are impulsive, irresponsible, and often engage in criminal behavior.
In 1980, the DSM-III defined psychopathy as a persistent violation of social norms and removed the affective traits altogether.
Psychopathy is not part of the current DSM-5, replaced by Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), which we will discuss later, remains a part of this diagnostic manual.
Emotional Disconnect in Psychopathy
A defining characteristic of psychopathy is the inability to form genuine emotional connections with others.
While they may be able to mimic emotions and convincingly feign empathy, they typically struggle to experience these feelings in a deep and meaningful way.
This emotional disconnection often leads to ruthless self-interest, where the needs and feelings of others are disregarded in favor of their own desires and objectives.
The Spectrum of Psychopathy
Contrary to popular belief, not all psychopaths are violent or criminal.
Many psychopathic people are able to navigate society successfully, often reaching positions of power and influence.
High-functioning psychopaths can mask their typical psychopathy features and live among us like normal people.
However, their lack of empathy and disregard for others can lead to damaging and harmful behavior, both in their personal relationships and in the wider societal context.
Treatment of Psychopathy
Treating psychopathy is challenging, as individuals rarely seek treatment voluntarily. Traditional psychotherapy can sometimes be counterproductive.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), teaching empathy, and other specialized programs have shown some promise, but overall effectiveness varies.
Historical figures like Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy are often cited as examples of psychopaths, though we must remember that a professional diagnosis cannot be made posthumously or without a thorough personal assessment.
Successful Vs. Unsuccessful Psychopaths
Successful psychopaths can navigate society without committing overt crimes, often reaching positions of power. They are adept at manipulating others and can be charming and charismatic.
Unsuccessful psychopaths often engage in criminal behavior and may struggle to maintain stable employment and relationships.
Sociopathy: Origin & Etiology
Sociopaths are also characterized by a disregard for the law and social norms.
The cause of sociopathy or Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
However, it is more likely that childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect contribute to ASPD. In sociopathy unlike psychopathy, environmental influence appears to have a more significant role.
his distinction, while not absolute, offers some insight into the different origins of these conditions.
Characteristics and Manifestations of Sociopathy
Sociopathy, while also characterized by a lack of empathy and disregard for societal norms, has its own distinct features.
Unlike psychopaths, sociopaths do not lack empathy or remorse.
Sociopaths are often impulsive, erratic, unpredictable, and violent, compared to psychopaths. They often have a history of aggressive outbursts and criminal behavior.
Sociopaths struggle to form plans and maintain consistent behavior, which often leads to constant instability in their lives.
Unlike psychopaths, who can often blend into society undetected, sociopaths tend to stand out due to their erratic behavior and difficulty adhering to societal norms.
Did you know that these people are masters of a special gaze called sociopathic stare?
DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: Major Signs and Symptoms of ASPD
The DSM-5 lists the following as the major diagnostic criteria for ASPD.
A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest. This may include things like theft, assault, or vandalism.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure. People with ASPD may be very good at lying and manipulating others.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead. People with ASPD often act without thinking about the consequences of their actions.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults. People with ASPD may be prone to violence.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others. People with ASPD may engage in risky or dangerous behaviors without considering the consequences.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations. People with ASPD may have difficulty holding down a job or paying their bills.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another. People with ASPD may not feel guilty or remorseful for their actions.
A diagnosis is made when these patterns are consistent and severe, leading to significant distress or impairment.
Relationships and Sociopathy
Unlike psychopaths, sociopaths are capable of forming emotional attachments, though these attachments are often unhealthy and dysfunctional.
They can form relationships, but these are typically self-serving and manipulative in nature.
Treatment for ASPD can be challenging as individuals may not recognize their behavior as problematic.
Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral approaches, can be helpful. In some cases, medication may be used to manage co-occurring conditions or specific symptoms.
The term “sociopath” is often used in popular culture to describe characters like Norman Bates from “Psycho” or Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho”. Again, it’s important to remember that these are fictional characters, and diagnosing real individuals requires a comprehensive assessment by a qualified professional.
Why is psychopathy more dangerous than sociopathy?
Sociopaths tend to be much more spontaneous and quick to anger. This means that sociopaths are much more likely to have run-ins with the law because the probability of catching a sociopath after they commit a crime is much higher.
In contrast, psychopaths are often more calculated and methodical in their actions, which can make them more dangerous as they are better able to avoid detection and continue their harmful behavior over a longer period of time. Moreover, psychopaths have no emotional connections, even with their own family members. This makes them just as likely to commit a crime against their blood-related family as against anyone else.
What is a misconception about psychopaths and sociopaths?
One misconception is that “psychopath” and “sociopath” can be used to call out someone who is simply “crazy” or “over the top.” However, psychopathy and sociopathy are specific mental disorders that must be diagnosed by a clinical expert. Psychopaths form around 1-3%, and sociopaths around 4%, of the general population. Moreover, not every psychopath is actively violent, for example, the high-functioning psychopath.
How do the treatment methods for psychopathy vs sociopathy differ?
Unfortunately, there is still no known effective treatment to fix or cure people with psychopathy or sociopathy. There is no pill, vaccine, or therapy to make somebody feel empathy and love, which are key aspects of these two illnesses.
Is a brain part associated with psychopathy?
Psychopathy has been scientifically shown to be associated with a structural defect in a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for fear conditioning. This facilitates psychopaths to plan and commit crimes without moral remorse. Of note, an amygdalar defect may also cause a person to be persistently anxious.
What are some peculiarities of psychopathic criminals?
1. Psychopathic criminals are more likely to commit repeated crimes and re-offend people more quickly and violently following release from custody.
2. They can harm their family because they can’t form strong emotional bonds with anyone, including their family.
3. They are often defined as “asocial, self-centered, aggressive persons with dangerously maladjusted personalities who crave excitement.”
4. They have a socially deviant lifestyle that includes alcohol and drug abuse.
5. They indulge in irresponsible behavior ‘just for fun,’ and have a tendency to violate social conventions and mores.
Here are some academic articles for further reading:
- The Criminal Psychopath: History, Neuroscience, Treatment, and Economics, Kiehl, K. A. (2011)
- Psychopathy: Developmental perspectives and their implications for treatment, Anderson & Kiehl (2014)
- The Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath, Mattingly, Molly (2017)
- Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial, Pemment, J. (2013)
- Handbook of Psychopathy, Edited by Christopher J. Patrick (2019)
Both psychopaths and sociopaths lack empathy, cannot follow societal norms, and have trouble building meaningful relationships.
Interestingly, most personality disorders have been traced to problems in childhood and family structure due to parental divorce or death (Rutter, 2005). And attachment theory suggests that children who lack attachment to an adult figure are unable to empathize and care about others (Van der Horst, 2011).
Both psychopathy and sociopathy pose significant challenges for society at large.
Key takeaway: Recognize that not all people with these conditions are dangerous, and many may lead normal lives with supportive supervision.
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Author Bio: Reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy. His expertise is in mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoic philosophy.