Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths: What’s the difference?
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09-29-14 Category: Mental Health

antisocial personality disorder

The terms psychopaths and sociopaths share many similarities, being used almost interchangeably by criminologists and forensic psychologists on television. Although both are subtypes of antisocial personality disorder marked by dissociation from emotions and a lack of ability to feel empathy, there are several key differences between the two disorders.

Psychopaths and sociopaths make up one percent and four percent of the population, or 3 million and 13 million Americans, respectively. Despite them having a separate set of diagnostic criteria, psychopaths and sociopaths do share several traits in common. These include a disregard for laws and social rules, a disregard for the rights of others, an inclination towards violent behavior and an inability to feel remorse or guilt.

Sociopathic behavior

However, their similarities end there, with both disorders carrying a separate set of behavioral characteristics. Sociopaths tend to be more nervous and easy to agitate or frighten, being much more emotional than the emotionally vacant psychopaths. Sociopaths are prone to emotional outbursts and rages, employing their ability to detach emotionally from others more as a defense mechanism than an inherent personality trait. Many sociopaths are able to feel some amount of empathy, being able to reluctantly form attachments with people or groups despite usually having low regard for society in general.

Sociopaths are statistically from lower income/lower educated areas that are usually marginalized by society to begin with. Due to their unstable emotions and impulse to keep moving, they often have trouble staying employed and live transient lifestyles. As opposed to psychopaths, crimes committed by sociopaths are much more impulsive, unplanned and generally more sloppily executed than their more calculating counterparts.

Psychopathic behavior

Unlike sociopaths, psychopaths are truly unable to empathize with others and form emotional bonds. Where sociopaths are usually created by childhood trauma and other environmental factors, the cause of psychopathy is genetic in nature. Sociopaths are able to retain a small amount of empathic ability since they were born “normal” for the most part, but psychopaths are born with an underdeveloped area of the brain responsible for emotions and impulse control, giving them the ability to dissociate themselves from others and making it far easier for them to commit remorseless acts.

Also differentiating psychopathic individuals are their usually charming personalities and conversational skills. Psychopaths are very manipulative and are usually intelligent people, allowing them to fake empathy and other emotions they lack in order to obtain their goal of gaining power and control. Many are so adept at this that they can maintain relationships and families completely unbeknownst to them of their true nature. Psychopaths blend into society much easier than sociopaths, holding careers and being found to occupy many positions of power. According to a disconcerting NIH study, three percent of those in management positions are diagnosable psychopaths, three times the national average of one percent.

Where sociopaths often commit crimes haphazardly, psychopaths tend to methodically plan out their actions, calculating the details and possible scenarios in advance. When under pressure, they also maintain their composure much better than their more emotional counterparts.

Psychopathy and sociopathy are the most dangerous psychological disorders on the spectrum, giving people affected with it the potential to commit murder and extreme acts of violence without hesitation or second thought. Because of this, many of the worst serial killers in history have been known psychopaths.


Although there is no medication to have proven effective in treating psychopathy and sociopathy, some trials have shown some forms of psychotherapy to be effective in treating symptoms in adolescents. Occasionally anti-depressants and mood stabilizers are administered to sociopathic patients subject to anger and irritability, although not effective in everyone. The psychotherapy involves teaching them interpersonal and relationship skills, leading to a reduction in signs of their disorder. However, considering the high degree of manipulativeness in those suffering from these disorders, the true extent of the therapy’s efficacy is anyone’s guess.

Sovereign Health has a breadth of experience in the treatment of antisocial personality disorders such as sociopathy and psychopathy. If you have any questions about antisocial personality disorders or suspect that a loved one may be suffering from one, feel free to contact us today.

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