So many people use these words interchangeably when talking about people who commit heinous crimes. The question always comes up in conversation: What is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?
They are both under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the DSM 5. The distinct difference is that sociopaths can have attachments to people and CAN (not always) feel guilty after they have committed heinous crimes. Psychopaths feel little to no guilt or remorse and feel no attachment to others.
Differences between psychopathy and sociopathy, aside from origin, have been cited. The capacity to feel attachment and empathy towards another and to feel guilt and shame after doing something wrong is not associated with psychopathy; however it is suggested that sociopaths can emotionally attach to others, and feel badly when they hurt those individuals that they are attached to. The sociopath will still lack empathy and attachment toward the greater society and will not feel guilt in harming a stranger, or rebelling against laws, but does not lack empathy entirely, as is typical with the psychopath.
Therefore, both psychopaths and sociopaths are capable of committing heinous crimes; however, the psychopath would commit crimes against family members or “friends” (as well as strangers) and feel little to no remorse.
The last main difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is in the presentation. The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.
Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have “normal temperaments.” The sociopath will lie, manipulate and hurt others, just as the psychopath would, but will often avoid doing so to the select few people they care about, and will likely feel guilty should they end up hurting someone they care about.
So, while these two terms seem interchangeable on the surface because they share many of the same characteristics, they are more like two sides of the same coin. Looking at the differences may seem futile; however, looking at psychopathy and sociopathy as different constructs may prove to be helpful in understanding the etiology of these disorders, and in the development of effective treatment methods.
Hare, R.D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of psychopaths among us. New York: Pocket Books.
Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books.
Walsh, A., & Wu, H.H. (2008). Differentiating antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy: Evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and sociological considerations. Criminal Justice Studies, 2, 135-152.