Sociopath vs. Psychopath: What Are the Differences?

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Sociopath and psychopath are commonly used words to describe the same type of personality traits. Although some behaviors are the same, sociopathy and psychopathy are two different things. For example, sociopaths are emotionally unstable, while psychopaths tend to be unemotional.

This article discusses the differences (and similarities) between sociopaths and psychopaths, as well as their causes, methods for diagnosing these conditions, and treatment techniques for these personality characteristics.

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The Differences Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths

Sociopaths and psychopaths are individuals who have specific types of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This mental health condition causes behaviors such as disregard for rules, lack of guilt, violating other people's rights, difficulty having healthy relationships, inability to care about other people, and emotional issues. Symptoms of antisocial personality disorder typically show up in the early teenage years.

Sociopaths and psychopaths have some common traits, as well as characteristics that set them apart from each other.

Sociopaths may exhibit the following traits:

  • Breaking the law
  • Physical aggression
  • Manipulation of other people for personal gain
  • Anger and hostility
  • Unpredictable mood swings
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Chaotic and dramatic life
  • The exploitation of other people
  • Irresponsibility
  • No guilt or remorse

Sociopathic people are often quick to get angry and defensive when confronted about their behavior. They also often have legal issues and unstable personal lives.

Psychopaths may exhibit the following traits:

  • Feeling few (if any) emotions
  • Sadism (pleasure from causing pain to others)
  • Lack of care for others
  • Pathological lying
  • Charming personality
  • Lack of fear
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Unreliable in relationships
  • Inability to love
  • No remorse for wrongdoing
  • Poor judgment
  • Lack of life goals

Unlike sociopaths, psychopaths do not typically explode under pressure. They might even "underreact" to dangerous or stressful situations. Psychopaths usually avoid developing relationships, and relationships they establish are often for the purpose of using people for their own gain. They do not have strong morals or a "conscience"—the part of a person that makes them feel bad for causing pain to others.

Signs and Symptoms in Childhood

Certain childhood behaviors can be signs that a child will become a sociopath or psychopath in the future.

These include:

  • Physical aggression toward others
  • Animal abuse and cruelty
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Consistently breaking the rules
  • Destroying property

What Causes Sociopathy and Psychopathy?

Sociopathy and psychopathy have both biological and environmental causes. A person's childhood and the way they were parented can play a large role in developing sociopathy or psychopathy later in life.

Antisocial personality disorder also often occurs with other mental health conditions, including:

Sociopathy

The exact causes of sociopathy are not well understood, but it is believed that a person's environment plays a large role. For example, children who experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are more likely to become sociopaths. However, not all sociopaths have been abused.

Children who are neglected or don't form bonds with caregivers early in life also have an increased risk of developing sociopathy.

Psychopathy

Researchers believe that genetics and biology play a much larger role in psychopathy than sociopathy. People with psychopathy tend to show symptoms at a younger age than sociopaths, which also points to the theory that people are "born with it," in some cases.

Psychopathy can be related to dysfunction in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for a person's ability to react appropriately to potentially dangerous or threatening events. This part of the brain also helps regulate emotions.

Several other parts of the brain—such as the prefrontal cortex, temporal cortex, and paralimbic structures—have also been found to have changes to their structure and function in people with psychopathy.

Diagnosing Sociopathy and Psychopathy

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), is a manual used to help mental health professionals diagnose conditions such as antisocial personality disorder. While psychopathy and sociopathy are not formal mental health diagnoses, a healthcare provider will identify these conditions by a person's pattern of behavior.

Children and adolescents who display early signs of sociopathic or psychopathic behavior are often diagnosed with conduct disorder—a condition characterized by a pattern of violating other people's rights and social norms or rules.

Behaviors can include:

  • Lying
  • Lack of fear
  • Low empathy for others
  • Lack of guilt

Screening Tools

Various screening tools can be used to help identify sociopathic or psychopathic traits. Some tools are made for specific age groups. However, it is important to remember that these tools are not meant to take the place of a formal assessment by a licensed mental health professional.

Treatment for Sociopathy and Psychopathy

Treating sociopaths and psychopaths is often difficult, primarily because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with them. Individuals with these traits are more likely to improve with therapy when it begins before adulthood. In some cases, medications are used to help improve certain aspects of antisocial personality disorder.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is challenging and not very successful for the majority of sociopaths and psychopaths, mainly because they don't recognize a need to change their behavior. Therapy that takes place in childhood and early adolescents can sometimes be helpful for reinforcing socially-appropriate behaviors. In some cases, therapy can help reduce violent behaviors for some people with these conditions.

Medication

There's no medication that directly treats sociopathy or psychopathy. However, drugs that were developed to treat other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety disorders, are sometimes used to help treat symptoms of these conditions.

Sociopathy and psychopathy can be treated with:

  • Psychostimulants: These medications help treat behaviors such as hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and have been shown to reduce aggression in kids and young adults who have psychopathy. Examples include Concera (methylphenidate) and Adderall (dextroamphetamine).
  • Antipsychotics: These drugs—such as Risperdal (risperidone)—are commonly used to treat mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, they are also used to reduce aggressive behaviors.
  • Mood stabilizers: These medications, commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder, can decrease aggression and outbursts in people with psychopathy. Examples include Eskalith (lithium) and Depakote (divalproex).

Summary

Sociopaths and psychopaths are often confused as being one and the same. Although they are both a type of antisocial personality disorder, they have different traits. Sociopaths have severe mood swings while psychopaths have very few, if any, emotions.

Sociopaths are often angry and hostile, while many psychopaths have charming, manipulative personalities. Treatment is not overly successful for these conditions, but can include therapy and sometimes medications to help control symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Having a relationship with a person who you suspect might be a sociopath or psychopath can be very challenging. If you live under the same roof, you're environment might even be unsafe. Talking to a mental health professional can help you learn how to set boundaries and understand more about your loved one's condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is antisocial personality disorder?

    Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a mental health condition that is often characterized by disregard for other people's feelings or safety, lack of guilt, lying, stealing, manipulation, and criminal behavior.

  • What are the traits of sociopathic and psychopathic behavior?

    Sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors include impulsiveness, lying, lack of empathy, manipulation, criminal acts, and rule-breaking. Sociopaths have extreme emotions, while psychopaths have few, or no, emotions.

  • Is narcissism a symptom of sociopathy?

    Narcissism—an overinflated view of one's importance—is a common symptom of sociopathy, but not all narcissistic people are sociopaths.

  • Is there a sociopathy test?

    There's no formal test for sociopathy, but a variety of screening tools are available online. However, antisocial personality disorder can be diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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