People often use the terms “sociopath” and psychopath” interchangeably as if they both mean the same thing, when they do not.
People with sociopathic and psychopathic diagnoses have commonality as problematic people and often have antisocial personality disorder. Clinically speaking, there is currently no classification of sociopathy or psychopathy listed in the most recent edition of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
However, these are terms that most clinicians and mental health professionals will use when referring to patients with a specific set of personality traits. Both sociopaths and psychopaths exhibit very similar traits, though someone who is truly psychopathic will display these traits to a much higher degree.
In this article, we will take a look at the similarities and differences between sociopaths and psychopaths, including our helpful differentiation chart.
When you refer to someone as a sociopath, the meaning can vary depending upon the setting. The term might be used to explain someone who acts in antisocial ways. Or it might refer to someone who acts outside the rules and norms that most people collectively agree upon.
However, when you are referring to someone as sociopathic in a clinical sense, what does it mean? Technically, there is no such thing as a diagnosis of someone being a sociopath. In fact, up until the 25 years ago, it was not a term that mental health professionals had used.
As study on this topic has spread from research labs to the criminal justice system, to the mental health world – it has taken on clinical meaning.
While most of us are familiar with the idea of a person being a sociopath, the most closely associated clinical term is antisocial personality disorder or APD. About 3% of men and about 1%of women will receive this diagnosis in their lifetime.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have yet to identify the cause of APD. Some studies hint that there may be a genetic link that predisposes a person to develop the diagnosis. Other experts have found a possible link to an adaptation during brain development in utero.
Diagnosing a Sociopath
Because there is no actual diagnosis for a sociopath, many mental health experts use the criteria for antisocial personality disorder instead. The DSM-5, the diagnostic guide used by psychologists and other mental health professionals, lists the most common of APD as:
- Violation of the physical or emotional rights of others
- Lack of stability in job and home life
- Irritability and aggression
- Lack of remorse
- Consistent irresponsibility
- Recklessness, impulsivity
- A childhood diagnosis (or symptoms consistent with) conduct disorder
Hallmarks of a Sociopath
What are the telltale signs that someone is sociopathic? How can a clinician make a diagnosis of something that technically doesn’t exist?
While some professionals use the diagnostic criteria for APD, some others look for specific personality traits and characteristics to make their diagnosis. This is done because most people who can be classified as sociopaths exhibit some pretty typical characteristics and behaviors.
- No regard for right and wrong – Sociopaths typically show no concern for what is right and wrong. They often ignore societal norms and rules, which leads to instability in their lives. In addition, when they do break the rules, they don’t have a great degree of concern for any potential consequences. They do what they want, when they want to.
- They manipulate those around them – Some sociopaths manipulate the people in their lives to get what they want. Some do so just for the thrill of being able to manipulate others. But they all tend to manipulate and take advantage of almost anyone they come into contact with.
- Frequent Lying – Sociopaths are very comfortable telling lies. And not just telling a lie but lying with absolutely no guilt. They will lie to get out of a jam, to get what they want, to manipulate people in their lives and just for the thrill of being deceptive.
- No remorse and no empathy – When a sociopath hurts someone else, they do not feel sorry or guilty. They also lack empathy when the people around them are in pain or hurting. Most will have an inability to understand why someone else is upset.
- They may act aggressively – Many sociopaths will lash out and act aggressive or even violent when they are provoked. They might become physically or verbally abusive just because they become irritated. In some cases, they might seem even-tempered one minute and become abusive the next. It could take on the form of seeming agitated, a shift in mood or irritation.
There are ways to treat the symptoms and characteristics of sociopathy. It is important to note that sociopathy or ASD (like most mental illnesses) is not curable. Rather it is treatable.
There are several clinical treatment options if your child is living with APD. Some of the current treatment options include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Problem-solving interventional training
Interestingly, there is no clinical differentiation between sociopathy and psychopathy. If you were to skim the many pages of the DSM-V you will not find these two terms listed as mental health diagnoses. They are more closely aligned with personality disorders
In clinical settings, psychologists and mental health professionals make the distinction between the two based upon the severity of symptoms and hallmark characteristics. In other words, a psychopath shows similar symptoms as sociopaths, just more profoundly.
Diagnosing a Psychopath
One of the most clinically relevant ways to make the diagnosis of psychopathy is the Psychopathy Checklist (Hare 1991). The Psychopathy Checklist is a clinical scale that offers researchers and clinicians a reliable and valid assessment of psychopathy. This measure was inspired, in large part by strong dissatisfaction with how psychopathy was previously defined and measured.
Originally the assessment was intended for research with forensic populations. In later years, as psychopathy became more prevalent, its use spread to the criminal justice system and eventually to psychologists and psychiatrists working in traditional mental health settings.
Hallmarks of a Psychopath
The personality traits and characteristics that go along with psychopathy are similar to sociopathy. The biggest distinction is that psychopaths exhibit these at much higher levels.
When we think of a psychopath, we probably drum up a movie version of an ax-wielding maniac. In reality, there are people who would be classified as psychopaths in all walks of life. Some researchers have even indicated that a percentage of business leaders may actually fall into the category of psychopath or sociopath.
Some of the signs that might indicate a person is a psychopath include:
- They are excellent in social situations – Some might even call these people charming. They know exactly what to say and do to put others at ease.
- They are extremely manipulative – They have the potential to manipulate others to get what they want, and in some instances, simply for the pleasure of manipulating. Regardless of the motivation, psychopaths know how to make the people around them do what they want.
- They lack remorse and empathy – Psychopaths are typically lacking these important human characteristics. They neither feel bad when they hurt others or feel bad for people in pain.
- They are narcissistic – Psychopaths are extremely arrogant individuals and commonly have an over-inflated sense of their own importance.
- They violate social rules and norms – These are people who like to take risks and care little for the consequences. They think that rules and laws do not apply to them and do not hesitate in breaking laws as they see fit.
Like, sociopaths, psychopaths cannot be cured in the traditional sense. They can be treated with the same methods listed above, but psychopaths tend to be treatment-resistant and very often will not seek treatment. Because they do not see their actions as problematic, it is uncommon for these people to ask for help.
Sociopath vs. Psychopath
|Lacks stability in their work and life||Display a “stable” life to cover for their illicit behaviors|
|Often appears irritable and aggressive||Comes across as cool and collected|
|Lacks remorse and empathy||Lacks remorse and empathy but mimics others emotions to seem socially acceptable|
|Irresponsible||Covers their tracks and stays on top of situations so they don’t leave a trail|
|Reckless and impulsive||Wants to be in control all the time|
|Deceitful when convenient||Deceitful in almost all interactions|
|May be good in social situations||Extremely adept in social situations|
|Possible history of childhood behavior problem||Likely a history of childhood behavior problem|
|Feels a need to dominate others||Feels a need to dominate others, including breaking the law|
|Vacillates between being charming and being aggressive towards others||Almost always charming|
|Lacks psychopathic traits||Has sociopathic traits|
While the lines between sociopaths and psychopaths can be very blurred, there are some significant differences between the two. Since currently there are no clinical diagnoses for sociopaths or psychopaths, we can work towards early identification and subsequent treatment options for these individuals, while more research is conducted in these areas.