What is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?

Psychopath or Sociopath: What's the Difference?

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Written by Lydia Kloeckner • Medical editor

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Ruthlessness, a willingness to use violence, a lack of empathy: all of these are typical of psychopaths - and sociopaths. Learn how psychopaths and sociopaths differ. We also explain what makes a "highly functional sociopath" and what the difference is between psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.

Psychopaths and sociopaths differ mainly in

  • their ability to feel and
  • their relationship with fellow human beings.

While sociopaths usually still have a certain amount of empathy, psychopaths sometimes have no empathy at all. The Austrian psychologist Werner Stangl describes psychopaths as cold-feeling, but charming and manipulative enough to build superficial relationships. They are therefore often well integrated into society and successful in their jobs.

Sociopaths, on the other hand, have feelings but are unable to control them. Because of their impulsiveness and aggressiveness, they fail to establish or maintain bonds.

Psychopath and sociopath at the same time Is that possible?

Yes and no: A psychopath is always a sociopath, but a sociopath is not necessarily a psychopath. Sociopathy is another term used for antisocial personality disorder. Psychopathy is a particularly severe form of this disorder. Hence, one could say in a simplified way: Psychopaths are hard-core sociopaths.

Psychopaths and sociopaths are similar in many ways. Above all, both lack empathy. However, this deficiency is far more pronounced in psychopaths than in sociopaths.

Sociopath & "highly functional" sociopath

Sociopathy is another term for what is known as antisocial or antisocial personality disorder. The affected

  • have noticeably little empathy,
  • disregard social rules and obligations,
  • are unable to enter into and maintain long-term relationships,
  • are irritable, can be easily upset and quickly become aggressive,
  • tend to be violent,
  • have little guilt and do not learn from punishment.

This disorder usually shows up in childhood or early adolescence. Why and how exactly it develops is not clear. Researchers suspect that various influences play a role, including hereditary predisposition, upbringing and dysfunction in certain areas of the brain.

"Highly Functional" Sociopath: What Does That Mean?

"I'm not a psychopath. I'm a highly functional sociopath!" clarifies the detective Sherlock Holmes in the well-known BBC series annoyed several times. Why Sherlock cannot be a psychopath is obvious: he is arrogant, rude and clumsy in dealing with other people. But he is also capable of deep feelings, for example for his friend and colleague Watson.

However, Sherlock does not explain in the series what exactly is meant by "highly functional". (Instead, he asks his counterpart to do some research.) Presumably he means that his social skills are sufficient not to have to "live on the edge of society" as he did according to psychologist Werner Stangl typical of sociopaths.

How do you recognize psychopaths?

For the diagnosis there is a test based on the psychopathy checklist of the Canadian criminal psychologist Robert D. Hare. According to this checklist (or the updated version of this list) you can recognize a typical psychopath by the following characteristics:

  • He takes advantage of others and is calculating.
  • He is eloquent and can win over others through superficial charm.
  • He has a significantly exaggerated self-esteem and tends to overestimate himself.
  • He lies, cheats and manipulates.
  • He is emotionally cold, only capable of superficial feelings and has little or no empathy.
  • He lacks a sense of guilt or remorse.
  • He is not ready or able to take responsibility for his actions.
  • He acts impulsively and cannot control his behavior adequately.
  • He is constantly bored and has a constant need for exciting experiences.
  • He does not pursue realistic, long-term goals in life.
  • His partnerships are short-lived or he has several partners at the same time.

Even people without a personality disorder can show some of these characteristics. Psychopathy is not diagnosed until most of these characteristics are present in some form.

Difference Between Psychopath, Sociopath & Narcissist

In everyday life, the three terms are often used synonymously as a swear word for inconsiderate and cold-feeling people. From a psychological point of view, this is wrong. Behind sociopathy, psychopathy and pathological narcissism there are two different disorders, namely

  • the dissocial personality disorder and
  • the narcissistic personality disorder.

Sociopaths and psychopaths are people with antisocial personality disorder. Sociopathy is another term for this disorder. Psychopathy is a severe form of sociopathy.

Narcissists don't necessarily have a mental health disorder. Narcissism is a personality trait that manifests itself in excessive self-love and vanity. But the property itself is not yet pathological. A person is only diagnosed with "narcissistic personality disorder" if the narcissism is very strong.

There are certainly similarities between psychopaths and pathological narcissists: Narcissists also typically behave recklessly and manipulatively. Like psychopaths, they tend to have an exploitative relationship style, that is, to take advantage of those around them.

However, there are two characteristics that are usually more pronounced in psychopaths than in pathological narcissists:

  • their lack of empathy
  • their unscrupulousness

Online information from the Pschyrembel: www.pschyrembel.de (accessed: August 12, 2020)

Online information from the online lexicon for psychology and pedagogy by psychologist Werner Stangl: lexikon.stangl.eu (accessed: August 12, 2020)

Möller, H., et al .: Dual Series. Psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy. Thieme, Stuttgart 2015

Last content check:12.08.2020
Last change: 24.08.2020