The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are often used interchangeably to refer to people who are pathologically prone to hurting others, engaging in violence or criminal behavior and have no regard for the feelings or interests of others.
There is no major clinical difference between sociopaths and psychopaths. Both are classified as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a category of personality disorders that includes persistent negative behaviors.
While sociopaths and psychopaths share many traits (lack of guilt, charisma, manipulation, etc.), several studies have shown that psychopaths may exhibit more severe negative behaviors than sociopaths.
Do they have a conscience?
Sociopaths are more likely to know what they’re doing is wrong but have a weak moral compass that doesn’t cause them to stop their bad behavior. Psychopaths, on the other hand, have been found not to have a conscience at all.
Are they violent?
Both sociopaths and psychopaths can be violent. Sociopaths may not always get physically violent, whereas psychopaths have a greater tendency to get aggressive and commit serious crimes that are punishable by law.
Similarly, while sociopaths can cause harm to others, it may not always be serious. The harm caused by psychopaths tends to be more severe and put others in danger.
Are they born or made?
Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths tend to be born (likely a genetic predisposition), and that psychopathy may be related to physiological brain differences.
Sociopaths, however, are often made by their environment, although psychopaths may also have suffered some sort of childhood trauma contributing to their condition.
Are they impulsive?
Sociopaths tend to be more erratic in their behavior as compared to psychopaths. Unlike psychopaths, they may be unable to hold down long-term jobs or present much of normal family life to the outside world. When a sociopath commits a crime, it is usually impulsive and unplanned, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions.
Crimes committed by psychopaths, by contrast, are usually planned and have a pattern. This is why serial killers are often labeled as psychopaths, as many of them can appear normal and even charming on the outside while being cold-hearted and calculating on the inside.
How can you tell if someone is a sociopath or psychopath?
When the DSM–5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) diagnostic criteria are considered, sociopaths and psychopaths share all symptoms, with a few symptoms being more severe in psychopaths.
For someone to be diagnosed with ASPD, at least three of the following seven traits must be present over an extended period:
- Lack of respect for social norms or laws and the tendency to break laws
- Constantly lie, deceive and manipulate others, or use false identities or nicknames for personal gain
- Don’t make any long-term plans and act without thinking of consequences
- Exhibit aggressive or aggravated behavior causing mental or physical harm to others
- Not concerned about their safety or the safety of others
- Don’t keep their word and or follow through on personal or professional responsibilities
- Lack of guilt, remorse, empathy or sympathy after hurting or mistreating others
Other possible signs and symptoms include:
- Being cold and rude
- Not showing emotions
- Using humor, intelligence or charisma to manipulate others
- Feeling a sense of superiority and feeling invisible
- Not learning from mistakes
- Unable to maintain positive friendships and relationships
- Prefer being isolated
- Intimidating or threatening others
- Trying to control others
- Committing crime and facing legal consequences frequently
- Threatening to commit suicide
- Substance abuse (addicted to drugs, alcohol or other substances)
- Being aggressive toward animals by hurting or killing them
To receive a diagnosis of ASPD, the individual must be over 18 years of age. Both psychopaths and sociopaths may go their entire lives without a diagnosis, while causing pain to the people around them.
Sometimes, people who exhibit selfish behavior are labeled as sociopathic or psychopathic. However, this is not sufficient to diagnose someone with ASPD. A diagnosis can be made only when the symptoms are persistent for an extended period and don’t change because of punishment or lifestyle changes. A selfish person may exhibit certain behaviors of a sociopath or psychopath for a short while, but they may have a conscience and moral compass that makes them feel bad about their behavior and then change.
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