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Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

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7 min

Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

You see them in movies, read about them in books, and meet them on the streets almost daily. Sociopaths and psychopaths sit next to you in cafes, shop in the same malls, and work in the same office. And in most cases, you don’t even notice that they have a specific condition.

People usually use the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” to informally describe someone with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). But even though these aren’t official diagnoses, the behavior of such people is a bit… different.

Impulsivity, lack of care for others, tendency to take risks, and more are just a few symptoms of both conditions. But what’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? And how can you communicate with such people? Keep reading the article to learn.

What is sociopathy?

Sociopaths do not care about other people and so do not miss them when they are alienated or gone, except as one might regret the absence of a useful appliance that one has somehow lost. ― Martha Stout, American psychologist.

Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho,” Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” and even Sherlock Holmes in the early books and movies ― all of them have more or less sociopathic traits.

Such people usually ignore others’ feelings while doing what’s right for them without paying attention to social norms. Can sociopaths feel guilt? Usually, no.

They tend to be manipulative and dramatic while having unpredictable mood swings. Building friendly or romantic relations with these people could be a real rollercoaster ― they may try to use you for personal gain and can be pretty aggressive.

Other sociopathic tendencies include:

  • Constant lying
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Lack of sensitivity
  • Hostility and violence
  • Forming toxic attachments

What is psychopathy?

A psychopath can tell what you’re thinking, but what they don’t do is feel what you feel. These are people without a conscience. ― Robert D. Hare, Canadian psychologist. 

There are many examples of psychopaths in modern culture. From Joker in “The Dark Knight” to Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct,” these characters add unpredictable twists to all movies.

So, what is a psychopath? It’s a person who lacks emotion and empathy, doesn’t care for others, and can’t love. These people also neglect social norms and have little in common with morality.

Experts identify 4 types of psychopaths: narcissistic, borderline, sadistic, and antisocial. They can behave differently, but all incorporate the main psychopathy symptoms:

  • Sadism
  • Using charisma to get what they need
  • Risk-taking and lack of fear
  • Recurring problems with the law
  • Dishonesty

What’s more, there isn’t a term like “emotional psychopath.” These people usually don’t experience any feelings, but they are good at pretending. They develop emotional intelligence to appear normal and get what they need from others.

Interesting fact. About 1 in every 22 people globally struggle with psychopathy. At the same time, in corporate leading positions, their number reaches up to 12%, which proves the fact that psychopaths strive for authority and power.

Sociopath & Psychopath — Similarities

Even though the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is rather noticeable, these conditions have some similar symptoms. I’ll start with them so you don’t get confused by their likeness.

  1. Psychopathic or sociopathic behavior is a form of antisocial personality disorder. These aren’t official mental health conditions but rather clusters of ASDP that make people harm themselves and everyone around them.
  1. Both conditions involve an inability to build healthy relations, a lack of guilt for antisocial actions, and disregard for laws and norms. What is gaslighting in relationships? It is also an integral part of communication with sociopaths and psychopaths. 
  1. Violent behavior is another symptom of these conditions. People with sociopathy and psychopathy are often aggressive. They don’t understand the risks and may engage in dangerous situations. 
  1. The first symptoms of psychopathy and sociopathy both appear in childhood and early teenage years. Problems with behavior and communication, as well as mood swings, could be the first symptoms of ASDP. 
  1. Some signs help notice psychopathic and sociopathic traits on the spot. These include cruelty to animals, lying, stealing, breaking things, and general hostility.
Psychopath versus sociopath — visual comparison

The Difference between a Psychopath and a Sociopath

These conditions may seem analogous, like Spider-Men from the movie “No Way Home,” but they aren’t the same. Usually, people perceive sociopaths as hostile and aggressive, while psychopathy is more a definition of manipulative and unempathetic personalities.

But in reality, it’s a bit more complicated. Read the table to compare a typical psychopath vs. a sociopath.

SociopathsPsychopaths
Tend to be highly emotional and experience mood swings.Experience very little emotion and instead tend to mimic some feelings.
Behave impulsively and often follow the immediate desires. Have methodical behavior and meticulously plan every step, but sometimes make impulsive decisions.
Engage in spontaneous crimes and acts of violence driven by immediate circumstances.Demonstrate consistent criminal behavior characterized by premeditated actions and never remorse.
Get angry and defensive quickly. Have a weak conscience but try to rationalize their behavior.Underreact in stressful situations. Typically lack a conscience and empathy, so they don’t feel guilty about their actions.

What’s also important in the difference between sociopath vs. psychopath is that the first type can try to build short-term unstable relations. In contrast, the second one purposely avoids getting into relations with others. 

Interesting fact. The ability to mimic others’ emotions is one of the most important psychopath traits. This is why when you meet such people, you may think they are charming and charismatic initially.

For instance, in the movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the main character, Tom Ripley, manages to gain the trust of entirely different people, seamlessly blending into their social circles. Sociopaths usually can’t do this. So, I truly recommend watching this film to understand psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder better.

Causes of Sociopathy and Psychopathy

Now, we’ll dive a bit deeper. Let’s learn to discover what can be a reason for psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies in people’s behavior. Below, I’ll shed light on the peculiarities of each condition’s psychology.

Disclaimer. Experts aren’t sure of the exact cause of ASPD, but the reasons for psychopathy and sociopathy seem to be different. 

What makes a sociopath? This condition is usually a result of a specific genetic combination and childhood trauma, particularly physical or sexual abuse. While the first aspect increases the risk of sociopathy, the second one may trigger the condition to develop. 

What makes a psychopath? At the same time, psychopathy is more a result of exceptional genetics and biological factors. These people often have the dysfunctional amygdala ― a part of the brain responsible for reactions to dangerous situations and emotional regulation. 

Take a test to assess your emotional intelligence and find ways to improve it. 

To sum up, psychopaths are often born with specific traits, whereas sociopath characteristics are a result of environmental factors.

Psychopath Versus Sociopath — Treatment Options

Is it bad to be a sociopath or a psychopath? In most cases, such people don’t struggle with their conditions but can impact the lives of everyone around them. So, if your loved one has some symptoms, it’s best to contact an expert.

Note that it is difficult to identify the appropriate treatment for such people, as the causes are complex. What’s more, both sociopaths and psychopaths don’t believe that they need treatment, so providing therapy can be rather challenging.

However, several things can help reduce the symptoms of ASPD. Here they are. 

Psychotherapy

The main thing people need to do to succeed in therapy is to understand that they need it. Sadly, most patients with sociopathic and psychopathic traits don’t want to change anything. Nevertheless, it can help reduce risky behavior and develop healthier relations. The earlier such people start therapy, the more effective it is.

Medication

Disclaimer. Contact a doctor before taking any medications to cure psychopathy or sociopathy. 

There are no medicines that deal with such conditions, but lots of drugs for other disorders can reduce the symptoms. Have ADHD and take antidepressants? They probably won’t be helpful. However, psychostimulants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers sometimes improve the state of the patient.

I recommend contacting a specialist to take a full sociopath vs psychopath diagnostic assessment, learn more about your specific condition, and choose an appropriate treatment. If your loved one has similar symptoms, there are ways you can help them.

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, comments on the topic, “Both sociopathy and psychopathy are conditions that are challenging to identify and treat. Individuals with these traits often lack insight into their behavior and may resist change. However, some therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), may be beneficial in managing symptoms and reducing harmful behaviors. Research continues to develop on the potential effect of therapeutic interventions for both sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.”

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC photo

Reviewed by Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor. She owns a private practice specializing in anxiety tre...