Psychopath Vs. Sociopath: The Telltale Signs & Differences
By Nadia Khan
Updated April 08, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Have you ever watched the BBC series, Sherlock? If so, you may be familiar with the title character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and how he always feels insulted when someone calls him a psychopath, demanding that he instead be referred to as a "high-functioning sociopath." Even if you're not familiar with the line, you may be asking yourself: what is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?
Interestingly, doctors don't diagnose people as a psychopath or sociopath. In fact, the official diagnosis for individuals who demonstrate psychopathic or sociopathic traits is called Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Regardless of what you might call it, most experts agree that both psychopaths and sociopaths share similar personality traits. In essence, when considering the differences between a sociopath and a psychopath, we can say that a psychopath is a sociopath with more symptoms. In short, all psychopaths are sociopaths. However, not all sociopaths are psychopaths. We can answer the question "what's the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?" by looking at a list of traits that are specific to psychopathy. For example, psychopaths:
- Lack the ability to feel guilt, remorse or empathy
- Are unable to form deep emotional attachments to anyone or anything
- Are usually narcissistic, dishonest and manipulative
- Are masters at turning on the phony charm
- Are risk-takers who engage in reckless behavior, which may explain why approximately 93 percent of psychopaths have an entry in the criminal justice system.
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 and knowing right from wrong; a psychopath does not.
Another 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.
To avoid being discovered, a psychopath learns to mimic the actions of others, pretending to feel upset or angry when something goes wrong because they know that is the 'socially' appropriate reaction. 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 necessarily be enough to stop him or her from doing it anyway. While the psychopath and sociopath both lack empathy, the psychopath cares less about others than the sociopath does 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 movies make sociopaths and psychopaths out to be violent villains who are easy to spot, in real life, they are less obvious and do an excellent job of blending into society as one of us. Take Ted Bundy, for example. He is known as one of the most dangerous and prolific serial killers in history. However, he was so charming and good looking that he was able to weave in and out of people's lives, attend law school, mingle with politicians, date girls, and have friendships, all without anyone realizing how monstrous he really was.
While it is true that some people 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 for their own needs, even if it means hurting someone to get it. Take, for example, 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.
However, just because a person is mean-spirited or selfish 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 when seeing violence in a movie. Their hearts race, their breathing quickens, and they may even get sweaty palms. Psychopaths, on the other hand, have the opposite reaction. 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 open 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 lie in wait, carefully strategizing their next move, and 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 it means damaging a co-worker's reputation and causing them to lose their job.
When it comes to the Psychopath vs. Sociopath debate, one is passionate and flies off the handle while 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. 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 called the Hare Test is a good step towards figuring out whether someone is a sociopath or a psychopath. Named for Robert D. Hare, the author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, it 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.
Seeking Professional Help
People may feel conflicted about the difference between sociopath and psychopath treatment options. 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 ready to assist and support you. Often, family and loved ones of an individual with antisocial personality disorder need counseling and therapy in order to deal with the challenges of living with someone with the APD. Counseling will help them understand the illness better, provide them with an outlet to share their pain and frustrations, and provide them with the necessary tools to cope and manage. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Audrey has helped me through a very tough time in my life. When I was in a slump coming out of a toxic relationship, Audrey gave me tools to make it out to the other side. I was able to discover my self-worth and realize the tangled web I was in! I'm thankful I did not go through my life in a cycle of hurt."
"Gia understands how to communicate with a highly motivated, hard-working, highly ambitious guy like me by cutting to the chase and getting right to the point. We are working backward to provide me with a toolbox of techniques to deal with the stresses I face day to day rather than bog down analyzing the root cause in the first part. She said, 'we'll get to that, but we need to make sure you are working to ensure you don't continue to repeat the negative behavior patterns.'"
So, what can you do with this information? Well, for one, you can take the time to understand that not everyone is who they might appear to be on the outside. It really goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover, especially if that book happens to have a manipulative agenda. Remember, not every psychopath or sociopath is a vicious, cold-blooded killer. In fact, it's likely that you may even be friends with one without even realizing it.