Sociopath vs. Psychopath: Similarities and Differences

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Do you know the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?

Most people don’t. In fact, many people use the terms interchangeably, which isn’t entirely inaccurate. The individuals we call sociopaths and psychopaths all likely have antisocial personality disorder, a mental health condition characterized by blatant disregard for and violation of the rights of others. However, experts say there are some distinct and important differences as well.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath Similarities

Sociopaths and psychopaths aren’t particularly nice humans. Most individuals who encounter them will not be better off, emotionally, physically or financially, as a result of their interaction.

Common traits of sociopaths and psychopaths include:

  • Deception, or a willingness to lie or cover up the truth to advance their own goal or purpose.

  • Manipulation, or the tendency to “bend” facts and appearances to get other people to do things.

  • Irresponsibility. Many socio- and psychopaths cannot and do not consistently meet work or family obligations. They may have a history of letting others down.

  • Lack of guilt or remorse. They do not feel bad about their actions.

  • Disregard for rules and laws. They may feel “above” the law and act as if rules, guidelines and laws do not apply to them.

  • Aggressiveness. Sociopaths and psychopaths aren’t always violent or aggressive, but the tendency toward violence and aggression resides inside them, and they may respond violently to perceived slights. 

  • Near inability to form emotional attachments. Most of their relationships are transactional; there is no real human intimacy. 

Note: Almost all humans occasionally lie or manipulate others, react violently, or fail to live up to responsibilities. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Model of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) an adult must meet the following criteria to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder:

1. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, since age 15, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  • Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors

  • Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for pleasure or profit

  • Impulsivity or failure to plan

  • Irritability or recklessness, often with physical fights or assaults

  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others

  • Consistent irresponsibility

  • Lack of remorse, or indifference to having hurt or mistreated another person

2. The behaviors are not due to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath Differences

Picture a calm, cool, collected-on-the-surface serial killer. That person is likely a psychopath.

According to researchers, psychopaths can be charming individuals who may seem like excellent employees or community members. However, the charming persona is an act. Deep down, psychopaths are incapable of true emotional intimacy. They lack empathy and cannot feel others’ emotions, but they can learn to mimic emotions and express the “right” emotion at the right time to gain someone’s trust or manipulate them.

If they choose to commit crimes, they will likely take the time to carefully plan the crime and the coverup. Psychopaths can be very methodical and thorough, and many have been highly successful criminals. Some researchers believe that about half of all serial killers are psychopaths.

In contrast, sociopaths are more erratic and less controlled. If they commit a crime, it is likely to be an impulsive, heat-of-the-moment action. Many sociopaths have a hard time holding a job, and they may move frequently or live on the fringes of society. According to a Psychology Today article, sociopaths tend to be nervous, easily agitated, and prone to fits of rage.

Experts believe the sociopathic behavior usually results from childhood trauma, including emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Psychopathic behavior does not appear connected to trauma or abuse. In fact, research has shown that the parts of the brain that control impulsivity and emotions are underdeveloped in psychopaths. Scientists believe that some people may have a genetic predisposition to psychopathy. However, no one yet knows why some people with certain biologic tendencies become criminals while others function successfully in society.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy. Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri. https://www.mha-em.org/im-looking-for/mental-health-knowledge-base/conditions/127-psychopathy-vs-sociopathy
  2. The Differences Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201801/the-differences-between-psychopaths-and-sociopaths
  3. Antisocial Personality Disorder. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/antisocial-personality-disorder-a-to-z
  4. Fisher K, Hany M. Antisocial Personality Disorder. [Updated 2020 Dec 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546673/
  5. Fallon JH. (2013). The psychopath inside: A neuroscientist's personal journey into the dark side of the brain.