What's the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

One important trait sets these conditions apart.

Psychopath vs. Sociopath. Most of us use both labels interchangeably to refer to a person who behaves in a way that's odd or disturbing, lacks empathy, or at least impossible to understand or sympathize with.

You're probably familiar with some famous fictional psychopaths and sociopaths, such as psychopath Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs or sociopath King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. They both lack empathy, disregard laws, and rules, don't care about others' rights, have violent tendencies, and never feel guilty. So which one is a sociopath and which is a psychopath? How can you tell the difference between these two conditions?

What Is Sociopathy?

Sociopathy falls under the mental health diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), said Donald W. Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. People who have ASPD tend to be persistent liars, have no regard for what's right and wrong, and have an arrogant personality, among other traits. Sociopaths might abuse animals or set fires, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 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."

Who Can Develop It?

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 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.

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

What Causes It?

The Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) explain that the cause of ASPD is unknown. The HHS cites genetics (heredity) as well as other factors such as child abuse as contributing to the development of the condition. People with antisocial or alcoholic parents are at increased risk of developing ASPD.

What Is Psychopathy?

As described in a 2014 study published inRestorative Neurology and Neuroscience, psychopathy is a disorder characterized by shallow emotional responses, lack of empathy, impulsivity, and an increased likelihood for antisocial behavior. Psychopaths are responsible for an inordinate proportion of crime 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, psychopaths are about three times more likely to commit another crime than non-psychopaths, and four times more likely to commit a violent crime.

Psychopaths and their conning, manipulative interpersonal style typically has an all-encompassing destructive impact on an individuals' life, work, and relationships.

Who Can Develop It?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about 1.2% of U.S. adult men and 0.3% to 0.7% of US adult lt women are considered to have clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits. Psychopathy occurs across socioeconomic status, race, gender, and culture. Anyone from high-functioning executives to prison inmates scores high on psychopathy scales range.

What Causes It?

Abnormalities in the brain may be responsible for some of the symptoms of psychopathy, according to the APA. 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 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 sociopaths and psychopaths?

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. "They're really hot-headed. If things don't go the way they want them to, they'll get angry and could be aggressive. They can't keep it together and have emotional outbursts."

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. You could call them master con artists.

"Psychopaths are the smooth operator," said Lombardo. This person will compliment you, "make you feel good, and just say all of the right things until you find out (they've) been stealing money from you or been plotting some kind of crime."

Jen Waite, author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal writes that people with psychopathy are extremely 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."

Basically, when someone with psychopathy is plotting behind your back, they'll have a perfectly believable excuse for anything that you might think seems off, and you'll never see it coming. But when you're dealing with someone with sociopathy, it's more likely you'll catch on because they won't be smart enough to cover their tracks, and you probably won't trust them as much.

So perhaps the most concerning difference between the two is that when someone with psychopathy, you'll probably have no idea...which makes them all the more dangerous.

There are different levels of both psychopathy and sociopathy. Some might be thieves or cheaters, while others could be actual killers. Regardless of the severity, people with these traits are dangerous, and if you suspect you know someone who fits either of these molds, it's crucial you remove yourself and speak with a mental health professional.

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