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The Difference Between Sociopathy and Psychopathy

A brief primer on confusing terminology.

Have you ever met someone that turned your world upside down? Who tried to destroy every good thing in your life? Who was manipulative and good at it? We often blame ourselves when we meet these types of people. We tell ourselves that it is our fault we let our walls down and that we trusted these people, however when you encounter a sociopath or a psychopath, they often hide their true character in order to gain your trust. Once they have gained your trust, before you know it, your world is shaken apart.

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, which causes much semantic confusion, as there are differences each term. It is important to understand that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) formally classifies both psychopathy and sociopathy as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Those terms are used by the lay public far more than is the ASPD designation, however. Here's a breakdown of all three labels and why some are used more often than others, depending on the clinical picture.

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)

Antisocial personality disorder is listed in the DSM under the Cluster B personality disorder group, one that is characterized by dramatic and unpredictable behavior. An antisocial personality fits the profile in that such individuals ignore or subvert the rules of society. Individuals with this personality disorder demonstrate behaviors that disregard the violation and rights or others and society. To formally diagnose ASPD, signs and symptoms must be present before 15 years of age although this diagnosis cannot be made unless the individual is at least 18 years of age. The following are signs and symptoms of antisocial personality disorder:

  • Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in a criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
  • Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Blatantly disregards the safety of self and others
  • A pattern of irresponsibility
  • Lack of remorse for actions

Conduct disorder can be diagnosed in individuals with these characteristics if they are younger than 18 years of age.

Traits of a sociopath

Sociopaths are characterized by volatile behavioral patterns. These individuals often demonstrate emotional outbursts and a lack of self-control. Sociopaths can form attachments to other individuals and in general, enjoy being around other people although they have no regard for rules put in place by society. For individuals already genetically vulnerable to these behaviors, sociopathy is set in motion by specific environmental factors such as a troubled childhood, traumatic interpersonal relationships or a history of abuse.

Traits of a psychopath

In contrast to sociopathy, psychopathic behavior result more from genetics or congenital injury (such as a head injury at birth), than from environmental factors. Psychopaths are extremely manipulative and can easily gain other’s trust, however they do not form attachments to others. Individuals with psychopathic traits lack empathy and therefore feel no remorse when causing harm to another individual. Their actions are often preplanned and the crimes they commit are often highly organized and meticulous. Psychopaths are usually deemed more dangerous than sociopaths because they show no remorse for their actions due to their lack of empathy. Both of these character types are portrayed in individuals who meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder.

Warnings signs for developing sociopath or psychopath characteristics

Children and teenagers may exhibit warming signs of certain behaviors leading to the development of psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies.

  • Aggression towards people or animals
  • Violent outbursts
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of empathy
  • Destruction of property
  • Lying
  • Theft
  • Serious violation of rules or laws
  • Bedwetting and fire-setting (found more in psychopathy)

Like many other personality disorders and maladaptive tendencies, long term psychotherapy is the mainstay treatment for these maladaptive behaviors. Since these are deeply ingrained characteristics, treatment may not be successful in some individuals, especially those who are psychopathic.

More from Kristen Fuller, M.D.
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