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