How Sociopaths Are Different From Psychopaths

The Presence of Conscience Is Key to a Diagnosis

Sociopathic young man / Digital Vision / Getty Images

"Sociopath" is a term people use, often arbitrarily, to describe someone who is apparently without conscience. In most cases, it is a description blithely tossed out to label someone as being either hateful or hate-worthy.  The same applies to the term "psychopath" which to many suggests a sociopath who is simply more dangerous.

Both are not only inaccurate descriptions but troublesome ones.

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.

Understanding Antisocial Personality Disorder

While psychopaths are classified as people with 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 confronted by the consequences of their actions.

The causes for these behaviors also have different roots.There has been some suggestion among experts that psychopathy is related, at least in part, to a genetic disorder. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the result of an extremely negative experience.

While it is common to think of sociopaths and psychopaths as being inherently dangerous, it is more a construct of a TV drama that a true reflection of the disorders. With that being said, people with APD will often go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate others, whether it be to charm, disarm, or frighten someone in order to get what they want.

Diagnosing a Sociopath

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

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 as sociopathic, a person must exhibit all of the following characteristics:

  • Egocentricity or self-centeredness
  • The attainment of self-esteem from power, personal gain, or pleasure
  • The 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. A person must also exhibit these traits to be diagnosed sociopathic:

  • The lack of empathy when confronted with the hurt or anger of people of others they manipulated
  • The inability to have an 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:

  • The emotional manipulation of others, such as 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

It is not uncommon for a sociopath to be in repeated fights or assaults. There is a strong tendency to disregard commitments, promises, and agreements, including financial ones. Decisions are often made on the spur of the moment with little regard to consequence if an immediate goal is to be achieved.

Moreover, sociopaths find it difficult to make plans and prefer to believe they are able to nimbly navigate problems as they appear. They are often risk takers, easily bored, who are able to ignore personal boundaries and justify even the most outrageous of actions.

3 Key Differences Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

While the terms can be 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 could care less about how others feel. Psychopaths, by contrast, are skilled actors who will persist even when confronted, believing themselves smarter than others.
  • Sociopaths can be considered hot-headed by nature. 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.

Violence, while possible, is not an inherent characteristic of either sociopathy or psychopathy.

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  • American Psychiatric Association. " DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders." Arlington, Virginia; published November 28, 2012.