How Sociopaths Are Different from Psychopaths

Both are forms of antisocial personality disorder

Sociopathic young man
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"Sociopath" is a term people use, often arbitrarily, to describe someone who is apparently without conscience. In most cases, it's a description blithely tossed out to label a person as being either hateful or hate-worthy. The same applies to the term "psychopath" which to many people suggests a sociopath who is simply more dangerous, like a mass murderer. Both of these are not only inaccurate descriptions but troublesome ones.

Understanding Antisocial Personality Disorder

From a clinical perspective, people who are sociopathic or psychopathic are those who exhibit the characteristics of antisocial personality disorder (APD), typified by the pervasive disregard of the rights and/or feelings of others. Sociopathy and psychopathy are considered to be two types of APD.

While psychopaths are classified as people with little or no conscience, sociopaths do have a limited, albeit weak, ability to feel empathy and remorse. While psychopaths can and do follow social conventions when it suits their needs, sociopaths are more likely to fly off the handle and react violently whenever they're confronted by the consequences of their actions.

Willem H.J. Martens argues in his infamous article "The Hidden Suffering of the Psychopath" that psychopaths do at times suffer from emotional pain and loneliness. Most have lead hurt-filled lives and have an inability to trust people, but like every human being on the planet, they, too, want to be loved and accepted. However, their own behavior makes this extremely difficult, if not impossible, and most are aware of this. Some feel saddened by the actions they are unable to control because they know it isolates them from others even more.

Nature or Nurture

There are some who say that "sociopaths are made and psychopaths are born," but this characterization may be too far broad. While it is true that psychopathy is believed to have genetic components (perhaps caused by the underdevelopment of the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and impulsiveness), there are clearly other factors that contribute to the behavioral disorder.

A well-regarded study into psychopathy suggested that psychopaths often have a history of an unstable family life and/or were raised in poorer neighborhoods prone to violence. Many have had parents who were substance abusers and who failed to provide parental guidance or attention. This typically translates to unstable and failed relationships in adulthood and a fixated sense that you have been "robbed" of opportunities and advantages afforded to everyone else.

Sociopathy also tends to be associated with harmful childhood experiences, including sexual abuse, physical violence, or parental instability. The only difference is that sociopaths have a conscience, albeit a weak one, and will often justify something they know to be wrong. By contrast, psychopaths will believe that their actions are justified and feel no remorse for any harm done.

This differentiation may suggest that nature plays more of a role in the creation of a psychopath than a sociopath. This is supported in part by a 2014 review of studies in which as many as a third of people diagnosed with sociopathy essentially "give up" their antisocial behavior in later life and development well-adjusted relationships.

Violence and Antisocial Personality Disorder

While it's common to think of sociopaths and psychopaths as being inherently dangerous, this is more a construct of a TV drama than a true reflection of the disorder. Violence, while certainly possible, is not an inherent characteristic of either sociopathy or psychopathy. With that being said, people with APD will often go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate others, whether it be to charm, disarm, or frighten them, in order to get what they want.

When psychopaths do become violent, as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, they're just as likely to hurt themselves as others. Martens notes that the more a psychopath feels socially isolated, sad, and alone, the higher his or her risk for violence and impulsive and/or reckless behavior.

Diagnosing Antisocial Personality Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies APD by a range of personality and behavioral traits that describe how a person functions, how he or she relates to others, and how those beliefs express themselves by actions.

Self-functioning characteristics are those that reflect what a person is like and how that person views his or her actions or goals. In order to be diagnosed with APD, you must exhibit all of the following characteristics:

  • Egocentricity or self-centeredness
  • Attaining self-esteem from power, personal gain, or pleasure
  • Setting goals based on personal gratification with little regard to law or ethics

Interpersonal characteristics are those that describe how a person interacts with others in general. You must also exhibit these traits to be diagnosed with APD:

  • A lack of empathy for other people's suffering or hurt or when confronted with the hurt or anger of people they have manipulated
  • The inability to have a truly mutually emotionally intimate relationship because of the instinct to control (by dominance or intimidation), coerce, or deceive

Behavioral characteristics complete the clinical diagnosis by describing the route a person will take to either control, coerce, or deceive, such as:

  • The emotional manipulation of others—for example, pretending to be interested in someone simply to achieve a goal
  • Lying as a means to gain social entry or advantage, such as proclaiming yourself a decorated war hero when you have never served
  • Reacting with callousness, aggression, remorselessness, or even sadism when confronted by the fallout of your actions
  • Persistent anger or irritability, even over small things, as well as mean, spiteful behavior
  • A strong tendency to disregard commitments, promises, and agreements, including financial ones
  • Making decisions on the spur of the moment with little regard to consequence if an immediate goal is to be achieved
  • Difficulty in making plans, preferring to believe you're able to nimbly navigate problems as they appear
  • Risk taking, becoming easily bored, and an ability to ignore personal boundaries and justify even the most outrageous of actions

It is not uncommon for someone with APD to be in repeated fights or assaults.

Key Differences Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

While the terms are often used interchangeably, sociopathy and psychopathy have clear lines of distinction that can be broadly described as follows:

  • Sociopaths, when confronted, make it clear that they couldn't care less about how others feel. Psychopaths, by contrast, are skilled actors who will persist that they care even when confronted, believing themselves smarter than others.
  • Sociopaths can be considered hot-headed and impulsive by nature, more likely to fits of anger and rage. Psychopaths are more typically described as being cold-hearted.
  • Sociopaths recognize other people’s distress even as they try to rationalize their own actions. Psychopaths do not.
  • Sociopaths generally can't maintain a regular work and family life. Many psychopaths can and do, though the relationships are most likely shallow and fake. Some psychopaths use a normal-seeming life as a cover for criminal activities.
  • Sociopaths can form emotional attachments with other people, though it's difficult. Psychopaths very rarely form genuine ones, though they may love the people in their lives in their own way.
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