How Are a Narcissist and a Sociopath Different?

Not all narcissists are sociopaths and vice versa.

When you have been around someone who is “difficult” to get along with, you may have used the terms "narcissist" and "sociopath" to describe them. While these two terms share some similarities, they are not interchangeable. These terms actually refer to two distinct personality disorders: narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder (sometimes called sociopathy).

Knowing more about these serious conditions and the differences between them may help you better understand people with personality disorders.

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Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is diagnosed when a person displays pathological personality traits. In other words, one or more aspects of their personality can be so extreme that it makes it challenging for the person to function in relationships, work, and society.

A person with NPD may have these personality traits:

  • Self-centeredness
  • Believing they are "special" or better than others
  • Entitlement
  • Needing admiration and attention from others
  • Envious of others or believing others envy them
  • Reacting poorly to criticism
  • Playing the victim 

You may think that someone with these personality traits is vain or full of themselves. However, the difference between general narcissism and someone with NPD is that a person with NPD has a long-term disorder that can significantly disrupt their daily life and relationships.

Some examples of how NPD affects someone are:

  • They rely on the approval of others when making goals for themselves. If they don’t receive approval, they can fall behind at work or in school. This may result in getting fired or being held back in school.
  • They can experience extreme mood swings and lack empathy toward others. This may lead to superficial relationships or ruin existing relationships. 

Some risk factors for developing NPD include:

  • Genetics 
  • Childhood trauma (e.g., neglect or abuse from caretakers) 
  • Excessive praise during childhood

Sociopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)

People with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) are sometimes referred to as "sociopaths." A sociopath often hurts others or acts criminally, with no remorse for their behavior.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed (DSM-5), a diagnostic tool developed by the American Psychiatric Association to identify and classify mental disorders, a person with ASPD may be:

  • Manipulative
  • Deceitful
  • Aggressive
  • Sadistic or cruel 
  • Vengeful or unforgiving 
  • Impulsive
  • Irresponsible
  • Callous or insensitive to others 
  • Prone to boredom
  • Angry or irritable at the slightest critiques 
  • Unable or have difficulty making and following through on plans

These personality traits can affect how you treat yourself, interact with others, and function in society.

People with ASPD may often:

  • Prioritize their own personal desires without concern for others 
  • Have difficulty developing or maintaining close relationships 
  • Be intimidating, manipulative, or abusive to others 
  • Have trouble getting or keeping a job
  • Ignore laws or social norms which may result in legal problems 

People with ASPD may be more likely to commit violent crimes, perform financial fraud, and have a substance use disorder. Studies show that they also have a higher likelihood of being incarcerated, as 40% of the prison population has ASPD compared to 4% of the general population.

ASPD often starts to develop in childhood. Some risk factors for developing APD include:

  • Genetics
  • Having a parent with ASPD or a substance use disorder
  • Being overly aggressive as a child
  • Having ADHD or a conduct disorder (behavioral or emotional problems that result in disregard for others) as a child 
  • Being cruel to animals as a child 
  • A history of being physically or sexually abused 

Narcissism vs. Sociopathy Differences

NPD and ASPD are two different personality disorders. People with each disorder have distinct differences in behaviors and motivations. 

Interacting With Others 

A person with NPD will often exhibit selfish and vain behavior. They may require constant attention and praise from others to maintain their ego and boost their mood. If they do not receive this praise, their mood can suddenly change to unpleasant, rude, or cold. 

A person with ASPD will not usually care about what others think of them—unless they are seeking revenge. They are dismissive of other people’s concerns and do not need approval from others. 

Understanding Social Norms and Laws 

A person with ASPD will not typically have respect for laws, social norms, or promises and agreements with others. They tend to focus on their personal desires and needs without regard for rules and perceptions of others. 

A person with NPD is more likely to abide by laws and social norms. They may also be less aggressive and deceitful to members of society. 

Lacking Empathy 

People with NPD and ASPD tend to lack empathy and may hurt others. However, the reasoning behind this behavior is different depending on the type of personality disorder. 

A person with NPD may hurt and exploit others because of their own self-obsession. They tend to not be considerate of other people because they are always thinking about themselves. Their actions typically revolve around their reputation in society.  

A person with APD may go out of their way to hurt another person or animal due to impulsiveness, boredom, or revenge. They usually feel no remorse or guilt after harming someone. Their actions usually revolve around their personal wants and desires. 

Narcissism and Sociopathy Similarities

While NPD and ASPD are separate diagnoses, they are both part of the cluster B personality disorders and share some similarities. Cluster B is a subtype of personality disorders that are known for being overly emotional, dramatic, impulsive, and unpredictable. 

Some commonalities between both personality disorders include:

  • They can be charming for personal gain: Narcissists use their charm in a superficial way to get attention and admiration, while sociopaths use their charm as a form of manipulation to get whatever it is they desire.
  • They struggle with daily life functions: People with NPD and ASPD may have trouble keeping a job, managing finances, and maintaining meaningful relationships. 
  • They may be more likely to face serious consequences: Those with NPD and ASPD have a higher risk of going to jail or developing a substance use disorder. 
  • They have similar risk factors: A history of childhood trauma and abuse can be a risk factor among people who develop NPD and ASPD. 

Some people may have both NPD and ASPD. These people are often referred to as “narcissistic sociopaths.” However, having both personality disorders is rare and can be hard to identify. Therefore, there is no separate diagnosis in the DSM-5 for this condition. Instead, for people to be considered narcissistic sociopaths, they would have to meet all of the criteria for both NPD and ASPD to be diagnosed with both conditions. 

A sociopathic narcissist would display behaviors of both personality disorders simultaneously. They may believe they are better than others and that laws don’t apply to them, but can also manipulate people for attention and admiration and not feel remorse for hurting others.

Treatment

It can be really challenging for people with NPD and ASPD to get the help they need. People with either condition rarely seek treatment because they do not view themselves as "sick" or needing “help.”

Currently, there is no cure for either condition, but healthcare providers may prescribe certain medications to help manage symptoms or treat other mental health conditions. People with NPD may be receptive to long-term therapy. While there is less evidence that shows people with ASPD respond well to therapy, early treatment of children with conduct disorder can be helpful.

A Quick Review

You may often hear the terms “narcissist” and “sociopath” being used interchangeably. However, NPD and ASPD are different cluster B personality disorders. 

People with either condition tend to be manipulative to others, lack empathy, and struggle with daily life. Those with NPD act based on the admiration of others, while people with ASPD disregard others entirely.

If someone you know or love has NPD or ASPD, you may find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional. They can help you learn the tools to take care of yourself, set boundaries, and protect yourself from harm. They may also recommend support groups to help you cope with your situation. 

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Sources
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