That dude in the little blue speedster flying down I-95 and using all three lanes to cut everyone off and pass them… what a total psycho! The captain of the high school cheerleading squad who’s demanding that her boyfriend work extra hours to pay for her hair and nails to get done every week… that chick is such a self-centered sociopath! We pin these labels on people easily, and often jokingly, but psychopathy and sociopathy are pretty serious states of being, sometimes far from a joking matter.
Do you know someone who seems to have no understanding of what it means to show empathy or concern for others, someone who has no regard for right or wrong, or someone who actually seems to derive pleasure from hurting others? To you, this behavior and personality seem calloused and unreal, maybe even impossible to believe; but believe it…if the above characteristics sound familiar to you, you’ve probably crossed paths with a psychopath or sociopath.
A lot of people use the labels psychopath and sociopath interchangeably when referring to a person who exhibits a wide array of creepy, odd, or dangerous behaviors. But while the two do share some common traits, there are other points that separate them as well. Both sociopaths and psychopaths have a patent disregard for the safety and rights of others, and manipulation and deceit are central features to both personalities. Contrary to popular belief and what you see in the movies, psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily bloodthirsty or violent. Surprised? Violence is actually not a necessary requirement for a diagnosis of psychopathy— but it is often present. In this blog, I’ll shed some light on sociopathic and psychopathic traits, go over why they’re grouped together, and also what sets them apart from one another.
In actuality, neither psychopathy and sociopathy are official diagnoses on their own, but The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness puts them under the heading of antisocial personality disorders, meaning that people with psychopathy and sociopathy have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, hereafter ASPD.
ASPD is a mental health diagnosis characterized by a lack of empathy, ie an inability to care about the needs or feelings of others. Approximately 3 percent of the US population qualifies for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. It is more common among males and more often seen in people with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, or in forensic settings such as prisons. People with antisocial personality disorder are usually master manipulators and absent of moral conscience. The exact cause of ASPD is not currently known, but environmental factors, genetics, and possible changes in the function and structure of the brain are believed to be factors that contribute to its development. Other contributing factors may include having a family history of mental health disorders or a history of living in an unstable or violent family in an abusive or neglectful environment. In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present in a person before the age of 15, so that by the time that person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a full fledged psychopath or sociopath.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis and key characteristics of ASPD:
Lack of empathy toward others
Constant deceitful or manipulative behavior
Little regard for the safety of others
Difficulty with all relationship types
Aggression or irritability
Lack of remorse or guilt for actions
Reckless and/or dangerous behavior
Laws/ Rules don’t apply to them
Regularly breaks or flouts the law
Impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
Prone to fighting and aggression
Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
As with many things in life, there are different levels of both psychopaths and sociopaths.
Some might be thieves or cheaters, while others could be actual killers. The most concerning difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that when someone is a psychopath, you’ll probably never know it, never have the faintest idea… which is what makes them even more dangerous.
You’re probably familiar with some famous fictional psychopaths and sociopaths. How about psychopath Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, or the psychopathic detective Dexter from the primetime crime drama of the same name. Or sociopathic pop culture hero, King Joffrey from Game of Thrones, and the sociopathic Joker in The Dark Knight. These characters all had ASPD and lacked empathy, broke laws and disregarded rules, ignored others’ rights, exhibited violent tendencies, and never felt an iota of guilt for their behavior, if they even knew they behaved badly and hurt people in the first place. Which they probably didn’t.
Traits of a Psychopath
Psychology researchers generally believe that people are born psychopaths, as it’s likely associated with genetic predisposition. The flip side is that sociopaths tend to be a product of their environment, perhaps as a result of abuse. But that’s not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.
Research has shown that psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences, as psychopaths often have underdeveloped areas of the brain in regions that are responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Generally speaking, psychopaths are superficial, egocentric, and emotionally shallow. They’re practiced and smooth operators, and they will compliment you, make you feel good, and say all of the right things, until you find out later they’ve been playing you for their own purposes, using you, stealing money from you, or plotting some kind of crime…like your murder.
They’re extremely manipulative and pros at gaining others’ trust. They have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others, so they intentionally form shallow, artificial relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits them. They see people as pawns to be used to forward their own goals and agendas, and rarely, if ever, feel any guilt regarding how they treat others or how much they hurt them.
Psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, as they hold steady, normal jobs. They tend to be very successful and well liked, much like master con artists. They may even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. And while they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own, living in and experiencing the real world. They are the princes most charming of all…until they aren’t anymore. Legendary psychopath Ted Bundy comes to mind here. Women found him smart and attractive, and they took him at face value; and that was their undoing.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves. If that means they must implicate an innocent party in the behavior, so be it. They will carefully, and even obsessively, plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for any and every possibility.
While psychopaths are like chameleons, seamlessly blending into their environment, sociopaths are easier to spot. The cool, calm psycho attitude is replaced by the hot-headed sociopathic one. They are rage-prone, and if things don’t go their way, they’ll get angry and aggressive, with emotional outbursts.
Traits of a Sociopath
Researchers tend to believe that sociopathy is the result of environmental factors, such as a child or teen’s upbringing in a very negative household; or in any situation that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
In general, sociopaths tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While they also have difficulties forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may find it easier to form an attachment to a like-minded group. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths have a difficult time holding down a long-term job, fitting in properly with some social situations, and presenting a normal family life to the outside world.
When a sociopath engages in criminal behavior, they may do so in an impulsive and largely unplanned manner, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. They may become agitated and angered easily, sometimes resulting in violent outbursts. These kinds of behaviors increase a sociopath’s chances of being apprehended.
Who is More Dangerous?
As with many things in life, there are different degrees of severity in psychopaths and sociopaths. In reality, both pose risks to society, because they must constantly, 24/7-365, find ways to cope with a way of thinking and a way of life that is different from society’s accepted norm, and this can make them edgy. But, that said, psychopathy is the more dangerous disorder, because people with it experience far less guilt connected to their actions. Also, a psychopath is better able to dissociate from their actions, meaning they can easily separate emotional feelings from any actions they undertake. Without this emotional involvement, any pain that other people suffer is completely meaningless to a psychopath. All of the most famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Psychopath v Sociopath: Childhood Clues
Clues indicative of later psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood. Most people who are diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a previous pattern of behavior in which they violated the basic rights of others or endangered their safety. They also often have a childhood history of breaking rules and laws, as well as societal norms too. These kinds of childhood behaviors are recognized as a conduct disorder.
Four categories of problem behavior
Aggression to people and animals
Destruction of property
Deceitfulness or theft
Serious violations of rules or laws
If you recognize any of the above four symptoms or any of the specific childhood clues of conduct in a child or young teen, they’re at much greater risk for having antisocial personality disorder. We’ll talk about what to do with that next week. Also next week, we’ll get deeper into how to spot a sociopath.
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