Is there a difference between psychopaths and sociopaths

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

Written by Kara Mayer Robinson

You may have heard people call someone else a “psychopath” or a “sociopath.” But what do those words really mean?

You won’t find the definitions in mental health’s official handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. They use a different term instead: antisocial personality disorder.

Most experts believe psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits. People like this have a poor inner sense of right and wrong. They also can’t seem to understand or share another person’s feelings. But there are some differences, too.

Do They Have a Conscience?

A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He's a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.

A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.

A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. They may know that taking your money is wrong, and they might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop their behavior.

Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.

They’re Not Always Violent

In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.

“At worst, they’re cold, calculating killers,” Kipnis says. Others, he says, are skilled at climbing their way up the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to get there.

If you recognize some of these traits in a family member or coworker, you may be tempted to think you’re living or working with a psychopath or sociopath. But just because a person is mean or selfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disorder.

'Cold-Hearted Psychopath, Hot-Headed Sociopath'

It’s not easy to spot a psychopath. They can be intelligent, charming, and good at mimicking emotions. They may pretend to be interested in you, but in reality, they probably don’t care.

“They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” Tompkins says.

Sociopaths are less able to play along. They make it plain that they’re not interested in anyone but themselves. They often blame others and have excuses for their behavior.

Some experts see sociopaths as “hot-headed. ” They act without thinking how others will be affected.

Psychopaths are more “cold-hearted” and calculating. They carefully plot their moves, and use aggression in a planned-out way to get what they want. If they’re after more money or status in the office, for example, they’ll make a plan to take out any barriers that stand in the way, even if it’s another person’s job or reputation.

Brain Differences

Recent research suggests a psychopath’s brain is not like other people’s. It may have physical differences that make it hard for the person to identify with someone else’s distress.

The differences can even change basic body functions. For example, when most people see blood or violence in a movie, their hearts beat faster, their breathing quickens, and their palms get sweaty.

A psychopath has the opposite reaction. He gets calmer. Kipnis says that quality helps psychopaths be fearless and engage in risky behavior.

“They don’t fear the consequences of their actions,” he says.

Psychopath vs. sociopath: How do they differ?

Many people use the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably, but they have different meanings. “Sociopath” is an unofficial term to describe a person who has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), whereas psychopathy describes a set of personality traits. However, ASPD and psychopathy can overlap.

ASPD and psychopathy share some similar traits, including aggression and a lack of remorse. Additionally, both can occur due to genetic and environmental factors.

However, unlike ASPD, psychopathy is not an official diagnosis. Another difference is that psychopathic traits tend to be more severe than those of ASPD.

This article defines ASPD and psychopathy before discussing their symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

Share on PinterestPhoto editing by Stephen Kelly; Ilias Katsouras jr/Getty Images

ASPD is a form of personality disorder. A personality disorder is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.

The American Psychiatric Association states that ASPD can cause behavior that ignores or violates other people’s rights.

ASPD is a cluster B personality disorder. The disorders in this category typically involve dramatic, emotional, or unpredictable interactions with other people.

A healthcare professional can only diagnose a person with ASPD if they are over the age of 18 years. The reason for this is that a person’s personality is still developing until this age.

A person will usually only get a diagnosis if there is evidence of them experiencing conduct disorder before the age of 15 years. Conduct disorder is a mental health condition that occurs in children and adolescents, causing behavioral and emotional problems.

According to a 2015 article, healthcare professionals characterize psychopathy as involving:

  • shallow emotional responses
  • impulsivity
  • lack of empathy
  • increased chance of antisocial behavior

However, psychopathy is not an official diagnosis.

Some researchers state that psychopathy is a form of ASPD, and healthcare professionals might diagnose ASPD in a person who demonstrates psychopathic traits. For instance, the American Psychological Association describes psychopathy as another term for ASPD.

Other researchers say that psychopathy is a separate condition but acknowledge that it has traits that overlap with those of ASPD. Research supports this overlap, with one study estimating that approximately one-third of people with ASPD meet the criteria for having psychopathy.

Some researchers have also described psychopathy as a more violent version of ASPD. An article from the journal Current Biology also notes that people with high psychopathic traits show a noticeable lack of guilt and empathy.

