How to Tell a Psychopath from a Sociopath

There are vital differences between them.

Posted Jan 09, 2018

KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock
Source: KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock

Are you uncertain of the distinctions between a sociopath and a psychopath? If so, you are not alone. Many psychiatrists, forensic psychologists, criminologists, and police officers incorrectly use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably. Leading experts also disagree on the meaningful differences between the two conditions — and those who agree that there are differences often disagree on what those differences are. I contend that there are clear and significant distinctions.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), released by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013, lists both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD). These disorders share many common behavioral traits, which leads to some of the confusion. Key traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include:

  • A disregard for laws and social mores
  • A disregard for the rights of others
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt
  • A tendency to display violent or aggressive behavior

In addition to their commonalities, sociopaths and psychopaths also have their own unique behavioral characteristics and origins.  

Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are more likely than are psychopaths to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society. They are sometimes unable to hold down a steady job or to stay in one place for very long. It is often difficult, but not entirely impossible, for sociopaths to form attachments with others.

Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society or its rules in general. Therefore, the meaningful attachments of any sociopath will be few in number and limited in scope. As a rule, they will struggle with relationships.   

In the eyes of others, sociopaths will generally appear to be disturbed or erratic. Any crimes they commit, including murder, will tend to be haphazard and spontaneous rather than planned. Because of their seemingly erratic behavior, sociopaths are easier for both professionals and nonprofessionals to identify than are psychopaths.               

Unlike sociopaths, psychopaths are unable to form emotional attachments or to feel real empathy for others. Psychopaths tend to be aggressive and predatory in nature. They view others as objects for their amusement. Although they lack empathy, psychopaths often have disarming or even charming personalities. They are manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs.

Some psychopaths are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature. When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place. They will seem unflappable in a crisis.

Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm, and meticulous. From a law-enforcement perspective, the “cold-blooded” nature of psychopaths makes them very effective criminals. As such, they are generally more difficult to identify than are sociopaths. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to know when a psychopathic predator has targeted you for exploitation.

From a diagnostic standpoint, the etiology or cause of psychopathy is different from that of sociopathy. I contend that psychopathy is the result of “nature” (genetics), while sociopathy is the result of “nurture” (environment). Psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions (1).

Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of childhood trauma and physical or emotional abuse. Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy in certain circumstances, and with certain individuals, but not others.

Ultimately, psychopathy is rarer than sociopathy, and is considered to be the most dangerous of the antisocial personality disorders. Not surprisingly, many serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader (BTK), and John Wayne Gacy, have been unremorseful psychopaths. Indeed, it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all serial killers are psychopaths.

In a separate post, I examine our curious fascination with serial killers in fact and fiction. Explore the same topic in more detail in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murders.

References

1) Bouchard, T.J., Jr., Lykken, D.T., McGue, M., Segal, N.L. and Tellegen, A. 1990. "Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart."  Science 250 (4978), pp. 223–228.