The words psychopath and sociopath are each used to describe individuals professionally diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Not everyone with ASPD is a psychopath, but all psychopaths or sociopaths have ASPD.
What is the difference between psychopathy and sociopathy?
If you’re confused about the difference between the words psychopath and sociopath, you’re certainly not alone. The difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is subtle and dependent on the social context. While the words psychopath and sociopath are different words with separate connotations, each term is connected through the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
Leading psychological researcher and psychopathy-expert, Robert Hare, argues there is a difference between sociopaths and psychopaths. According to Hare’s 2006 book, Snakes in Suits, psychopaths have no concept of morality, empathy, or the ability to question their ethics. Sociopaths, however, do have a moral compass––they follow their own.
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Patients who display sociopathic traits are incapable of following social norms, although they can understand their own. Under Hare’s definitions, we might find an example of a sociopath in the character of Dexter Morgan from the television show Dexter (2016).
Dexter Morgan is a fictional character who works for the Miami Police Department as a forensic blood spatter analyst. Fans of the show know Dexter is a serial killer who is incapable of healthy, meaningful relationships. Still, he does follow a moral code that his father taught him as a child: only kill people if they are guilty of murder and don’t let anyone find out.
Dexter’s ability to express empathy and social awareness are traits he adapted from others, but in his private life, he exists solely as a predator. His ability to connect with others only functions as it pertains to his self-interest.
A classic, fictional example of a psychopath is found within Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho, which is narrated by the character Patrick Bateman. Patrick is an excellent example of psychopathy at its most extreme because of how self-absorbed, superficial, and manipulative he is.
As a Wall Street businessman, Patrick will stop at nothing to rise to the top, and he shows this through the obsessive narration of his everyday life. Patrick’s life consists of paranoid thoughts, sexually violent impulsivity, a complete lack of empathy for others, and a perspective of reality that leaves readers wondering how reliable his narration is.
It is clear to Patrick that the world exists to serve him –– and everyone else is in the way –– and it’s clear to the readers how Patrick is incapable of healthy, human connection and everyday functionality. Of course, he is also a sadistic serial killer who preys upon women, especially. Still, his profile shows a clear distinction between two characters who are antisocial and lack empathy, but function in different capacities.
Using the terms psychopath vs. sociopath
Although it is common to hear people call somebody a “psychopath,” psychopathy and sociopathy are rare psychological disorders diagnosed by professionals, and so using them as adjectives to describe somebody is relatively inaccurate.
In reality, psychopaths only consist of 1-2% of the United States population, but this small percentage is responsible for nearly 40% of all violent crime–– which is why infamous serial killers set the baseline in popular culture of how we understand what psychopaths are.
What does psychopath and sociopath mean?
The word psychopath is a noun defined as a psychologically unstable individual with a self-absorbed and antisocial personality. A person with psychopathy is incapable of feeling remorse for their actions or feeling empathy for others. Psychopaths are also known to engage in criminal tendencies, although the severity of crimes is broad (i.e., not all psychopaths commit heinous crimes).
The English language uses synonyms for the word psychopath such as:
crackbrain, crazy, fool, fruitcake, head case, loon, loony, lunatic, maniac, nut, nutcase, psycho, sicko, wacko, madman, abnormal, deviant, and neurotic
The word psychopath, or psychopathy, was coined by Ludwig Kock in 1891, although the broader discussion of psychopathy existed long before there was a name for it. In contrast, the word sociopath first made an appearance in the English language back in 1917.
The noun sociopath is defined as a person who displays antisocial behavior or is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. There are no synonyms for the word sociopath other than psychopath, and it is not clear if either word use is encouraged over the other.
What is a personality disorder?
Unlike other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, psychopathy belongs to a subset of mental illnesses called personality disorders, which negatively affect the way people perceive the world and function in society. There are three main categories of personality disorders with specific diagnoses under each category:
Cluster A Personality Disorders: Odd and eccentric behavior
Cluster B Personality Disorders: Dramatic and erratic behavior
Cluster C: Anxious and fearful behavior
As shown through the tiered categories, the diagnosis of having a personality disorder is not as simple narrowing down who is a psychopath and who isn’t. Surely we know people who are treated for personality disorders who aren’t violent criminals (i.e., narcissists). So it’s important to understand how the words psychopath and sociopath are designated toward the specific diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.