The symptoms of ASPD and psychopathy overlap, but there are differences between them.


For a healthcare professional to diagnose ASPD, a person must display at least three of the following criteria:

  • disregarding the law
  • being deceitful
  • acting impulsively or being incapable of planning
  • being irritable and aggressive
  • disregarding safety
  • being consistently irresponsible
  • having a lack of remorse

ASPD is estimated to occur in approximately 1⁠–⁠4% of people. ASPD is also more likely to occur in males than in females.


Canadian psychologist Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) in the 1990s to determine whether a person had psychopathy.

According to a 2014 article, while healthcare professionals would classify only 1% of the population with psychopathy using Hare’s checklist, approximately 20% of people in prison in North America would meet the criteria for psychopathy.

ASPD and psychopathy share many symptoms. However, additional signs that may indicate that a person has psychopathy include:

  • lack of empathy
  • arrogance
  • charisma
  • excessive vanity
  • lack of guilt
  • difficulty processing other people’s facial expressions
  • goal-oriented behavior
  • insensitivity to punishment

Both conditions can occur due to a combination of genetics and a person’s environment.


Healthcare professionals do not know for sure why some people develop ASPD. However, both environmental and genetic factors can contribute.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) suggests that traumatic childhood experiences, such as neglect or child abuse, can play a role in developing ASPD.

The NHS also states that a person with ASPD may have grown up with challenging family circumstances. For instance, they may have experienced:

  • conflict between parents or caregivers
  • inconsistent parenting
  • parents or caregivers who misused alcohol or drugs

Additionally, research suggests that 38⁠–69% of people with ASPD inherit it from their parents. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), children of both adoptive and biological parents with ASPD have an increased chance of developing the condition.


Similar to ASPD, psychopathy can be due to both genetic and environmental factors.

The authors of a Current Biology article note that studies involving twins have shown that psychopathic traits may be moderately or highly inheritable. They also state that antisocial behavior with psychopathic traits is more inheritable than antisocial behavior alone.

In a 2016 study looking at the brains of males with psychopathy, researchers found poor connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions, while the prefrontal cortex plays a role in decision-making.

The researchers also found high levels of testosterone in these individuals, which may help explain why psychopathy is more common in males than females.

However, this research involved only a small number of male participants, so further research is necessary to confirm the results.

Traumatic brain injury and damage to the prefrontal cortex in childhood may also cause psychopathic traits to develop.

Neither ASPD nor psychopathy currently has a cure. However, certain treatments can help a person manage the symptoms of these conditions.


ASPD can be challenging to treat. Therefore, doctors may focus the treatment on managing certain symptoms or conditions that occur alongside ASPD rather than ASPD itself.

Treating conduct disorder when it occurs in a child may help reduce certain ASPD behaviors as they get older.

Treatment options for ASPD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of therapy that helps a person identify and change destructive thought patterns and behaviors. CBT may help a person with ASPD behave in a way that people consider “socially acceptable.”
  • Mentalization-based therapy (MBT): MBT explores how a person’s mental state can affect their relationships.
  • Medications: Certain medications, including mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can treat different symptoms of ASPD.

In the U.K., a person with ASPD may be able to take part in a democratic therapeutic community (DTC). In this type of social therapy, people join therapy groups that focus on community issues and allow everyone involved to contribute to decisions. There may also be opportunities for vocational and educational work.

However, acceptance into a DTC depends on a person’s willingness to be part of a community.


As with ASPD, psychopathy can be very hard to treat. Individuals with psychopathy may not agree that they need treatment, or they may not commit to treatment.

Starting treatment in childhood for psychopathic traits can be helpful in reducing them. CBT may also be useful when treating children who develop psychopathic behaviors following traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

A 2014 case series found that clozapine reduced the severity of ASPD and psychopathy symptoms in males. Clozapine was especially beneficial in reducing anger, aggression, impulsive behavior, and violence. However, the study was small and only included males, so further research is necessary to confirm these effects.

The DSM-5 characterizes narcissistic personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.

A person with NPD will have:

  • a need to be admired
  • a sense of entitlement, such as unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  • an inflated sense of self-importance
  • a lack of empathy

They may also be arrogant, exploitative, and envious of others.

