The Difference Between Psychopathy and Sociopathy

One important trait sets these conditions apart.

You've probably heard the terms psychopath and sociopath. They are used casually to describe people who lack empathy, disregard laws and rules, don't care about others' rights, have violent tendencies, and never feel guilty.

While sociopathy and psychopathy are not formally recognized as mental health conditions, certain mental health disorders involve features that are considered sociopathic or psychopathic. Find out how you can tell the difference.

Defining Sociopathy

Key features of sociopathic behavior, according to a review published in Acta Neurologica Belgica, include a lack of empathy, lack of inhibition, altered social and interpersonal behaviors, and impaired social and moral judgments.

Sociopathy falls under the mental health diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), according to Donald W. Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), common behaviors that are seen in people who have ASPD include things like setting fires and cruelty to animals.

The department characterizes ASPD as a mental health condition in which a person "has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. This behavior is often criminal."

Demographics

ASPD begins early in life, usually by age 8 years, according to a 2015 study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. ASPD is typically diagnosed as a conduct disorder in childhood. Nearly 80% of people with ASPD developed their first symptom by 11 years. By age 18, the diagnosis usually converts to ASPD if antisocial behaviors continue.

According to the study, ASPD occurs in anywhere from 2% to 4% of males and from 0.5% to 1% of females. ASPD can be chronic and lifelong for most people. However, the disorder often improves with age.

Causes

The HHS explains that the cause of ASPD is unknown, and cites genetics (heredity) and factors such as child abuse as contributing to the development of the condition. According to the HHS, people whose parents experienced alcohol use disorder or had difficulty socializing are at increased risk of developing ASPD.

Defining Psychopathy

A 2021 review published in Current Opinion on Psychiatry explained that there are some overlaps between psychopathy and ASPD. The review described boldness and fearlessness as being especially prominent features of psychopathy.

A 2014 study published inRestorative Neurology and Neuroscience describes psychopathy as a disorder characterized by shallow emotional responses, lack of empathy, impulsivity, and an increased likelihood of antisocial behavior.

According to the study, individuals with psychopathy are responsible for an inordinate proportion of crimes committed. The condition is a strong predictor of how likely one is to re-offend after release from prison. Within one year of release from prison, people who have what are considered psychopathic traits are about three times more likely to commit another crime, and four times more likely to commit a violent crime.

Psychopathy typically has an all-encompassing destructive impact on an individual's life, work, and relationships.

Demographics

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about 1.2% of U.S. adult men and 0.3% to 0.7% of US adult women are considered to have clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits.

Psychopathy occurs across socioeconomic status, race, gender, and culture. For example, high-functioning executives, prison inmates, or others can score high on psychopathy scales range.

Causes

Abnormalities in the brain may be responsible for some of the symptoms of psychopathy, according to the APA. The APA sates that previous studies have found that the amygdala—an important emotion-processing structure in the brain—is smaller in people with psychopathy than it is in typically developing individuals.

Research has also found the amygdala has deformities in people with psychopathy.

In addition, studies have found a moderate to highly inheritable genetic component to psychopathy. One 2016 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry tracked 561 children adopted during early infancy. Children whose biological mothers reported a greater history of severe antisocial behavior were much more likely to exhibit psychopathy behaviors than those whose biological moms did not.

Key Differences

So what's the actual difference between a person with sociopathy and a person with psychopathy? There are overlaps, and it isn't always possible or necessary to determine whether someone has one versus the other. Overall, there are criteria and treatment protocols for ASPD, and therapists can use that diagnosis to guide treatment for people who have traits of either sociopathy or psychopathy.

However, there are some differences between psychopathy and sociopathy.

For starters, someone with sociopathy is likely easier to spot. "When a psychopath interacts with you, if they get upset, they can keep their cool, but a sociopath will lose it," psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, told Health.

"If things don't go the way they want them to, they'll get angry and could be aggressive," Lombardo said.

If there's someone with sociopathy in your life, you might also notice other things that are off: maybe they don't fit right in social settings, or they have difficulty holding a job. People with psychopathy, though, are the opposite. They tend to be very successful and well-liked.

"(People with psychopathy) are smooth operators," said Lombardo. This person will compliment you, "make you feel good, and just say all of the right things," explained Lombardo.

Jen Waite, author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal writes that people with psychopathy are manipulative and are pros at gaining others' trust. In a previous article for Health, Waite wrote, "My prince charming was the most charming of them all. Until he wasn't."

Someone who has traits of psychopathy might be more likely to boldly defy social expectations, even to the point of causing harm to others. Someone who has traits of sociopathy might be more impulsive.

Next Steps

There are different levels of both psychopathy and sociopathy. Regardless of the severity, people with these traits can cause harm to others. If you suspect you know someone who fits either of these molds, it's crucial you remove yourself from the position of being a potential victim and speak with a mental health professional.

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