Psychopath Vs. Sociopath: The Telltale Signs & Differences
By Nadia Khan
Updated June 25, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Do you know someone who seems to have no understanding of what it means to show empathy or concern for others, someone who has no regard for right or wrong or who seems to derive pleasure from hurting others? As calloused and unreal as this may seem, if this sounds familiar to you, you may have met a psychopath or sociopath.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
Although the terms sociopath and psychopath are not terms used for clinical diagnosis, they are used to describe people with antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is a personality disorder that affects an individual’s emotional responses and causes an inability to care about the needs or feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder are believed to lack a sense of moral conscience. They are usually master manipulators and have no regard for the thoughts or feelings of others.
The exact cause of antisocial personality disorder is not currently known. However, environmental factors, genetics and possible changes in the function and structure of the brain are believed to be factors that contribute to its development. Having a family history of mental health disorders or other personality disorders or a childhood conduct disorder are also believed to be contributing factors. History of living in an unstable or violent family or experiencing childhood abuse or neglect may influence whether someone develops antisocial personality disorder.
Symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness lists psychopathy and sociopathy under the heading of antisocial personality disorder. While there are some differences in symptoms, sociopaths and psychopaths share some key traits that include:
- Lack of empathy toward others
- Deceitful or manipulative behavior
- Repeated violation of the emotional and/or physical rights of others
- Difficulty with relationships (personal and professional)
- Aggression or irritability
- Lack of remorse for behavior
- Rule-breakers, criminal history
- Reckless and/or dangerous behavior
Are Psychopaths and Sociopaths Violent?
Movies and television shows often portray psychopaths and sociopaths as violent criminals. While people with antisocial personality disorder can become violent or aggressive, not all do. In fact, many people with antisocial personality disorder, especially psychopaths, learn how to mimic socially acceptable behavior so well that they blend in with society and go undetected for years. Although some psychopaths and sociopaths may become violent, they are more likely to inflict psychological damage toward victims. This is because of their uncanny ability to manipulate others.
Nevertheless, to say that sociopaths or psychopaths are never violent would not be accurate. Charles Manson was a psychopathic killer who, along with his followers, is believed to have murdered at least 35 people. Additionally, Ted Bundy is one of the most notorious psychopathic criminals in history. Despite his psychopathic personality, he was able to attend law school, work alongside politicians, have relationships with numerous women, and develop what appeared to be legitimate friendships. He not only evaded capture for years while on a killing spree, he also escaped from custody twice.
One television example of someone with antisocial personality disorder is Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory, who is portrayed by Jim Parsons. Many people believe that this character portrays someone who is a psychopath as Sheldon is selfish, extremely intelligent and has the ability to understand human emotion. In many episodes, the character uses his understanding of human emotion and behavior to manipulate others and remains uninterested in those who cannot be useful to him. His sarcasm and cold affect are classic characteristics of someone with antisocial personality disorder.
Psychopathy and Sociopathy, Recognizing the Difference
The terms most often used to describe a person with antisocial personality disorder are psychopath and sociopath. Because sociopaths and psychopaths exhibit some of the same characteristics, some medical references use the terms interchangeably. However, there are some behaviors that distinguish sociopaths and psychopaths from one another. Typically, their behavior toward others and the way they act in different social situations are strong factors in differentiating a sociopath from a psychopath.
Psychopathic Characteristics of Behavior
One of the most obvious differences between psychopaths and sociopaths is that psychopaths tend to be very organized. Their need for organization is reflected in every part of their lives from the way their home or personal space is kept to the way they establish and execute plans. For many psychopaths, the need for organization can almost seem like an obsession.
People with antisocial personality disorder are known rule-breakers. A lack of respect for authority or for societal rules often results in these people breaking the law. A psychopath’s excessive attention to detail and need for constant organization often makes it difficult to catch them if they commit a crime. Many psychopaths plan their acts of lawlessness so carefully that they may go for years breaking the law undetected. If, and when, a psychopath is caught breaking the law, they will try to spin the story to blame someone else and appear innocent.