Individuals with either NPD or ASPD can be tough-minded, superficial, exploitative, and unempathetic. However, those with NPD are not necessarily impulsive, aggressive, or deceitful. In addition, those with NPD typically lack a history of conduct disorder and criminal behavior.

Conversely, those with ASPD do not typically require the admiration and envy of other people.

Research from 2014 found that people with NPD and people with psychopathy both showed low honesty, humility, and agreeableness. However, individuals with psychopathy were also unlikely to be caring or responsible.

Many myths surround ASPD and psychopathy. Two common myths are:

Myth 1: People with psychopathy are always violent

Although people with these conditions are more likely than other people to be violent, this is not always the case. Research from 2020 found that certain people with psychopathy were able to inhibit violent tendencies, leading to greater success in life.

Myth 2: Prisons are full of psychopaths

Psychopathic people may be more likely to commit criminal acts than other people. However, according to estimates, only about 20% of people in prison in North America have psychopathic traits.

Sociopath is an unofficial term to refer to a person with ASPD. Psychopath is an informal way to describe an individual who displays psychopathic traits.

ASPD is a personality disorder. Some researchers believe that psychopathy is a form of ASPD, whereas others say that it is a separate condition.

Psychopathy shares similar traits with ASPD. However, psychopaths tend to have more violent and severe behavioral traits than people with ASPD. Both conditions can occur due to genetic or environmental factors, and psychopathy can also occur due to TBIs.

There is no cure for either condition, so treatments for both conditions seek to manage and control a person’s symptoms.

If a person thinks that they or a child in their care may have ASPD or psychopathy, they should speak with a doctor or mental health professional.


Do those with ASPD have a conscience?



The more common perceptual lens is one that is imbued with empathy and a conscience. People with ASPD lack what we consider a conscience and, as such, are not governed with the usual moral, legal, or philosophical prohibitions to behaviors that meet their own needs, regardless of the impact on others. These people can be manipulative, chaotic, and, at times, dangerous.

Jeffrey Ditzell, DOAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

how they differ and how they perceive reality

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Sociopath and psychopath: how do they differ? How do sociopathy and psychopathy develop? Why do such people violate social norms and why do they sometimes attract us? What allows them to be not only villains, but also heroes? What sociopathic features does the world of big business have, and what place do sociopaths occupy in culture and mass cinema? We understand. nine0009

Let's not confuse psychopaths rushing through the square with a chainsaw turned on, and sociopaths, or "strange", original, existing, as it were, on the verge of the norm, but still included in the social system, people. These concepts are practically synonymous and designate souls with the same radical, but with different spectrums of feelings.

Psychopaths are people with an anti-social orientation. Psychopathy is a diagnosis with pronounced pathological behavior with complete preservation of thinking.

Sociopathy is a milder expression of psychopathy. If a person, despite his anti-social nature, nevertheless fits into society, is able to exist in it, but actively neglects the rules and norms, then we are dealing with sociopathy. Its classic features include charisma, high intelligence, lack of nervousness, a tendency to lies and hypocrisy, an inability to shame, repentance, empathy and love, anger, self-centeredness, a lack of morality and morality. nine0003

From the point of view of psychoanalytic theory, sociopathy is a dynamic structure of personality along with masochistic, hysterical and others. We all have a personality structure that is made up of genetic prerequisites and individual history. Also, sooner or later, we all face various injuries, but only a few receive a specific diagnosis.

Where does sociopathy come from? From a biological point of view, the hormonal apparatus of a sociopath produces less serotonin. Such a person is not able to "get enough" of communication, take the necessary emotions from it, experience empathy. To satisfy his emotional needs, he needs a completely different, stronger stimulus. In addition, such a person reacts to external stimuli more aggressively than "ordinary" people. It is his response to any potential danger. nine0003

Sometimes the development of sociopathy is influenced by childhood trauma: the child is faced with an early experience of violence, death, which leaves a mark on his psyche. At the same time, the adrenaline received once becomes a sentence for him. As a rule, in the future such a person experiences problems with trust and does not have authority.

