Narcissists, Sociopaths: Similarities, Differences, Dangers
Both of these personalities present a false self, so we must be aware.
Posted Dec 03, 2018
According to a major study reported in 2008, 6.2% of the U.S. adult population has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).1 An earlier wave of the same study reported that 3.6% have antisocial personality disorder (ASPD—an equivalent term for sociopath).2 Nearly 20% of those with ASPD also have NPD3, a powerful combination.
With this large of a presence in society, it’s important for all of us to know the warning signs, similarities and differences of these two personalities. This goes for dating, hiring, and even electing leaders. In the news almost every day, we hear about the secrets, lies, assaults or brutality of those who seemed charming on the surface. Many people are surprised, but much of this is predictable when you recognize their patterns of behavior.
From my experience over several decades as a therapist, mediator, lawyer, and trainer with High Conflict Institute, I have seen that many people often miss the seriousness of the warning signs of NPD (“Oh, she’s just a little self-absorbed”) and totally miss the signs of ASPD (“Oh, he’s just a narcissist” when he’s really a sociopath or both). While I don’t want to over-generalize or frighten people—these personality disorders exist on a continuum of severity—I believe that all of us need awareness of these personalities in today’s world to avoid being misled and caught by surprise.
Most people know that narcissists can be initially charming and exciting. They pay intense attention during the seduction process, lavishing praise and gifts, and making grandiose promises. (This applies equally in all settings, especially dating, hiring and electing leaders.) They exaggerate their abilities, their friends, their histories and their plans. They boost your self-esteem by telling you how wonderful you are—over and over again.
In dating, they want fast intimacy. In the workplace, they want the spotlight and lots of credit for minor (if any) accomplishments. In business and political leadership, they have the best grandiose plans for changing the world, with no basis for accomplishing them. Yet their belief in themselves can be blinding and contagious.
But in reality, narcissists are self-absorbed and see themselves as superior to others—including those around them who they may have initially seduced with their charm. At first, this seems irritating but tolerable. But these are also warning signs of potential danger ahead.
Sociopaths can also be extremely charming and seductive until they get what they want (money, sex, connections, sense of power over someone). Then, they may disappear, or stick around and become extremely cruel or manipulative. Those with antisocial personality disorder (an equivalent term for sociopath) may be extremely aggressive and reckless, may be skilled con artists, engage in criminal behavior, and lack all remorse.4 Some enjoy humiliating and hurting people.
Yet many are not involved in the criminal justice system and instead are active in business, politics, or even community leadership. When they are involved in romantic relationships, they can be very deceptive about where they’re going and what they’re doing when they’re away from their partners. This also can be true in the workplace, with endless excuses to supervisors and co-workers. They are repeatedly conning and lying, so that very little of what they say may be true. Words are just a tool they use to get what they want. Their theme is dominance.
According to the diagnostic manual of mental disorders—currently the DSM-5—“narcissistic personality disorder does not include characteristics of impulsivity, aggression, and deceit,” which are instead characteristics of antisocial personality disorder.5 Therefore, if someone is highly aggressive and lies all the time they are more likely to be antisocial (sociopath) than narcissistic. These are predictive characteristics for more severe trouble ahead.
Narcissists are more likely to exaggerate, although occasionally they lie. Narcissists also care what other people think of them—primarily to admire them—as compared to sociopaths who don’t care at all what others think so long as they’re getting what they want. Likewise, narcissists may stick around longer in relationships, whereas sociopaths are more likely to just take off when things get inconvenient or difficult. Sociopaths seem to enjoy fighting and violence, whereas narcissists would prefer the fruits of superiority without having to fight for it.
Both narcissists and sociopaths invest a lot of energy in creating a false image of themselves for others—and themselves—to see. Thus, the charm and persuasive skills they have are the best in the world. They both are essentially con artists: narcissists con people about who they are and their incredible abilities, whereas sociopaths con people by playing on their weaknesses and desires (through charm and intimidation) to get what they want. They both have a lot of secrets and their words cannot be trusted.