Psychopaths are often referred to as “cold-blooded” or “cold-hearted.” Their behavior is typically very calculated, and they may use aggressive tactics to get what they want. For example, if a psychopath wants to earn a promotion at work, he will have no problem using whatever means necessary to accomplish that goal. This includes being willing to destroy a co-worker's reputation or status on the job to help cause himself to be promoted.
Both psychopaths and sociopaths use manipulation to get what they want. Although they generally have no empathy or concern for others, they often take on the role of caregiver for a family member or other person in need. Some marry and have children. However, their presumed attachment to others is often merely a façade.
Psychopaths learn to mimic the actions of others. They may pretend to be upset or angry if they have learned that this is the socially appropriate reaction. They may act elated or extremely happy when something happens that should illicit those feelings.
Although they do not experience what many consider “normal” human emotion, psychopaths do possess the ability to understand emotion and often mimic the emotions of others. This ability is one of the things that make psychopaths true master manipulators. In fact, psychopaths are so good at pretending, they often convince others that they are devoted to them or in love with them.
While they may act as if they care for or love others or pretend to feel the same emotions as others, psychopaths generally have no emotional connection with anyone. Their acts of affection or concern are simply a ploy in a psychopath's game of manipulation to further their own agenda.
Psychopaths appear to have no conscience or sense of moral right and wrong. They tend to be aggressive and are often predatory in nature. In general, psychopaths view others as objects to be used for amusement or for personal gain. Although they may exhibit a charming or charismatic personality, which allows them to easily gain the trust of others, they lack empathy for others. If a psychopath offends or hurts someone else, the only time he will show any type of remorse is if by doing so it furthers his own agenda for personal gain. They have no problem hurting others if it means getting what they want.
Behavior of Sociopaths
While psychopaths may appear to have a normal life, home and family, sociopaths may be homeless and wander from place to place. They also have an increased chance of abusing alcohol or illicit drugs. The disorganization they exhibit usually affects all aspects of a sociopath’s life. Because their behavior is disorganized and often erratic, a sociopath who commits a crime is more likely to be apprehended and prosecuted for his crimes than a psychopath.
Sociopaths generally exhibit symptoms of nervousness and may become easily agitated. They are often prone to fits of rage and emotional outbursts. Because they are unable to maintain a sense of order or stability, it is often difficult for sociopaths to maintain steady employment or to develop stability in personal or professional relationships. While it is not entirely impossible, it is often difficult for sociopaths to form any type of attachment with others.
Another difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that sociopaths do have some sense of having a conscience. However, they are unable to allow their conscience to dictate their behavior. Therefore, while a sociopath may realize that a behavior is wrong, they may engage in the behavior anyway, especially if they believe their actions will benefit them in the end.
Psychopaths are generally classified as cold-blooded. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are often seen as being hot-headed. While they do have some sense of conscience, they are not driven by a desire to do right instead of wrong and often have no problem if others know that they are seeking their own gratification. Sociopaths often act without thinking, make excuses for their behavior, and shift the blame for their actions onto others.
Is the Brain of a Psychopath Different from a Sociopath’s?
There is some evidence to suggest that the brain of psychopaths have impaired connections between the part of the brain that is responsible for feelings of empathy and remorse and the part of the brain that elicits fear or anxiety responses. Individuals who are not psychopaths may see a violent scene in a movie and experience a physical reaction such as a rapid heart rate, faster breathing or sweaty palms. Psychopaths, however, are able to remain calm when faced with dangerous or otherwise fear-invoking situations.
Is There a Test to Determine if Someone Is a Psychopath or Sociopath?
One of the most widely used tools in a psychiatric assessment of individuals with antisocial personality disorder is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The checklist is generally used to rate a person’s tendency to exhibit antisocial or psychopathic behaviors. The original research for the Hare Psychopathy checklist was provided by Robert D. Hare, who was an FBI advisor and criminal psychologist.
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.
Treating Psychopathy and Sociopathy
Although there is no cure for antisocial personality disorder, if the condition is detected early in life, there may be hope for some improvement. Additionally, there is evidence that there are effective techniques to manage the symptoms of psychopathic and sociopathic personality, especially when there is early intervention.
