The Difference Between Psychopaths And Sociopaths

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, November 3, 2013
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“The Edge [. . .] There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” —Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson

In A Nutshell

Oftentimes, we think of the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” as being used interchangeably to describe people who have no conscience and act with no regard to others; in fact, the terms were once fairly interchangeable. Now, however, “psychopath” is usually used in regards to someone who has crossed the line into the criminal element, while a sociopath is of little danger to those around them. A psychopath is the more dangerous of the two, but it’s also the one you’d never suspect a person of being.

The Whole Bushel

To explain it best, let’s look at what the two terms have in common. Both psychopaths and sociopaths lack a moral compass. They are generally incapable of sympathizing with the feelings of others, and lack the set of ethics that tend to keep society from dissolving into a chaotic mess where everyone only looks out for themselves. They also have a non-existent or impaired sense of disgust, meaning they are able to look at things that would make another person turn away.

Now, for the differences and an important disclaimer. There are a lot of times “usually” and “often” are mentioned in comparing the two personality types. This is because there’s no perfect, cookie-cutter diagnosis, and not everyone will fall neatly into the categories they are actually put in. Although constantly progressing, psychology still does have a lot of grey areas.

With that said, we still need definitions. The term “psychopath” is usually used to describe a person that has crossed the line of moral behavior in a society. They’re the murderers, the school shooters, the manipulative cult leaders. They’re the ones mutilating animals just to see what happens. They’re also the ones that society views as a danger to others. On the other hand, a person is deemed a sociopath when they have the lack of emotion and ability to relate to others, but aren’t a threat to society. While they’re not as dangerous, they can still be destructive in a smaller, personal setting such as in friendships, romantic relationships, or in a family. But they’re generally not going to go on a killing spree.

Another big difference between the two is how they’re created. Recently, psychologists have begun to differentiate these processes. A psychopath is always a psychopath; genetic traits or chemical makeup causes the person to lack the ethics and empathy most of us have. Signs that something is not quite right with the person are generally visible from a very young age. A sociopath, however, often becomes one as a product of his or her upbringing. Environmental factors such as abuse or a cold, difficult childhood can cause a person to emotionally shut down and gradually devolve into sociopathy.

Interestingly, studies on the brain waves of the psychopath has indicated that there is a marked difference in how their brains react to certain stimuli. Because they have no feeling and no concern for others or themselves, the threat of fear does not trigger the same response in the brain of a psychopath that it does in another person. This suggests that there is something in the chemical or genetic makeup of the person that makes them what they are; it isn’t necessarily a choice they’ve made.

Typically, the psychopath is the one that you’ll have no idea is hiding behind the face he shows to people every day. The psychopath is well-spoken and charismatic, and even though he can have a cold-hearted and callous edge, he makes up for it in the next sentence. The sociopath lets a little more of his inner self come through; often he is disorganized, abrupt in his speech, easily annoyed, and quick to show his temper. He’s the one less likely to kill you, and the one you’re also less likely to want to invite to a party.

To sum up, both can be the man next door—the difference is in what will eventually come out of the front door. While psychopaths are typically inherently dangerous, a sociopath can live next door to you in a perhaps strange and uncomfortable family situation that is ultimately harmless. A sociopath may show a number of traits that make them unpleasant to be around—such as pathological lying, a lack of empathy, and overwhelming selfishness, but they probably don’t have anyone chained up in their soundproof basement. A sociopath might even find fulfillment in a family life, although it might look non-traditional and one-sided to outsiders. In fact, some sociopaths are able to connect to one or two people on something of an emotional level, leaving the rest of humanity to fend for itself against their destructive behavior. If a sociopath does damage to those around them, it’s usually emotional. The damage a psychopath does can be both, but neither will care.

As a final disclaimer, we would like to add that these terms are not even always agreed upon by those in the field, but we hope this serves as a fair general guide.

Show Me The Proof

NPR: Inside The Mind Of A Sociopath
Psychology Today: What Is a Psychopath?
Psychology Today: Understanding the Sociopath — Cause, Motivation, Relationship
Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

  • ddd

    ive always thought of a sociopath as someone who doesn’t feel guilt. sociopaths often seem gifted at statecraft, which requires empathy. So I’ve always understood the term to mean that they can empathize just fine, however they don’t feel guilty about doing harm. Its possible to cognitively process “guilt”, to have a personal belief that one should or should not do something, but to still lack the emotional machinery to viscerally experience guilt.

    and that’s what I’ve always understood it to mean. and its not a wrong definition. words mean what we think they mean. but it may not be the common understanding of the term. if we were to be purely democratic about it, “sociopath” would refer to a very mentally dysfunctional person with obvious signs of mental illness. It is the colloquial use of the word.

    there is not wrong definition to what “it” means, because words don’t mean anything. Human beings assign value to sounds for pragmatic reasons. Meanings have meaning. So people ought not to bellyache about how someone uses this term, but should instead say “this is how medical professionals define the term”

  • ddd

    There is a difference between not being able to understand how others feel, and not caring about how others feel. and that is all.

    • lonelydisco

      No it’s not.

      • ddd

        boooo wendy. boooo.

        • lonelydisco

          Linnea!