They both demand loyalty, while not giving it in return. Narcissists, from cases I have worked with, often pursue 2 or 3 romantic relationships at the same time. They have an excessive need for “narcissistic supply,” which often takes more than one partner. This pattern of behavior can be devastating for their primary partner and, despite numerous promises, may never go away.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, seem to have the most promiscuous personality, even more than most narcissists. They may be more sexually abusive and irresponsible. According to the DSM-5: “They may have a history of many sexual partners and may never have sustained a monogamous relationship.”6 However, occasionally they do have long-term relationships, but mostly for convenience, such as being supported in a comfortable lifestyle.
Those with narcissistic personality disorder can seriously exploit others and lack empathy.7 This means that they are willing to invest a lot of energy in maintaining their superior image, even if it means repeatedly insulting you and putting you down, even in public. For more on narcissists and sociopaths in romantic relationships, see our book Dating Radar (co-authored with Megan Hunter).
In the workplace, they may become indifferent to your career or even use you as a Target of Blame to deflect from their inadequacies. Sometimes a narcissistic manager or academic advisor will give you a negative evaluation out of spite or try to harm your career because you didn’t kiss up to them enough or caused them a “narcissistic injury” (when they’re exposed for not being superior at all). For more on serious problems with narcissists in the workplace, see our book It’s All Your Fault at Work (co-authored with L. Georgi DiStefano).
In business and politics, narcissists are notorious for gaining allies through flattery, then abandoning them or walking on them to get to a higher position. Yet many of these allies don’t see it coming, because they think they are special to the narcissist, because of how they were charmed at the beginning. But their personality is based on being superior: they are a “winner” and eventually, everyone else will be a “loser.”
Sociopaths, on the other hand, may be much more likely to seek revenge or use violence or destruction of valued property to settle their perceived betrayals in romantic, business or political relationships. They invest a lot of energy and resources in keeping secret their abusive past behavior and may seriously harm those who try to expose them.
Both narcissist and sociopath
As mentioned above, a percentage of sociopaths (ASPDs) also have narcissistic personality disorder. This is equivalent to about 1% of the U.S. population.8 This combination and percentage fit the criteria for psychopaths, who have their own checklist of characteristics9 including pathological lying, criminal versatility and parasitic lifestyle, in addition to some of the traits of ASPD and NPD.
Likewise, this combination was identified over fifty years ago by Erich Fromm, who defined "malignant narcissism" as including this combination in powerful dictators, from the Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Ceasars to Hitler and Stalin. He also said there were traits of increasing paranoia and sadism for malignant narcissists, who became increasingly dangerous the longer they stayed in power—thus, the term malignant meant expanding like a cancer.10
In today’s news, we often hear about people who are self-centered, lie a lot and have harmed others, including their own friends, family members and other people who thought they cared about them. Often people are very surprised. With personality awareness about narcissists and sociopaths, we should be more able to predict trouble and protect ourselves. We need to develop a healthy skepticism so that we look past the charming false images and recognize the personality patterns which indicate that serious behavior problems have been covered up and/or lie ahead.
1. Frederick Stinson, Deborah Dawson, Rise Goldstein, S. Patricia Chou, Boji Huang, Sharon Smith, W. June Ruan, Attila Pulay, Tulshi Saha, Roger Pickering and Bridget Grant, “Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 69, no. 7 (July 2008):1033–45, 1036.
2. Bridget Grant, Deborah Hasin, Frederick Stinson, Deborah Dawson, S. Patricia Chou, W. June Ruan and Roger Pickering, “Prevalence, correlates, and disability of personality disorders in the United States: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 65, no. 7 (July 2004): 948–58, 951.
3. Stinson, 1036.
4. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013, 659. (DSM-5)
5. DSM-5, 662.
6. DSM-5, 660-661.
7. DSM-5, 670.
8. Stinson, 1038.
9. Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work. (New York: HarperCollins ebooks. 2006).
10. Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: It’s Genius for Good and Evil (Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation; First published by Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1964), loc. 998 of 2243, Kindle.