Like the characters in Diana Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, children can be sociopathic even when they appear to be perfectly fine. They believe that they can do anything that helps them to exist comfortably. At the same time, the prohibitions of adults are perceived by them as a challenge. Gradually, a psychopath can form from such an "adrenaline" personality. nine0003

As a rule, the childhood experience of a psychopath is a hell in which total arbitrariness on the part of adults or the complete absence of laws of any norms and rules reigns. They are usually raised by an indifferent, "absent" mother, who, in turn, may have her own history of abuse, be depressed, overwork several jobs for a living, or simply be the weak-willed victim of a tyrannical husband.

If the future sociopath grows up in a relatively prosperous environment, then he has a chance to integrate into society and find not only application, but also recognition. For example, he can catch criminals, like Sherlock, or solve mysteries on the verge of life and death, like Dr. House. Sherlock, during an explanation with Moriarty, says: "I am the second you." And this is only partly a metaphor. nine0003

Still from the TV series Sherlock (Season 1 episode 3) / © BBC

A sociopath can achieve really good heights on the social ladder thanks to a developed intellect, the ability to easily overcome stress and the habit of stepping over people indifferently.

What is the portrait of a socialized sociopath? Such a person experiences absolute indifference to people and social norms. At the same time, for “ordinary” people, a set of certain rules makes the world more predictable and safe, and empathy fills it with warmth and meaning. A sociopath, on the other hand, is outside the legislative field, does not need excuses, and seeks goals from the outside. Nancy McWilliams, author of Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, notes that, conceptually, diagnosis refers to a basic lack of human attachment and adherence to very primitive defenses. nine0003

It is noteworthy that the sociopath is not insane and is able to answer for his actions. He distinguishes good from evil and understands the laws that he deliberately violates. At the same time, when committing crimes, he does not suffer from internal conflicts, since he feels absolute permissiveness.

He juggles norms with virtuosity. A sociopath may refuse to hold generally accepted holidays, accept traditional patterns of thinking, recognize himself as a citizen of a particular country, store things and photographs and honor the memory of his relatives, follow medical recommendations, comfort (he can live in a car, in a forest hut or travel on foot) . Such a person does not trust anyone or anything, she tastes everything. Of course, on your own. There are no laws for her. She offers hers to the world. nine0003

Sociopath easily endures loneliness, often changes partners. In the complete absence of empathy, the desire to create a family may arise not on a sensual, but on a pragmatic level: this is how the individual tries to better integrate into society. An example of such a type in the cinema is the already mentioned protagonist of the series "Doctor House".

© Fox

Such people attract with their eccentricity and extraordinary talents, but it is almost impossible to get along with them under one roof. It is important to remember that sociopaths themselves are not capable of building deep relationships. Adult love is built on the ability to feel the other and sympathize with the other. But for the sociopath, the environment is only a means to an end, an almost inanimate function. His relationship with others is based on exploitation. Therefore, the more pronounced the sociopathic radical, the less chance there is to create a family with such a person. nine0003

Sociopathic character can also be represented in the relative social norm. Then we are dealing with a person who does what others are not capable of. This means not only negative, but also positive, creative and even heroic deeds. He works in the war. He works where there is blood and death. Where it is dangerous, including in big business or in areas with great responsibility. He is in the sea, he is in space, he is under water and where the elements are raging.

nine0002 Sociopaths are different. They take on responsibility that is difficult for an ordinary person to take on. They walk on the other side of death and survive. Their knowledge is sacred. When faced with death, they experience neither suffering nor guilt. This is what makes them attractive.

The psychopathic type is often reflected in literature, mythology and cinema, including mass cinema. In mythology, this is the hero of the epic. The one who descended into hell and came out of it. A hero is a former warrior who is legalized by our consciousness. Our consciousness cannot stand violence and lack of norms. If someone breaks the rules and stays with us, he becomes a hero, he has a special status. At the same time, a psychopath who does not turn towards society must be punished. He is either a hero or a criminal: there is no middle ground for him. There is no warm world with a fire in the depths of a cave where children, women and old people are. nine0003

In modern mythology, which we can easily find in the Game of Thrones series, a whole clan of Lannisters has sociopathic traits. Its representatives are not tormented by their cruelty and enjoy absolute permissiveness: the murder of children, incest, the execution of their own son, the attack on their father - all this appears to them as the norm.