Cluster B similarities
Antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders share distinct similarities, such as:
Unstable perception of self-identity
Impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior
Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
Extreme mood swings
Easily bored and unstimulated
Cluster B differences
There are key differences between each Cluster B diagnosis:
Borderline Personality Disorder:
Black and white thinking
Inappropriate emotional attachments and dependencies on other people
Prone to inappropriate displays of anger and attention-seeking
Hyper-sensitive to perceived criticism
Intense fear of abandonment
Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
Unrealistic fantasies for success
Hyper-sensitive to failure
Prone to complaints of imagined illnesses
Mood swings between extremely insecurity and arrogance
Antisocial Personality Disorder:
Avoidance of social norms
Consistent irresponsibility and callous behavior
History of criminal behavior
Violent and hyper-aggressive behavior
Lack of remorse or empathy for others
No concern for the rights of others
High risk of alcohol and substance abuse
Obsession with personal gain
It is crucial to understand how not everyone with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a psychopath, but all psychopaths or sociopaths have ASPD. The few percentages of people with ASPD walk among us without killing people or raging drug problems, and we don’t know any different.
In fact, some psychopaths go on to find high levels of success as CEOs or government leaders. Psychopaths still engage in unempathetic and self-absorbed behavior, though, so securing success long-term is difficult if their ability to maintain healthy relationships is not possible. After all, their condition is not about choosing their behavioral conduct if they have a mental disorder.
True psychopaths tend to take advantage of people around them for their benefit, whether they are negatively affecting family members, partners, co-workers, or community peers. Leading industry leaders go as far as to describe psychopaths as “parasites” because of their ability to con, lie, and use others around them without feeling any guilt.
Diagnosing a psychopath
Declaring somebody a psychopath is a serious claim, and it is not a business virtue or common trait one would find amongst a handful of acquaintances. Patients who are diagnosed with psychopathy are sometimes considered legally and medically insane, but the process of a professional psychiatrist declaring them as such is lengthy and requires a diagnosis by exclusion.
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PLC-R) is the most common assessment used by doctors, which measures 20 different psychological symptoms. The PLC-R checks for symptoms belonging to two primary factors, which are effective and interpersonal indicators, and antisocial behavior and lifestyle indicators. To be diagnosed, patients need to score 30 or higher on the Hare test, although female patients only need to score a minimum of 25.
Other than the PLC-R, there are two diagnostic handbooks used to identify psychopathy, which include the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). While each text classifiespsychopathy as a personality disorder, the DSM-5 lists psychopathy as an antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and the ICD lists psychopathy as dissocial personality disorder.
High-scoring, male forensic patients are more likely to be verbally and physically abusive and have a previous criminal record involving violent behavior, which typically begins during early adolescence. Outside of childhood development, the occurrence of psychopathy and crime-related violence doesn’t occur by accident. Patients with a violent criminal history are at a disadvantage to become repeat offenders as adults.
Some mental health professionals assert that while human genetics are 40-60% responsible for developing psychopathy, the overall occurrence of psychopathy depends on a patient’s environmental factors such as childhood trauma, which are known to trigger similarly complex illnesses such as schizophrenia. It’s important to note, however, psychopathy has an overall negative correlation to bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia, and that psychopathy is a part of a distinct disorder on its own.
Are you a psychopath?
While learning about psychological disorders, such as antisocial personality disorders (ASPD), it’s important not to start diagnosing others around you. If it’s any consolation, if you’re fearful that you may be a psychopath, you probably are not one.
Because patients with ASPD are more likely to have an exaggerated or disillusioned sense of self, diagnosing them and providing help before a major episode is much more difficult.
People with personality or conduct disorders are far less likely to believe there is anything wrong with their behavior because they have no concept of self or social awareness that is based in reality.
This isn’t to say that somebody with ASPD is incapable of understanding their illness, but they cannot develop a genuine sense of responsibility for receiving treatment. In other words, a person with ASPD is capable of acknowledging they are sick, but they would be the last person to know if their behavior is perceived as unempathetic, antisocial, violent, or self-absorbed.
With all of this being said, if you are concerned about your mental health or are worried about somebody you know, it’s important to reach out for help. You don’t have to wait for a crisis to justify therapy, and feeling alone or depressed does not have to be normal, if that’s the case. Think about it this way: Even medical doctors are asked to receive regular therapy sessions.
Here are a few recommended resources if you need help finding public assistance or therapy for anxiety, depression, forced family separation, gun violence, LGBTQ-related issues, substance abuse, etc.
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Alanna Madden is a freelance writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. Alanna specializes in data and news reporting and enjoys writing about art, culture, and STEM-related topics. I can be found on Linkedin.