Psychopath or Sociopath?

by Shreya Ravichandran 
March 9, 2021
Psychopath or Sociopath?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the word “psychopath”? Someone who is… crazy? Maybe a “sociopath”? Are they the same thing? Despite both terms, psychopath and sociopath, being used generously in pop culture, there is very little understanding of the conditions, particularly in delineating the distinction between the two words in the field of Psychology. There is often an interchangeability of the two labels that occurs in media representations, rarely ever clarifying which condition a character seems to be portraying.

Before establishing what distinguishes the two conditions, it is key to note that psychopathy is a condition in itself in the field of Psychology. It can easily be confused with sociopathy, along with psychopathology, because of the similarity in the way they all sound. While psychopathology refers to the study of any particular mental illness or disorder, psychopathy is a condition that is a part of a disorder and has a psychopathology of its own. This psychopathology is different across different disorders and conditions. Confused? Let’s break it down.

According to the clinical Psychology manual or textbook, DSM-V, although neither of the labels psychopath or sociopath are used in the book as labels, they share a common diagnosis for Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Antisocial in this sense does not refer to someone who is a ‘loner’ or reserved, but rather who goes against the normative structure of society. The clinical diagnosis of this disorder requires the presence of three or more specific traits for someone to be classified as a sociopath or psychopath among other characteristics. These traits include impulsivity, deception, aggressive behaviour, disregard for laws and safety of others, irresponsibility, and lack of remorse or guilt.

Violent characteristics need not be a necessary manifestation to be categorized as either a psychopath or a sociopath unlike what is depicted in movies and literature, however, individuals with ASPD are often known to go to great extents to manipulate and charm individuals in order to attain what they want. It can also be said that sociopaths are more likely to develop into criminals than psychopaths. A classic example of sociopaths are serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. A media portrayal of a sociopath can be seen in that of the memorable comic villain Joker, as he was portrayed in The Dark Knight (2008). Joker was an unemotional, glib, and intelligent individual, and these very characteristics were used by him to manipulate and gain trust of those around him.

So both psychopath and sociopath contribute towards a personality cluster called ASPD, but one of the biggest similarities between a psychopath and sociopath is their pervasive disregard for the safety and rights of others. Characteristics such as deceit and manipulation are central to their personalities. However, the biggest distinguishing factor lies in the classic concept of nature vs nurture, the two areas that contribute significantly in shaping our minds and defining who we are. The distinction can be drawn between the two by focusing on the underlying neurology, an aspect that largely feeds into understanding the aetiology, characteristics, as well as treatment of the conditions.

Psychopaths, on the one hand, may come across as calm and dependable individuals, and some even have loving families and steady relationships. They are able to hold onto general commitments and responsibilities. They are characterized by the 3 signature traits of callous-unemotionality (CU), narcissism, and impulsivity. CU encompasses the inability to feel guilt or show empathy. This can be explained by their genetic predisposition to the condition. Studies show that psychopaths have underdeveloped regions in their brain, in areas responsible for impulse control and emotion regulation. Further there is even evidence to suggest that psychopaths have muted social emotions, as a result of the dampening of the autonomic nervous system, which causes their reduced ability to experience fear and anxiety. Narcissism, further, refers to a sense of entitlement and grandiosity and high sense of self-importance and projected self-image, while impulsivity refers to the inability to bother about consequences and act on impulse. Psychopaths, then, can be said to have this need to look ‘cool’, and their lack of empathy towards their victims is what gives rise to their predatory characteristics. It comes naturally to them as they remain unaffected by emotions or anxious thoughts. This further reinforces their reckless and dangerous behaviour as well. It can also be said that psychopaths may come from any segment of society, and psychopathy remains a stable characteristic across time, culture, and socioeconomic status. While biology plays a huge role in shaping a psychopathic personality, they could have also had a turbulent environment while growing up.

Sociopaths, on the other hand, are significantly influenced by their environment. Sociopathic traits develop as a result of an extremely adverse childhood rife with abuse, neglect, and violence. Sociopaths may, as a result of this, form fewer interpersonal relationships. They illustrate some semblance of morality although a fairly weak conscience. Growing up with the perspective that murder is a heinous crime as compared to growing up in a household with domestic violence as a common sight give birth to very different representations of the world. They have the potential to shape two very different ideologies. Sociopaths develop their impulsive and erratic nature as a consequence of their deviant learning history, which may or may not be influenced by a genetic proclivity. As a result, they can be very hot-headed, as compared to psychopaths who display cold-hearted behaviour. Their emotional callousness develops as a result of inadequate socialization and hostile environmental influences; psychopaths are said to be born with it. When exposed to negative expectations from such an early age, when a child is still developing, it has the ability to alter beliefs into expecting hostility from the world as well.

The presence and development of the two conditions include a myriad of factors that cannot always be portrayed accurately through movies or books. Individual differences, environmental factors, and genetics are just some of the factors that may influence how a particular condition can develop. In fact, in today’s diagnostic decisions, psychopaths and sociopaths are not used to label a presenting condition, more so are considered aspects of antisocial personality disorder. While this helps the therapist understand what condition their client is presenting with, a clearer distinction between the conditions may allow for catered treatment formulation and thus, an increased understanding of how that particular individual can and should be helped.


Shreya Ravichandran

Clinical and Research Intern,


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