The "difference" between a sociopath and a psychopath (and why "difference" is in quotes)

If you’re confused about the difference between the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath,” you’re not alone. Even folks within the psychiatric community have come to various and sometimes conflicting conclusions when discussing the differences between a sociopath and a psychopath. And then there are many who use the terms interchangeably. The most conclusive article I could find on differentiating between the two is this article on Psychology Today. The author sums up the supposed main differences in these two paragraphs:


“Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. In the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear to be very disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath, including murder, will tend to be haphazard, disorganized and spontaneous rather than planned.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.”


Personally, this differentiation makes me very nervous. It seems to be saying that a sociopath is a mentally ill/disturbed individual but that he can, in fact, form attachments with other people. This doesn’t sit well with me for a number of reasons. Primarily, I don’t like equating the term “sociopath” with mental illness or a “disturbed” individual. I realize that people like this do absolutely exist – mentally ill individuals that “go off” and commit haphazard, spontaneous crimes. But I strongly disagree that the term “sociopath” is fitting of these types of people.


I find it extremely implausible that there are two types of people who feel no empathy and have no conscience, but that one of them can be categorized as “disturbed," “nervous and easily agitated,” and the other as stone-cold manipulators who know exactly what they’re doing (more or less the second paragraph which defines a “psychopath”). For that reason, I tend to be in the camp of people who use the terms interchangeably. Or, if the psychiatric community is going to insist on differentiating between the two terms in this specific way, then I would always use the term “psychopath” when talking about someone who does not feel empathy and fits the majority of traits on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised.


There is another popular belief that a psychopath is by definition a violent offender. I also strongly disagree with this. It is my belief that anyone on the psychopathy spectrum could commit violence without any feelings of guilt or remorse, but many psychopathic individuals just don't have the "taste" for violence and prefer to inflict emotional pain. In other words, many psychopaths may not be "bloodthirsty" per se, but still enjoy, and get off on, the destruction of others' lives. In this article in The New Yorker, the author sums it up quite nicely while interviewing Robert Hare (a leading expert on psychopathy):  "Hare rejects the notion that a distinction ought to be made between a violent psychopath, like Ted Bundy, and a nonviolent one who commits financial crimes. Both, he said, are willing to do whatever it takes. He [Hare] went on, 'Can you say Ted Bundy caused more disaster than the guys at Enron? How many destroyed lives and suicides followed as a result of so many people losing their savings?'"


I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the majority of you reading right now, who have come into contact with a “sociopath/psychopath” probably identify much more with the second paragraph about psychopaths (charming as hell? Check. Absolutely did not suspect his true nature? Check. Appeared Normal? Appeared sweet and loving? Appeared as the goddamn perfect man? Check check check.)

In conclusion, I will probably use the word “psychopath” more frequently than the word “sociopath” on this blog, but if I do use the term “sociopath” I am referring to someone with no empathy, no conscience, and absolutely no moral compass – not a mentally ill or disturbed individual who doesn’t quite understand what he/she’s doing but acts out in the heat of the moment.