Brain and Body

Explainer: What’s the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

March 10, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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The two terms are often confused.

Sociopath, psychopath — just terms to describe a crazy person, right?

Although they’re often confused or grouped together, “psychopath” and “sociopath” actually signify very different traits and behaviors in people.

First off, one of the key differences between psychopaths and sociopaths is the existence of a conscience, or the voice inside of us that recognizes when we’re doing something wrong.

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L. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, told WebMD that a psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. A psychopath can lie, cheat, steal, harm others, and even kill without feeling any moral repercussions — although he or she may pretend to. According to Tompkins, psychopaths may observe others and try to act the way they do in order to avoid being “found out.”

Sociopaths, on the other hand, do have a conscience, although it’s a weak one. While he or she may know that stealing your money, for example, is wrong, and even might feel some guilt or remorse, that ultimately won’t stop the behavior.

What about empathy? According to Aaron Kipnis, a clinical psychologist and author of The Midas Complex, both psychopaths and sociopaths lack empathy, or the ability to put themselves in the position of others and understand how they feel. However, a psychopath has less regard for others than a sociopath, Kipnis says. Psychopaths see others as mere objects to use for his or her own benefit.

Although popular movies and crime TV shows often depict psychopaths or sociopaths as the evil people who kill and torture others, Kipnis says this isn’t always the case in real life. While some psychopaths can be violent, it’s more likely for psychopaths and sociopaths to manipulate others to get what they want — especially in the workplace.

According to Tompkins, it’s much easier to spot a sociopath than a psychopath. Psychopaths can be charming, intelligent, and highly skilled at pretending to care about you or be interested in you. In reality, they don’t care, Tompkins says.

“They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” he told WebMD.

On the contrary, sociopaths are pretty upfront about the fact that they don’t care about anyone but themselves. They often act on impulse without thinking how their actions will affect others, and then they’ll fabricate excuses for their behavior or blame others.

Finally, Kipnis says that the brains of psychopaths aren’t like other people’s, and even basic bodily functions differ. For instance, seeing a bloody, violent scene in a movie causes most people to react with increased heart rates, quicker breathing, and maybe even sweaty palms. For psychopaths, however, it’s the opposite — he or she gets calmer, Kipnis says, and this is the quality that helps psychopaths engage in fearless behaviors.

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“They don’t fear the consequences of their actions,” he says.

So while psychopaths and sociopaths have some similarities, they have major underlying differences.

While the terms are often used in psychology, you won’t find them in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and doctors don’t diagnose people as “psychopaths” or “sociopaths.” Instead, they’ll use the term antisocial personality disorder.

Psychopathy is one of the traits in the “Dark Triad” of personality. Curious how dark your personality is? Take the quiz here


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