The differences between these two types of individuals are not always clear. More often than not the terms psychopath and sociopath are used interchangeably. In fact the DSM IV no longer lists either as a pathology opting instead for the diagnosis "antisocial personality" disorder. I do believe however that there is a distinction between the two personality types which I will endeavor to explain here, though this idea is not universally accepted. A psychopath is an individual that is usually driven and focused on their own gain with a single minded purpose. Like many of us, this personality has a degree of narcissism. It is the degree of Narcissism in the personality that aides in the definition. Narcissism in and of itself is not a negative element of one’s personality except when it is taken to extremes. An individual with a balanced sense of self worth can be considered to possess a healthy dose of narcissism. A sociopath by earlier definitions appear to be a total narcissists whose behavior are injurious to others. Furthermore there has not necessarily been a traumatic experience to account for this seemingly arrested development. It appears that even through their early childhood these individuals have been devoid of what we like to consider very human components, empathy, consciousness sincerity. These missing components of conscience, caring and empathy make these individuals more often than not destructive if not dangerous for others in their path. Sociopaths in their extreme form are society's great white shark and I suggest account for the more predatory, vicious hunter-type individuals that are serial murderers. The sociopath’s focus is in keeping with their extreme narcissism and is directed towards their personal gain without any regard to those that might be hurt or damaged as they move towards that end. It is not clear that they are consciously aware of this narcissism at least to the extent that they would become introspective about it.
To further illustrate this idea of sociopath vs. psychopath lets indulge in a few hopefully recognizable and easily understood societal archetypes. A Special Forces soldier, military snipers, intelligence operatives are in my opinion examples of socially accepted psychopaths whose focus is on their interpretations of God, country and perhaps family. It is their intent, rationale and espoused beliefs that gives them acceptance within our society. These individuals focus on their code of honor, something noble, consequently they are able to kill when necessary, gather intelligence, exploit others and gain information by what may appear to be nefarious means all in the name of what they deem as their higher goals. The danger is clearly evident when people in government rationalize their militaristic posture or domestic policies regarding the citizenry's right to know or protest as somehow unpatriotic, cowardice or tools of subversives. The point is that a psychopath is not necessarily a cold-blooded killer in many instances although I would say that all cold-blooded killers are definately psychopaths or sociopaths. we find psychopaths in all walks of life. Members of law enforcement sometimes fall into the category of psychopath though what is considered to be their ethical code is a more rigid standard than a corporate executive. These psychopathic individuals like the military Special Forces, snipers etc., although narcissistic and focused still may experience sadness, empathy and even sorrow regarding their actions. These individual's feeling are repressed and viewed as a necessary evil which enables them to live with their deeds and society's acceptance of their roles and what they have done or do for the greater good relieves their burden.
Simultaneously, this Kantian and utilitarian ideologies of duty and greater good do not make for strange bedfellows within the minds of these psychopaths. These individuals may go awry if they do not allow for introspection and fall too much into their idealized world which may be the result of ignoring the facts around them which might challenge their beliefs and justifications. The trauma of discovering that their reality is not supported by the facts/truth may lead to a sort of self-implosion that can have disastrous and destructive consequences to themselves and those around them.
Serial killers a’la Ted Bundy and Enron-like corporate executives are examples of psychopaths. The extreme narcissism in displayed by these individuals in the form of arrogance and remorseless plundering. Enron executives atypical of many corporate executives so relentlessly and callously lied to their stockholders and employees destroying lives that I would consider them sociopaths. The sadistic hunter/predator on one end and the guiltless corporate pirates on the other end illustrate both ends of the sociopathic spectrum. The commonality is that these individuals are all devoid of empathy, sadness or sorrow for anyone but themselves. Though they may be able to see other people’s perspectives and views, why bother unless it is to be utilized in the service of their manipulation. Psychopaths I believe can be manipulated due to their focus, while sociopaths are the focused manipulators. Both of these individuals see characteristics such as empathy, sincerity and kindness as fatal flaws and weaknesses to be exploited to their own end. Murdering individuals, robbing pensions (often a slow death) and exploiting workers for power and or wealth come easily to these individuals. As I've stated it is fair to say that all serial killers are psychopathic but not all psychopaths are serial killers. Some serial killers may be sociopaths but not all sociopaths are serial killers. With that thought in mind I do consider the most prolific and sadistic serial homicides as sociopathic predators. They have a focused intent and single minded purpose, they are of course narcissistic, fantasy driven and clearly not grounded in what most of us consider appropriate behavior in the real world. If they can be believed from their interviews only the most prolific serial killers (the sociopaths are without remorse).
Some serial killers appear to express regret for their deeds and speak of their unwanted compulsion to kill. This self-reporting aspect of these psychopaths are the biggest flaw regarding their veracity. How are we to know if they are truly sorry pre-arrest and some would argue, even if they are what does it matter? If we assume for a moment that they are remorseful then might we be able to put forth the maxim that all serial killers are psychopathic but not necessarily sociopathic? Some argue that all serial killers are without remorse but if their killing is an addiction where do they express this remorse, at SKA (Serial Killers Anonymous)? If we know anything we know that based on the many theories regarding personalities and personality development we know that there is a dearth of knowledge which is unobtainable; each individual is as complex as their DNA. The brutality of what they do cannot be excused because of childhood trauma. The fact is that underlying motives and feelings are harbored deep within the souls of individuals and can never be known with any certainty.
