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Psychopaths and Sociopaths: What's the Difference?

They're similar, but different.
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Many people are familiar with the words psychopath and sociopath and are often cavalier about using them in everyday conversation. Because we mostly hear them said in movies and TV shows, we have some idea about what they mean, but in reality, people often use the word sociopath when they really mean psychopath, and vice versa.

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So what’s the difference? 

It’s important to understand that, because there has been so many studies, on the subject, figuring out what makes one different from the other becomes a matter of citing a specific source.

Defining psychopaths and sociopaths

In the book The Sociopath’s Playbook: The Quintessential Guide to Navigating the Sociopathically Adjusted Playing Field, Paul Conlon quotes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of a sociopath:

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- “someone who behaves in a dangerous or violent way towards other people and does not feel guilty about such behavior.”

Meanwhile, a psychopath is defined as:

- “a person who is mentally ill, who does not care about other people, and who is usually dangerous or violent…affected with antisocial personality disorder.”

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Finally, Conlon also presents the Merriam-Webster definition of antisocial personality disorder:

- “personality disorder that is characterized by antisocial behavior exhibiting pervasive disregard for and violation of the rights, feelings, and safety of others…that is often marked by a lack of remorse for having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from others…called also psychopathic personality disorder.”

So going by the dictionary definition, Conlon writes that “the antisocial personality disorder definition links back to the term psychopath, just as the term psychopath indirectly mirrors the definition of the term sociopath—bringing all three terms full circle as inextricably linked and united to represent a related concept.”

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Conlon acknowledges the fact that some experts believe the terms sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable, “while others believe the psychopath may be more identifiably violent.

- “Some have suggested that psychopaths lack consciences altogether while sociopaths possess consciences that are very weak.

- “Moreover, some believe that behavioral distinction may be made that identifies psychopaths as more subtly and cunningly manipulative, whereas a sociopath’s behaviors and motives may display much more obvious and identifiable self-interest.

Conlon also mentions the distinction of the word psychopath as “reflective of an actual criminal, often a violent murderer, whereas a sociopath represents an individual with a dormant potential to engage in criminal activity.

“Still another distinction appears to modify the aforementioned one, which identifies the sociopath as criminally capable like a psychopath but perhaps dangerous to a lesser extent than the psychopath.

“And in regard to origin of the disorder, some believe sociopathy to be a learned behavior and psychopathy to be a matter of genetics or possibly brain dysfunction.”

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Famous sociopaths and psychopaths

Defining what sociopaths and psychopaths are is all well and good, but there;s no better way to illustrate who they are and what they can do than identifying actual, real-world examples—or, at the very least, point to some fictional ones.

1| Psychopath (real life): Ted Bundy

There’s no shortage of information about one of the most notorious serial killers in history. Bundy killed at least 30 people and reportedly took great pleasure in committing thos murders. Acknowledged “father of psychopathy” Hervey Cleckley interviewed Bundy and diagnised him as a psychopath.

2| Psychopath (fiction): Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

In a study of 400 movies from 1915 to 2010, a team of psychiatrists identified the killer in No Country for Old Men, portrayed by Javier Bardem as the “most realistic psychopath. 

"He seems to be effectively invulnerable and resistant to any form of emotion or humanity," the researchers wrote.

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3| Sociopath (real life): Anna Sorokin aka Anna Delvey

She lived a high-profile lifestyle in New York, allegedly as a German heiress. She shopped at luxury stores, went to the city’s biggest parties, and lived in a pricey New York City loft apartment. But the fantasy all came crashing down when it was discovered that she was faking it the whole time. She wasn’t a German heiress but a Russian immigrant who scammed people so she could live a lavish lifestyle. Raachel Williams, a former friend of Sorokin who has written a abook about their experiences together, said Anna was a sociopath. 

4| Sociopath (fiction): Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock

In the BBC series Sherlock, the title character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) refers to himself as a “high-functioning sociopath.”

“He cares little for social regard, is quick to anger when people cannot keep up with his fast-paced brain and is unable to make relationships work except with the very tolerant Watson,” according to Psychologized.org.

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In summary: Psychopaths vs Sociopaths

According to an article in Psychology Today, sociopaths and psychopaths share these four traits:

- A disregard for laws and social mores

- A disregard for the rights of others

- A failure to feel remorse or guilt

- A tendency to display violent behavior

However, sociopaths generally:

- Are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage

- Are likely to be uneducatedand live on the fringes of society

- Are unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for too long

- Find it difficult but not impossible to fomr attachments with others

In addition, any crimes committed by a sociopath, including murder, will tend to be haphazard, disorganized and spontaneous rather than planned.

Meanwhile, psychopaths generally:

Are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities.

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Are extremely manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust.

Are able to learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them and will appear normal to unsuspecting people.

Are often well educated and hold steady jobs.

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.

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When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place, Psychology Today says. 

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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