From a clinical perspective there is no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath — the words can be used interchangeably.
For many psychologists the word sociopath and the word psychopath mean the same: that someone has an antisocial personality disorder.
People with an antisocial personality disorder typically have no regard for other people’s feelings or judgments.
They likely have a history of crime or impulsive and borderline illegal behaviour.
They see themselves as free of society’s rules and standards.
Sociopath vs psychopath
In the popular imagination, though, the word sociopath does have a different meaning from a psychopath.
People in general tend to view sociopaths as, essentially, not as bad as psychopaths.
In other words, sociopaths share many of the same traits as psychopaths, but not to the same extent.
For example, the pure psychopath is generally seen as having little empathy.
In contrast, the sociopath is thought to have some small amount of empathy and feelings of remorse.
Similarly, sociopaths are thought in the popular imagination not to be violent in comparison to psychopaths, who people imagine to be violent.
Technically, there is no truth to this.
For psychologists and clinicians these distinctions are not recognised — they would tend to talk mainly about psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder.
How to spot a sociopath vs psychopath
Most people find psychopaths or sociopaths difficult to spot; even psychologists have long argued over what it means.
But some think it all boils down to two ingredients: one side of psychopathy, or sociopathy, is all about fearless dominance and the other is all about self-centred impulsivity (Skeem et al., 2011).
It’s only when a person’s personality is fused with these two that they can truly be called a psychopath.
1. Fearless dominance
Fearless dominance is (sort of) the more ‘useful’ half of being a psychopath or sociopath.
Having fearless dominance means that psychopaths or sociopaths don’t experience anxiety and are not afraid of anyone or anything.
Far from seeming weird, psychopaths or sociopaths are charming and bold and don’t particularly care what other people think of them, unless they need to manipulate those perceptions in some way.
People high in fearless dominance are certainly not ‘mad’: they tend to be very outgoing people who are not at all neurotic.
There’s even a heroic element to fearless dominance.
Some evidence suggests that those high in fearless dominance are more likely to help stranded motorists or break up fights in public.
Perhaps as a consequence, those high on fearless dominance may be more likely to end up doing well in traditional professions, or even becoming president (see: Which Professions Have The Most Psychopaths?).
2. Self-centred impulsivity
The darker side of being a sociopath or psychopath is that they find it difficult to control their impulses.
If they want to do something, they just go ahead and do it; there’s no fear or anxiety to hold them back.
Psychopaths or sociopaths continually take risks, with no regard to the consequences.
Psychopaths or sociopaths are also usually very manipulative and likely to engage in promiscuous sexual relationships and have the potential to commit crimes (although many do not).
Psychopaths are rebellious egoists and automatically blame others for their own mistakes, which means they rarely learn from those mistakes.
Research has shown that self-centred impulsivity peaks through adolescence (perhaps suggesting parallels between psychopathy and being an adolescent!) and then settles down with maturity.
This side of psychopathy or sociopathy, though, brings with it greater risk of depression and suicide.
Personality traits of psychopaths or sociopaths
Two personality traits that are strongly linked to being a psychopath or sociopath are being disagreeable and low in conscientiousness (Decuyper et al., 2009).
People who are not conscientious are disorganised, careless, irresponsible and do not follow through on their obligations.
People like this also find it hard to resist temptation.
Disagreeable people tend to be unfriendly, cold and not tactful — rarely taking into account other people’s feelings.
Psychopaths or sociopaths are particularly low on three critical aspects of agreeableness:
- They are not straightforward: psychopaths or sociopaths are deceitful and manipulative.
- They are not compliant: psychopaths or sociopaths have strong heads, are aggressive, antagonistic and quarrelsome.
- They are not modest: psychopaths or sociopaths are arrogant, conceited, proud and vain.
Another personality trait psychopaths tend to have is high neuroticism.
They tend to be:
- Angry and hostile: psychopaths get upset very easily.
- Impulsive: psychopaths cannot resist temptations and may overeat or indulge themselves in other ways.
Psychopaths or sociopaths also show one aspect of high extraversion, which is that they seek out excitement.
However, unlike many extraverts they are not warm — instead they are interpersonally cold and emotionless.
Spot a psychopath or sociopath
Psychopathy or sociopathy isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision, it exists on a sliding scale like other personality traits.
But some combination of these elements—the fearless dominance and self-centred impulsivity and other personality traits—together are what make a psychopath.
It may be that their relative balance, one to the other, is what determines how successful they can be in everyday life.
Their fearless dominance may help them succeed in some areas while their self-centred impulsivity brings them down.
Treating psychopaths or sociopaths
Historically, personality disorders were considered difficult to treat.
More recently, though, psychologists have found that personality disorders can get better.
Time can slowly remedy personality disorders, even without treatment, research shows.
That could be individual therapy, group therapy, self-help and/or medication.
Personality disorders, like other aspects of personality are amenable to change.
Personality may determine who we are now, but not necessarily who we can become.