For example, reward systems are thought to be especially helpful when treating children with antisocial personality disorder. Rewarding good behavior is a way of assigning a positive value to someone’s actions. With each behavior or act that is carried out as asked, a positive reward is given, and the child will associate good behavior with things that give him/her pleasure. It is believed to be entirely possible for people who undergo early, reward-based treatment to grow and maintain a stable job and have a family.
Traditional psychotherapy is not usually helpful for a person with antisocial personality disorder. However, some behaviors can be changed, if the person is willing. People with psychopathic personality disorder do not process social experiences or emotions in the same way that people who are not affected by the disorder. Because they are unable to experience emotional responses such as bonding, empathy, or caring, they do not change often.
There is no medication that change a person’s sense of arrogance or immorality. However, some medicines may address some of the emotional irregularities that many people with antisocial personality disorder experience.
Seeking Professional Help
Because psychopaths and sociopaths generally do not see any problems with their behavior, they are not likely to be willing to seek treatment. Although they may not be willing to seek treatment, if you have been affected by or are in a relationship with someone with antisocial personality disorder, it’s important to reach out for help.
Whether you choose to talk to a local counselor, visit a community mental health center, or engage in online counseling, you can learn effective ways to cope. Online counseling options, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, focus on providing affordable mental health care to individuals that is convenient and easily accessible. The team of licensed professional counselors, psychiatrists, clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists will work with you to identify risks for your safety and well-being and help develop a plan of care that is specific to your needs.
"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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which is worse, psychopath or sociopath?
Both sociopaths and psychopaths suffer from antisocial personality disorder. However, because psychopaths lack any sense of moral compass or conscience, the consensus of most mental health professionals is that the behavior of psychopaths is worse and may pose the greatest danger to others.
Are sociopaths dangerous?
While not all sociopaths exhibit dangerous or violent behavior toward others, there are some that do. They often have a lack of empathy, may engage in criminal activity and generally know how to manipulate others. Although they do have a conscience that makes them aware of right and wrong, their conscience generally does not dictate their actions, which can lead to dangerous behavior.
Are people born sociopaths?
The not-so-simple answer is yes and no. Research indicates that there is a genetic predisposition for someone to have antisocial behavior. However, the predisposition to develop antisocial personality disorder does not mean everyone with the genetic predisposition will become a sociopath or psychopath. Environmental factors such as the lack of appropriate caregivers, childhood abuse or neglect and trauma may also contribute to the development of sociopathy.
How do you outwit a sociopath?
It is best not to second-guess a sociopath. Outwitting any person means being able to manipulate a situation in your favor and, remember, sociopaths and psychopaths are master manipulators. The best thing to do if you are involved with a sociopath is to protect yourself. Set boundaries and establish what behavior you will or will not tolerate and stick to them. Also, rather than frustrating yourself by trying to outwit a sociopath, seek professional help so you can determine if you need to remain in a relationship with a sociopath or cut all ties.
What is a high-functioning sociopath?
A high-functioning sociopath is a person with antisocial personality disorder who is especially skilled in engaging in manipulative behaviors. They are generally able to engage in typically everyday behaviors while hiding their tendency to manipulate and exploit others for their own advantage without their true nature being detected.
What causes sociopathy?
The exact cause of sociopathy, a form of antisocial personality disorder, is not known. Many researchers and mental health professionals believe both biological and environmental factors contribute to its development. A genetic predisposition for developing the disorder, a family history of mental illness or personality disorder, childhood trauma or childhood abuse and neglect are all considered to be contributing factors.
Do psychopaths get angry?
While psychopaths do not experience normal human emotion, they are very skilled at mimicking the behavior of others and learning when it is appropriate to exhibit those behaviors. Typically, psychopaths exhibit anger when they don’t get their way. Typically, they are selfish and manipulative, and they usually employ any tactic necessary to achieve their own agenda.
Can sociopaths live a normal life?
Although sociopaths do not experience human emotion the same as people who do not have antisocial personality disorder, they can experience some emotions. They can generally perform the functions required to live a “normal” life and some may be able to live a normal life. However, among those with antisocial personality disorder, psychopaths seem to be more in control of their behavior and are therefore more likely to have the appearance of a normal life than sociopaths who may exhibit erratic or unpredictable behavior.