Psychopath vs. Sociopath: what is the difference?

We all know the terms, psychopath and sociopath, but do we know what they truly mean? It’s a common misconception that they are words you can use interchangeably, but after reading these facts you will learn that these disorders vary in very significant ways. In fact, many sources say one is more severe than the other. So, what is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?

In order to get a general idea of what any of these terms mean, we must start by looking at none other than their dictionary definition. First off, psychopathy is defined as “a mental disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.” as stated in

Ted Bundy, a well- known serial killer is believed to have been a psychopath due to the charm he used to lure his victims.

On the other hand, a sociopath is described as “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.” In the medical world, both these words are not utilized. Instead, people who have any of the symptoms or characteristics listed above are diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). While doctors treat psychopathy and sociopathy as generally indistinguishable, the ideas expressed in psychology regarding this subject are totally different. Rather, psychologists believe that psychopaths have additional traits that are not classified under ASPD.

Robert Hare, a Canadian psychopathy expert explains that the prevalence rate of this disorder is about 1%. He also elucidates that individuals who have this condition have core traits that are not involved within the current diagnostic criteria of people who have Antisocial Personality Disorder. The characteristics of people with ASPD include lack of morality, constant lying for exploitation, being cynical, disrespectful, and arrogant, easy to irritate, aggressive, and irresponsible. In addition to this, they disobey laws, use manipulation for self-amusement, and have no guilt for their actions. While psychopaths do correspond to each of these qualities, it is not accurate to directly put them under this category. 

It is not equivalent to the diagnosis Antisocial Personality Disorder, which concentrates only on the increased risk for antisocial behavior and not a specific cause—i.e., the reduced empathy and guilt that constitutes the emotional deficit.

R. James R. Blaire. Ph.D. in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience

ASPD centralizes more on behavior. On the other hand, psychopathy consists of a group of core personality traits that are additionally included in a source known as the Psychopathy Checklist- Revised published by Robert Hare in 2003. This document uses a scale, specific personality traits, and behaviors observed by evaluating psychopathy in criminal populations. Today, court systems by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and others use it to confirm if an individual is in fact, a psychopath since it is so rare. For now, clinical reports should not include the word “psychopath” but instead “psychopathic traits”. 

Robert Hare published the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised in 1991 and second revision in 2003.

Many view sociopathy and psychopathy as very closely related which is due to the American Psychiatric Association in the mid 1900s. This organization used the diagnosis of Sociopathic Personality Disturbance from 1952 to 1968 for someone who identified all the traits now listed under ASPD. However, we now know that the term “sociopath” should not be utilized at all when referring to a report listing the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of a patient. In other words, sociopath is not considered a clinical term since it is not validated by the APA anymore or other credible health professionals like Hare. The Psychopathy Checklist- Revised even advises doctors, nurses, physicians, etc. to eliminate it from their minds completely. So, are we asking the right question of whether a psychopath or sociopath is worse?

I think that the better and more correct inquiry is “Is being diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder worse than being identified as a psychopath?” In that case, given the fact that there is a whole other document used to reassert someone with psychopathy, ASPD is doubtlessly less severe. The answer even lies in the prevalence rate of this disorder. It ranges from 2% to 4% in men and 0.5% to 1% for women. Although, not by a lot, psychopathy is even more rare than ASPD since it has a set of supplementary traits that are not recorded with people who have Antisocial Personality Disorder. 

The definition of psychopathy itself — what it is, what it is not — is one of the most fundamental questions for psychological science.

Jennifer Skeem. Ph.D.

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