Psychopath Vs. Sociopath: The Telltale Signs & Differences
Updated August 15, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
If you've ever watched the BBC series Sherlock, then you may be familiar with the title character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and how he always feels insulted when someone calls him as a psychopath, demanding that he instead be referred to as a "high-functioning sociopath." You may have then asked yourself: what is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?
Sociopath Vs. Psychopath
Interestingly, doctors don't diagnose people as a psychopath or sociopath. Instead, in cases like these, the official diagnosis is an antisocial personality disorder. Sociopath, psychopath, whatever you want to call it, most experts agree that both personality types share similar traits. People who live with antisocial personality disorder lack the sense to say for sure what is right and what is wrong. They also experience difficulty in empathizing with others.
In essence, when considering what's the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath, psychopathy can be described as sociopathy, just with more symptoms. Therefore, while all psychopaths are, in fact, sociopaths, just because someone is a sociopath does not mean he is also a psychopath. The Society for the Study of Psychopathy answers the question "what's the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?" by providing a list of traits that are specific to psychopathy.
For example, psychopaths lack the ability to feel guilt, remorse, empathy, or deep emotional attachments to anyone or anything. They are usually narcissistic, dishonest, manipulative, and are masters at turning on the phony charm. They are also known to be risk-takers who engage in reckless behavior, which may explain why approximately 93 percent of psychopaths have an entry in the criminal justice system.
What's The Difference Between Psychopath And Sociopath?
Perhaps the most significant difference between psychopath and sociopath personality types is whether the person has a conscience. Our conscience is, essentially, the "little angel" that sits on our shoulder and warns us when we're about to do something bad or hurt someone. While it may be weak, a sociopath still has some semblance of conscience; a psychopath does not.
To avoid being discovered, a psychopath learns to mimic the actions of others, pretending to feel upset or angry when something goes wrong. Conversely, a psychopath will act euphoric or pleased when something happens that would evoke those feelings, yet in reality, the psychopath feels nothing at all and has only learned to ape these emotions by observing the reactions of others.
On the other hand, the sociopath may understand, for example, that robbing a bank is wrong. He or she might even feel remorse or guilt, but that won't stop him or her from doing it anyway. While the psychopath and sociopath both lack empathy, the psychopath cares less about others than does the sociopath and sees people as objects to be manipulated for his or her benefit, rather than human beings with feelings.
Understanding The Sociopath And Psychopath
While TV shows and movie make sociopaths and psychopaths out to be violent villains, they are tougher to spot in real life. One significant difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that psychopaths are exceptionally good at mimicking human emotions. You may think a psychopath is deeply interested in you and what you have to say, but in reality, he or she could care less about you, and you'll never know that because you can't possibly know for sure what another person is thinking.
While it is true that some with an antisocial personality disorder can be violent, the vast majority of psychopaths and sociopaths prefer to use manipulation to get what they want. Coldblooded killers are at the end of the spectrum. More likely, a psychopath or sociopath is busy manipulating co-workers or family members to get what they want, even if it means hurting someone to get it. However, just because a person is mean-spirited or selfish, this does not automatically qualify him or her as a psychopath or sociopath.
The Brain Of A Sociopath Versus Psychopath
There is evidence to suggest that another difference between a sociopath and psychopath's state of mind can be found in their brain chemistry. The brain of a psychopath is not shaped like the brain of a normal person, or even like the brain of a sociopath. There may be actual physical differences that make it difficult for a psychopath to understand another person's emotions. These differences can even affect how a psychopath's body reacts to certain stimuli.
Take, for example, the reaction most people have to seeing violence in a movie. Their hearts race, their breathing quickens, and they get sweaty palms. Psychopaths, on the other hand, have the opposite reaction: calmness. Because they can be calm in the face of danger, psychopaths are more likely to be fearless and engage in reckless behavior. Simply put: they don't fear that their actions will have consequences.