The whole family, to the last, is marked with a special right - the right to choose right itself. As the heroes themselves say, "Lannisters always pay." But I want to add: "If they want it." You can serve the Lannisters only for money. In the Lannister world, no one expects loyalty or love. Everything is bought and sold there. Like no one else, they master the emotional vocabulary of manipulation. nine0003

Is it possible to live in community with a sociopath? You can cooperate with him. And he can be served. You can turn your shoulder to him, but you should not expect the same in return. The goal will always belong to him, as well as the main prey. Lions are not known to be interested in the opinion of sheep. Their main psychic defense - magical thinking - makes them, in a sense, rulers.

In a global, sociological sense, the world of big business has sociopathic features, in which calculation, manipulation, cruelty and attempts to achieve a goal without any reflection rule. In everyday life, a sociopath acts in a similar way: not knowing how to feel, such a person chooses an action. And if he regrets anything, it is only that another scam failed. nine0003

No wonder the Lannister kingdom is the most comfortable of the kingdoms in Game of Thrones. These are the best lands with a pleasant climate, beautiful women and the sweetest fruits. This is the prototype of the world, which is controlled by the ideology of profit. This is a dream and at the same time a fear of ordinary normal neurotics, which include the majority. The world of a sociopath is a world in which everything is possible. But at some point, he will blow up this world as well, as the sept of Baelor was blown up.

A sociopath is able to look beyond the usual meanings, actions and goals for an ordinary person, look beyond the horizon, while people continue to sit in caves, where there is a hearth, children, old people, pink silk curtains and standard IKEA furniture. A sociopath is scary and attractive at the same time, he is both a Dragon and a Hero who defeated the Dragon. There is no place for him in the middle of the norm register, he is always on the edge, at the exit or behind the “101 kilometers”. nine0003

He has no morality, and when there are no moral laws, "Their Sparrows" always appear with their sermons. As in ancient times: a shaman is an obligatory character with a leader. It is the self-proclaimed Shaman who will take the trouble to explain to the people the shadow side of the feat and will speak with the voices of the gods, legitimizing the new right.

• Related materials
- Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism: how the "dark triad of personality" manifests itself in owls and larks
- The Nature of Trolling: Sadism and Machiavellianism
- "Hate and Container": Patrick Casement on Overcoming Destructiveness
- Elephant in the room: how schizoids see the world

On the cover: Anthony Perkins as the maniac Norman Bates from A. Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960)

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Gannibal Lester from the Main Batman - The Joker, John Kramer known as "Saw" and Norman Bates from "Psycho" - someone calls all these people psychopaths. Others use the term "sociopath". But what is the difference? Many people do not understand the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. Now we will dot the i's. nine0003

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Universal Pictures

Is Hannibal Lecter a psychopath or a sociopath? And the Joker?


A psychopath is a person suffering from a personality disorder. Psychopathy is extremely difficult to detect, as patients do not have obvious symptoms. The patient may exhibit manipulative self-serving behavior, lack concern for the safety or well-being of others, be extremely fickle, and lack empathy or conscience. nine0003


A sociopath is a person suffering from a sociopathy. Due to the large similarities in behavior, sociopaths are not always easy to distinguish from psychopaths. As a rule, sociopaths have an inflated sense of self-worth, act solely in their own interests, demonstrate superficial emotions and extremely impulsive behavior.

The nature of the disorder

Psychologists conduct numerous studies to distinguish between a sociopath and a psychopath. Some psychologists argue that psychopaths are born with a disorder, while sociopaths are made by the environment. Medical research shows that psychopaths tend to have brains that are structurally different from those of normal people. A study published in the journal Neuron found that psychopaths have impaired information processing in brain regions that are responsible for rewards. They also have a weakened connection between the part of the brain responsible for controlling actions and the part responsible for evaluating subjective value. nine0003

Sociopathy is not usually associated with changes in the structure of the brain, but with traumatic childhood experiences, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, or problems in the family. This is why sociopaths are often nervous and easily aroused. They are fickle and prone to emotional outbursts, including bouts of anger.


How to distinguish a sociopath from a psychopath? Conscience is an important component of human decision-making, especially “wrong” ones. According to Verywellmind, sociopaths have a conscience (albeit a weak one). They often make excuses for doing things they think are wrong.

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