Now one might argue that to get to the height of the corporate world one must be psychopathic as with the military sniper or the intelligence operatives the agents of disinformation. I would venture to say that it is probably true among most corporations that a psychopathic or sociopathic personality aid their own advancement except within the confines of a few corporations that uncharacteristically are more concerned with employee welfare than company profits. This seemingly negative formula for advancement is probably true in most social environments. This rise to become as Tom Wolfe proclaimed of his character Sherman McCoy (in Bonfire of the Vanities) a Master of the Universe is probably a goal of many executives strive for. Obviously some corporations may not be profit but that is rare. Martha Stoudt’s (2005) in The Sociopath Next Door, addresses the increase of this type of personality in our society. Further adding to the confusion surrounding these definitions of sociopath vs. psychopath the recent book titled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work (Babiak and Hare, 2006). Hare describes the psychopath in ways that seem similar to Dr. Stoudt's. I am suggesting here that more often than not the sociopathic personality in some instances may appear to be the more extreme than that of the psychopath. Dr. Hare starts his operationalization of these terms on pg.18 of his book. Language is of course key to understanding any science or culture. Therefore, the descriptions I have set forth will hopefully provide some insight for my students. Some might recognize Robert Hare as the creator of the PCL-R (psychopathic checklist-revised) created for measuring degrees of psychopathy. They might also ask who am I to question this noted researchers work. I do not so much as question it as suggest expanding it. This essay is only for the purpose of operationalizing the terms psychopathy and sociopathy for its utilization in my courses regarding serial murderers.
Returning to the subject at hand, although many corporate executives are probably psychopathic like th emost prolific and sadistic serial killers only the most ruthless can be considered sociopaths, lacking a conscience, one that never existed. Both personality types sociopath and psychopath are narcissistic and maybe fantasy driven. The sociopath by Stoudt's definition are incapable of the remorse, like there is some missing gene. Hare expresses the same sentiment regarding psychopathy. I suggest that the psychopath may be focused, narcissistic but not necessarily remorseless or guiltless, I believe that psychopaths may actively choose to ignore the aforementioned feelings. For the psychopath there may be a possibility for change. It may be possible for psychopaths to change if they are able to learn why their actions are flawed and not in the best interest of themselves or their idealized goals. This change of direction possibly easier within the psychopathic structure is not conceivable within the sociopathic personality type. This is an attempt to explain the differences between these two personality constructs, however the only clarity may be the view that both personality types are the same essentially except how they came to be. The standard is that sociopaths are nurtured by their environments while psychopaths are nature's unexplained gift. If this is so then what are the implications for tests regarding race and ethnicity and cultural behaviors. If the cultural component is not included then there are more questions generated by the PCL-R than answers and for a researcher like Hare that should be good news!
Society has conspired with Hollywood to put two seemingly-sexy psychology terms into our collective consciousness — psychopath and sociopath. Psychopath and sociopath are pop psychology terms for what psychiatry calls antisocial personality disorder. These two terms are not well-defined in the psychology research literature — hence the confusion about them.
Nonetheless, there are some general similarities as well as differences between these two personality types. Both sociopaths and psychopaths have a pervasive pattern of disregard for the safety and rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are central features to both types of personality. Contrary to popular belief, a psychopath or sociopath is not necessarily violent.
The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-51 defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:
- Regularly breaks or flouts the law
- Constantly lies and deceives others
- Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
- Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
- Has little regard for the safety of others
- Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
- Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt
In both cases, some signs or symptoms are nearly always present before age 15. By the time a person is an adult, they are well on their way to becoming a psychopath or sociopath.
Traits of a Psychopath
Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths tends to be born — it’s likely a genetic predisposition — while sociopaths tend to be made by their environment. (Which is not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhoodtrauma.) Psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences. Research has shown psychopaths have underdeveloped components of the brain commonly thought to be responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Are you a psychopath?
Take the Psychopathy Quiz to find out!
Psychopaths, in general, have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath. People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals. Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.
But psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, holding steady, normal jobs. Some even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. While they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves. They will carefully plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for every possibility.
Psychopath Pop Culture Examples: Dexter, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
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 that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
Sociopaths, in general, tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While also having difficulties in forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may be able to form an attachment to a like-minded group or person. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths don’t hold down long-term jobs or present much of 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.
Sociopath Pop Culture Examples: The Joker in The Dark Knight, JD in Heathers, Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange
Who is More Dangerous?
Both psychopaths and sociopaths present risks to society, because they will often try and live a normal life while coping with their disorder. But psychopathy is likely the more dangerous disorder, because they experience a lot less guilt connected to their actions.
A psychopath also has a greater ability to dissociate from their actions. Without emotional involvement, any pain that others suffer is meaningless to a psychopath. Many famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Not all people we’d call a psychopath or sociopath are violent. Violence is not a necessary ingredient (nor is it for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) — but it is often present.
Clues to a Psychopath or Sociopath in Childhood
Clues to psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood. Most people who can later be diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a pattern of behavior where they violate the basic rights or safety of others. They often break the rules (or even laws) and societal norms as a child, too.
Psychologists call these kinds of childhood behaviors a conduct disorder. Conduct disorders involve 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 these symptoms (and the specific symptoms of conduct disorder) in a child or young teen, they’re at greater risk for antisocial personality disorder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy are different cultural labels applied to the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Up to 3 percent of the population may qualify for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. This disorder is more common among males and mostly seen in people with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, or in forensic settings such as prisons. Psychopaths tend to be more manipulative, can be seen by others as more charming, lead a semblance of a normal life, and minimize risk in criminal activities. Sociopaths tend to be more erratic, rage-prone, and unable to lead as much of a normal life. When sociopaths engage in criminal activity, they tend to do so in a reckless manner without regard to consequences.