  • John

    Hmmm when I graduated w multiple degrees in 2010, a sociopath was still considered a danger to society. Every it as likely and capable of committing errorless acts as someone who has psycopathy. This article is trying to say that despite both terms being relatively similar, one is harmless to society and that’s caused by environmental factors where as the other is more genetically determined and certain to do harm often. I believe that any sociopath is just as likely as any diagnosed psycopath to commit a terrible and heinous act, whether that be on an animal or a person.

  • Valentine J. Belfiglio

    Hunter,
    Both groups may seek military service during wartime. This is an occupation where you can receive medals, combat pay and other rewards for committing acts which in the civilian world would often be considered felonies.
    Val

  • Vonnette Cummings

    This has been an interesting read for me. I am a therapist. To hear people talk freely, and openly admit their feelings of having no empathy for others and not understand feeling sadness over death, or wanting to “dupe” victims isn’t something I always get to hear. I wanted to add a couple of comments. One. Being abused doesn’t always “create” a sociopath. I was physically and emotionally abused as a child and I have what I believe is almost excessive empathy. Everyone reacts differently to abuse. Additionally, there have been numerous studies done on inmates who have committed violent crimes. Not only do brain imaging studies show differences between people who are labeled as psychopaths and people with no criminal histories, but now there are genetic markers that show people diagnosed as psychopaths also have genetic markers that are correlated with high levels of aggression. The person doing this research happened to run the tests on himself and the testing indicated he had all the “markers” of a psychopath, yet he was a PHD lever researcher. He shared all of this information with his family. His family members all told him he had always been “odd” and “standoffish”, and had always been “strange” compared to other family members. This man came from a large, loving, tight-knit family. This story illustrates two points. One: There is obviously a genetic component to psychopathy. Two: Environment can play both positive and negative roles in emotional and moral development. Every person is different. Not every person who is abused is going to be an abuser, but being abused increases the chances that a person will abuse. Hence, the genetic component. There are serial killers that have no history of physical abuse. Their family members report them as having always being different. They never seemed to fit in. They tortured animals. They thrived on the pain of others and no amount of love could change that. Thanks for all the interesting comments and all your honesty.

  • Myptofvu

    If the field of Psychology were “constantly progressing” as the author states then why has there been no progress in their ability to treat people? The time it takes and the effectiveness of treatment is the same now as it was in Freud’s time.

  • Kara Wright

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/how-tell-sociopath-psychopath
    From reading this article, the main difference seems to be that sociopaths do not possess empathy for others, but it is obvious that they are this way because they don’t necessarily try to hide it or have the skills to do so. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are very manipulative, and therefore take on the common traits of others by learning through observation, such as compassion, and being charismatic and charming. Just my take.

  • Mary Christine

    It’s an interesting article you have here.

    But the truest part is, let’s be frank, the beginning. Only sociopaths understand other sociopaths. People interested might want to go read http://www.sociopathworld.com/ which is a site populated by sociopaths, who talk about sociopathy. Yes, there are also empaths there, as many people apparently think that if they complain about how a sociopath has ruined their lives, they’ll ‘improve’ and ‘stir feelings’ into other sociopaths. Annoying people, their lot. And then there are sociopaths and empaths talking in a very peaceful manner and exchanging advice about life.

    Really, you guys should look at it. Sociopaths can be and often are dangerous, but not to a lot of people at once, only to their current toy victims. Most have successful lives and some even are attached genuinely to a person or two Maybe it’ll give you a whole other perspective on this matter…

  • Estevan Valenzuela

    I’m a 14 year old boy sociopath I didn’t know it until now. And is it bad if I was dating a pcycopathic girl.

  • Fernanda Carvalho

    There’s a dissonance in the facts presented here. I fall into both categories, so what does that make me? I’ve zero empathy for people, and yet I’m emotionally attached (albeit not in the usual way) to two or three people in particular. I’ve a version of love for animals and except for insects I would not hurt a fly, no pun intended. I wear a pleasant mask to the outside although all that I feel for them is contempt. I’d not think twice before crossing people in order to attain my goals but I don’t plan to kill anyone. I’d like to inflict physical violence to women, specially those that are associated with my paramour and yet I feel no desire to do the same toward men. I don’t like to draw or seek attention, power but I love money with a passion – or better, what buys me, I’m happy as an invisible ghost, specially if I get my way around things. I have no regard what so ever for the law and order, I make my own according to my needs. I had what is considered a happy, fairly structured childhood, never suffered any violence or abuse, but I was aware from a young age of how poor we were.

    People, any thoughts?

  • a_read3r

    This article is off-base. It contradicts much of what is out there. Psychopaths are highly represented among heads of companies and there is an identified “nonviolent” psychopath subtype. Meanwhile, the portrait of the sociopath here as some sort of bumbling, harmless jerk is very uninformed. Stories abound of people dating someone for years before realizing their partner was a sociopath, and much emotional harm is done. I should know, I am a sociopath. Your point about the differences in upbringing vs. genetic origins seems in line with studies I’ve read, but other than that this article seems backward-engineered to support the author’s Hollywood stereotype of each. There is much better information out there.

  • L.kuro

    Oh shit! Wow, it’s really been two years since I’ve been mainly active on disqus aside from commenting on manga chapters. Time does really fly, am I right?

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