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

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  • Ariadne Etienne

    Sociopaths know what is right and wrong, Psychopaths do not. That said neither label is used in Psychology anymore. Both are included in what is now called Anti Social Personality Disorder. Some Psychologists have suggested that the label Sociopath may best describe individuals who have ASPD but lack violent behaviour and a criminal record and Psychopaths may best describe individuals who have ASPD and violent behaviour and a criminal record. In this way Sociopaths are able to control violent and destructive impulses whereas Psychopaths are not.

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  • Trankimazin29

    It is true that the terms Sociopath & Psychopath are often used interchangeably , but with sociopathy, there must be a evidence of Conduct Disorder with onset before the age of 15 (a repetitive & persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated, as manifested by the presence of bullying, initiating physical fights, stealing, deliberately engaging in arson, destroying others’ property, robbery &/or breaking & entering, manipulation & chronic lying, truancy from school, does not respect parents & their rules, enjoys running away, is physically cruel to people & animals etc & so on.) Conduct Disorder often develops as a reaction to a difficult home life & as mentioned in the article, Sociopathy is not inherent. It’s a disorder that is developed as a defense mechanism. The sociopath does not want to be in a chronic world of emotional, mental, physical , & spiritual pain , such as they were in early childhood. This is why they are disorganized & are able to discern between right & wrong, but still prefer to be antisocial anyway. Psychopaths are born with certain genetic material missing. In fact, it might be reasonable to say that psychopaths cannot be held accountable for their behavior because it’s not their fault that they lack said key genetic material. However, that is not the case. In fact, the insanity defense , which is a legal term , not a medical term, is often used in cases where serial killers or serial rapists , terrorists etc are on trial. What’s interesting about the insanity defense is that it’s mainly used to decide what the sentence will be for a psychopath & that usually is: the death penalty (although , the death penalty is becoming obsolete) , life without parole , or life with the possibility of parole after (X) many years. With the possibility of parole does not mean parole the accused will ever see the parole board & even if the accused does see the board, most likely they will be denied. Of course , sentencing also depends on what the crime (s) were , but 99% of people who use the insanity defense are considered to be Antisocial & therefore, psychopaths due to their life history & such. Both psychopath & sociopath are used in psychology today, but there has been a major shift to using just the term Sociopath because it’s more encompassing of the definition of Antisocial Personality Disorder , which is what sociopath & psychopath are listed under. Sociopaths are capable of murder & destroying the lives of others. They most likely will feel a bit of upset if they hurt someone with whom they have formed a relationship with. Again, it depends on how far they have been able to shut down their emotion sensors.

    • Trankimazin29

      More concisely, Sociopath is now considered to be the medical diagnosis & often used in tandem with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Psychopathology used to be considered a separate, more violently acute diagnosis. Now the two are interchangeable.

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  • ddd

    we all choose. if there is no free will, then none of us choose, and being a psychopath isn’t an isolated pocket of non-volition, but every action is intentionless. if psychopaths don’t choose for their brains to behave that way, then others likewise don’t choose to have differently functioning brains. which is to say that if the point in creating this distinction is to say “they can’t help it”, well, none of us can “help it” by that same definition, and it doesn’t provide any cover or immunity from judgement for making bad choices.

    It seems implicit from this writing that psychopaths may be unable to help themselves, so to speak, whereas others possess greater freedom in self determination. But if we are saying that certain people’s choices are fully reduced to the biological workings of that person’s brain, the same is true for all of us.

    in response to “it isn’t necessarily a choice they’ve made”

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  • Carlos Mancano

    I’m combination psycho/sociopath. Tell me I’m not, if you want to. The thing is that I know this, in my heart of hearts, to be true. Since around the time I hit puberty I’ve done horrible things, mostly the same thing over and over, and I just don’t care about those I’ve hurt. I had a “more or less good” childhood, but there are blank spots on my memory …
    Also, I’ve often wished I could be a good person who didn’t hurt others. It’s just not in me.
    There are six people I honestly care about and the rest of the world can go to hell. It’s just gotten so very easy to ACT normal. I’m the great pretender.

    • ddd

      I think that’s kind of common. Most people feel guilty sometimes, and don’t feel guilty other times. People believe they shouldn’t screw over family, maybe a few friends, and the rest of the world can go fuck themselves lol. I see it as being selectively sociopathic, versus a binary “yes”/”no” “don’t care about anyone”/”care about everyone”. its a common sentiment. not the most common, but I’d say that describes a fair chunk of the population. we choose the circumstances that produce guilt in us.

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  • 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.

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