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2 Ways to Tell Psychopaths and Sociopaths Apart

Don't overlook the distinct differences between psychopaths and sociopaths.

JC Gellidon / Unsplash
Source: JC Gellidon / Unsplash

The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are often used interchangeably in pop culture and casual conversation. To the everyday person, they are used to describe people who are dangerous, violent, or disturbingly cruel—those who have no empathy and are capable of deplorable acts.

However, in the field of psychology, these terms are distinct, and both have unique characteristics and implications. While arguing over semantics might seem trivial, the consequences of misconstruing these two terms can lead to severe lapses in judgment.

What Is Sociopathy?

Research from Current Psychiatry Reports explains why what was formerly referred to as sociopathy is now referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). A pervasive pattern of disregard and violation of the well-being of others characterizes this disorder. Sociopathic behavior is understood to typically begin in childhood or early adolescence and continue into adulthood.

According to the authors, the prevalence is estimated at 2-3 percent in the general population, with a higher occurrence in men (approximately 3 percent) compared with women (at approximately 1 percent). Among prison populations, the rates are significantly higher, with 47 percent of male inmates and 21 percent of female inmates meeting the criteria for ASPD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) outlines specific criteria for diagnosing ASPD or sociopathy. To meet the diagnosis, a person needs to display moderate or great impairment in personality functioning, with characteristic difficulties in at least two of the following areas:

  1. Identity. Egocentric derivation of self-esteem from personal gain, power, or pleasure.
  2. Self-direction. Goals are usually based on personal gratification, and they struggle to abide by lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.
  3. Empathy. Lack of concern for the feelings, needs, or suffering of others, and an absence of remorse after causing harm to others.
  4. Intimacy. An inability to form mutually intimate relationships, and instead usually maintain relationships characterized by exploitation, deceit, or coercion.

Additionally, a diagnosis of ASPD also requires individuals to exhibit at least six out of seven pathological personality traits:

  1. Manipulativeness
  2. Callousness
  3. Deceitfulness
  4. Hostility
  5. Risk-taking
  6. Impulsivity
  7. Irresponsibility

What Is Psychopathy?

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is a form of ASPD but is nevertheless a distinct concept. According to research, psychopathy is characterized by various affective, interpersonal, lifestyle, and antisocial traits—making it very similar to the criteria for sociopathy.

Psychopaths will display a lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, along with shallow and deficient affect. They may also display grandiosity, arrogance, deceitfulness, and manipulativeness—most of which can also be seen in sociopathy. However, along with impulsivity, they also often engage in planned and deliberate antisocial behaviors. The prevalence of psychopathy in the general population is about 1 percent, but it is significantly higher among prisoners, estimated at around 25 percent.

Importantly, the DSM-V recognizes psychopathy as a unique variant of ASPD, often referred to as “primary psychopathy.” This form of ASPD is characterized by a lack of anxiety or fear and a bold interpersonal style that may mask underlying maladaptive behaviors. Key traits include low levels of anxiousness and withdrawal, with high levels of attention-seeking and social dominance. This combination of traits contributes to the social potency and emotional resilience often associated with psychopathy.

Why the Differences Between Sociopathy and Psychopathy Matter

Although the two concepts are commonly understood to be equivalent to one another—and are, in fact, quite similar—research from the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior explains that they describe different patterns of behavior within ASPD. These differences lie in two key areas:

  1. Behavioral patterns. Psychopaths tend to be highly manipulative, often with a superficial charm that helps them blend into society. They usually have a more calculated and methodical approach to their actions. They’re more likely to plan their crimes or manipulative behaviors and can maintain a façade of normalcy for extended periods. They are also less likely to be reactive and more inclined to avoid detection. Sociopaths, however, are more erratic and impulsive in their behavior. They are often prone to emotional outbursts, anger, or aggression. They might have difficulty maintaining stable relationships or jobs, and they are less likely to hide their antisocial tendencies as well as a psychopath. Their behavior is more likely to be disorganized and chaotic, and they will, therefore, have a harder time fitting into society than a psychopath.
  2. Empathy and conscience. Psychopaths generally lack empathy and a moral conscience. They can imitate empathy to manipulate others, however, they don’t genuinely feel it. This trait can make them especially dangerous in positions of power or influence. Contrastingly, sociopaths may have a limited ability to feel empathy or a sense of morality, but their emotions are more volatile. They may form attachments to a small group of people and even have their own rudimentary sense of right and wrong, even if they frequently act against societal norms.

Although these two concepts often go hand-in-hand, the divergence between them is stark.

Psychopaths typically operate with cold calculation; they orchestrate their behavior with chilling precision. They might lie and charm their way into circles of trust only to manipulate and deceive for personal gain. Sociopaths, however, are less predictable; they’re far more prone to spontaneous outbursts and have less regard for carefully constructed façades.

Knowing this difference can be crucial—not just for academic curiosity but for your own safety and the fair treatment of those exhibiting these traits. These contrasting characteristics have real-world implications in social settings, workplaces, and even the criminal justice system. While both can be dangerous, the paths they take to harm are often very different.

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