Hot And Cold: Psychopath Vs. Sociopath
While psychopaths are seen as cold-blooded, sociopaths are seen as being hot-headed. Sociopaths are not interested in "playing nice." They are overt about the fact that they are in it for themselves and that they do not care about anyone else. They act without thinking, make excuses for their behavior, and shift the blame for their actions onto others.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, are more calculating. They lay in wait, carefully strategizing their next move, and they will often employ aggressive tactics to get what they want. For instance, if they are interested in making more money or earning a promotion at work, they will formulate a plan that removes any obstacles that could get in their way, even if that means damaging a co-worker's reputation and cause him or her to lose their job.
When it comes to psychopath versus sociopath, one is passionate and flies off the handle, the other keeps a cool head while scheming and manipulating his prey. If one were to compare a psychopath vs. sociopath in terms of animals, the psychopath is a snake, lying in wait until he feels it is the right moment to strike, while sociopaths are more akin to raccoons, following their instincts without giving their erratic behavior - or who is impacted by that behavior - a second thought.
The Sociopath Vs. Psychopath Test
When determining what the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is, a simple test may be all that is necessary to figure out for sure whether someone is a sociopath or psychopath. Specifically, there is something called a "Hare test," named for Robert D. Hare. Hare is the author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which is a test that is given in 20 parts as a method of detecting psychopathy.
In Jon Ronson's book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which was published in 2011, Ronson introduces the idea that many leaders in governmental and corporate roles are psychopaths whose actions can only be explained by understanding that fact. Ronson admits in the book to privately using the Hare test on these figures in an attempt to prove his theory.
The Sociopath Vs. Psychopath Chart
When attempting to understand a sociopath vs. psychopath, it may be helpful to study a psychopath vs. sociopath chart to compare behaviors between the two. There are a variety of charts to choose from, with one of the more interesting ones out there detailing the "psychopath score" of famous figures throughout history.
This chart was created through the use of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI-R), a personality test used by scientists to evaluate whether a person is a psychopath/sociopath. Here, Saddam Hussein has a high psychopath score of 189, while George Washington's score is the lowest on the chart at 132. In comparing the behaviors of both men, it is easy to see why someone like Saddam Hussein would register so high on such a chart.
The Sociopath Vs. Psychopath In Pop Culture
Instances illustrating the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath can be found in several aspects of pop culture, particularly television and film. However, as explained above, the difference between a psychopath and sociopath isn't much of a difference at all, seeing as how psychopathy and sociopathy are simply two sides of the same antisocial personality disorder coin. Interestingly, this disorder more often presents in males, especially those who suffer from a substance abuse problem, or in people who live in a criminological setting, such as prison.
A notable difference between a sociopath and psychopath, however, is the fact that while a sociopath may think nothing of hurting the feelings of a stranger, he or she may be deeply affected by hurting the feelings of someone close to him or her. To return to the Sherlock example used earlier, this is why Sherlock could care less about hurting Lestrade's feelings, yet he spends an entire season torturing himself over doing John Watson wrong. Sherlock is correct when he describes himself as a sociopath.
Consider another example from pop culture: the character Sheldon from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, played by Jim Parsons. Particularly in the earlier seasons, Sheldon does not think twice about who he hurts with his biting sarcasm and cool demeanor, and he will step on anyone that stands in his way of getting what he wants. This is classic psychopathic behavior and, when compared with Sherlock, clearly illustrates the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath.
Getting Help: What Is The Difference Between Psychopath And Sociopath
You may be concerned as to what is the difference between a sociopath and psychopath treatment options. In other words, in the therapeutic areas of sociopath v psychopath, are these conditions treated similarly? Simply put, there is no evidence to suggest that a psychopath or sociopath can change. A sociopath is born a sociopath, and the people and events in his or her life often serve as fodder for the condition, validating the sociopath's behavior in his mind.
However, experts are not giving up hope. The key is that the person must want to change and must be open to treatment options. If you feel you may be suffering from sociopathy or psychopathy, and you wish to make a change, please consider reaching out to one of our BetterHelp counselors, who are available 24/7 via your internet connection to assist you.