Sociopath vs. psychopath: How to tell the difference

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" are commonly used to describe certain objectionable behaviors, but it can be important to note that neither typically serves as a clinical diagnosis. Instead, the traits associated with both sociopathy and psychopathy are usually encompassed within the clinical diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). If you or a loved one live with a personality disorder, online or in-person therapy may serve as an effective source of insight and professional support.

Personality disorders can be challenging to understand

The history of sociopathy and psychopathy

While many of us are familiar with the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath,” each of them generally falls under the clinical diagnosis of “antisocial personality disorder.” 

The term "sociopathy" is believed to have been coined during the era of behaviorism between 1920 and 1950, but it has largely fallen out of use in modern scientific research. While it was once a topic of study, obtaining funding for further research on "sociopaths" from the National Institute of Health is typically no longer feasible. 

Psychopathy, while not considered an official diagnosis, is a term that can still be utilized in psychology today to describe individuals who display high levels of callousness or lack of emotionalism.

Understanding antisocial personality disorder

Antisocial personality disorder, the overarching personality disorder that generally encompasses traits of both sociopathy and psychopathy, tends to be a complex condition that can be misunderstood. 

Its prevalence in the general population may range from 0.2% to a little over 3% in the United States, with the disorder normally being six times more common among cis-gendered men. Furthermore, it tends to be less prevalent in older age groups, indicating the potential for behavioral change over time.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) normally describes antisocial personality disorder as a "persistent disregard for the rights of others." 

This disregard can be characterized by various behaviors, including repeatedly committing acts that are grounds for arrest, pathological lying or deception for personal gain, impulsivity, consistent irresponsible behavior, aggression, and a lack of remorse or indifference toward mistreating others. 

To meet the diagnosis, an individual must generally be at least 18 years old and exhibit at least three of these criteria.

One commonly used method to assess psychopathic traits may be the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This checklist typically consists of 20 items rated on a scale from zero to two, indicating the extent to which an individual's behavior aligns with each item's description. Mental health professionals frequently use this checklist to predict potential violence and negative outcomes, as well as to explore suitable treatment options.


Although misconceptions may exist, antisocial personality disorder can be treated. Research suggests that individuals with high scores on psychopathic traits can make progress in reducing negative outcomes. Treatment options for antisocial personality disorder may include individual and family-focused therapies, residential treatment, and medication. Early identification in childhood can improve the effectiveness of these treatments.

How to tell the difference between sociopathy and psychopath

Differentiating between a sociopath and a psychopath usually involves considering factors like antisocial personality disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), personal gain, other mental health disorders, antisocial behavior, the ability to form genuine emotional attachments, and impulse control.

While additional research articles, expert opinions, and clinical diagnoses can provide further understanding, many of the behaviors attributed to sociopathy and psychopathy tend to overlap, but the traits often differ in terms of social construct.

For example, sociopaths tend to struggle with forming emotional attachments, which can impact their relationships and interactions within family life and beyond. Psychopaths, however, are often able to maintain interpersonal relationships with romantic partners, family members, and in the workplace. 

Additionally, sociopaths often display more erratic or impulsive behavior, while psychopaths tend to behave in a more consistent and calculated manner. The most notable distinction between the two may become largely apparent within the sociopath’s tendency to experience guilt regarding their actions, whereas a psychopath typically lacks remorse.

Benefits of online therapy

When examining these traits and behaviors, it can be important to note that not all sociopaths meet the official diagnosis criteria outlined in the DSM. Additionally, if you recognize the traits of antisocial personality disorder in yourself or someone you know, seeking help from an online therapist may be beneficial. Online platforms typically enable you to meet with a therapist from the safe space and comfort of your own home. 

Personality disorders can be challenging to understand

Effectiveness of online therapy

Online therapy can be equally as effective as in-person therapy for addressing a range of concerns, including personality disorders. While more research may be needed on the efficacy of online therapy for treating antisocial personality disorder, one comprehensive review found that online interventions frequently produced significant decreases in symptoms of borderline personality disorder. None of the interventions created adverse effects, and researchers concluded that online therapy could be instrumental in the expansion of effective treatment strategies for different mental health concerns. 


While the term "sociopathy" is generally considered outdated, "psychopathy" may remain relevant within the psychiatric field and usually falls under the broader category of antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder can be defined as a multifaceted mental health condition that requires a professional diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Those experiencing symptoms of a personality disorder may benefit from speaking with a therapist, either online or in person.

Explore antisocial personality disorder in therapy
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