Published On: August 30, 2022
Reviewed On: April 8, 2022
Updated On: November 2, 2023
While people sometimes use the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangeably, these conditions are actually quite different in a number of ways. For example, those with sociopath tendencies can have emotional outbursts and form attachments, while those with psychopathic behaviors tend to lack emotion and empathy completely. Learning that there’s a difference between psychopath and sociopath behavior can help you better understand these conditions.
The variations between a sociopath vs psychopath may not seem clear at first, but the conditions are less similar than you might think. Both of these conditions can lead to harmful behavior, but they are each distinct in a number of ways. Keep reading to learn more about the similarities and differences between sociopathy and psychopathy.
Both sociopathy and psychopathy are forms of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This disorder is characterized by:
It’s common for people with both conditions to engage in behaviors that cause harm to those around them.
Symptoms of both conditions typically appear during the early teenage years, but according to some research, they can appear earlier. We also know that even though ASPD is a lifelong condition, it’s common for symptoms to improve as a person enters adulthood.
Psychopathy and sociopathy can both increase risk of violent behavior, but it’s not an intrinsic part of either condition. While those with ASPD might harm others, they’re also at increased risk for self-harm. In either case, early treatment can greatly reduce the risk of dangerous or harmful behavior, but any type of treatment must be carefully administered depending on specific cases.
So what’s the difference between psychopath and sociopath behavior? Although these conditions are both forms of ASPD, they’re not identical. When you examine them closely, you’ll find differences in symptoms and in their causes.
Since sociopathy and psychopathy are both forms of antisocial personality disorder, there are a number of overlapping symptoms, including disregard for social norms and manipulating others. However, when comparing sociopathy vs psychopathy, you’ll also notice many symptoms that are distinct.
Expert Insight“Individuals who are sociopaths are often volatile. They’re manipulative and have difficulty forming attachments to others. Psychopaths can be a danger to others because of their lack of empathy or remorse. Therapy can help these individuals develop healthier ways of managing relationships.”
Individuals exhibiting sociopathy tend to be highly emotional and frequently experience emotional outbursts or mood swings. While those with sociopathy will engage in harmful behaviors, they typically try to rationalize their behavior in some way. Someone with sociopathy may be impulsive and struggle to keep feelings of rage in check, which can result in violent tendencies.
Those with psychopathy tendencies may pretend to care about others, but are unable to form a real emotional bond. Unlike sociopathy, people with psychopathy experience very little emotion and may present themselves as normal to conceal criminal behavior. Psychopathic behavior can cause someone to be cold, and they may have difficulty identifying emotional distress in others. In short, they lack empathy.
One of the most common psychopath traits is mimicking the actions of people around them. Since psychopathic individuals can learn from others and mirror their behaviors, they can be very charming and pleasant to interact with.
Experts don’t know exactly what causes ASPD, but evidence suggests that there are differences in the causes for sociopathy and psychopathy. These causal differences are some of the most significant variations you’ll notice when comparing sociopath vs psychopath behavior patterns.
Expert Insight“Psychopathic behavior often results more from genetics or a congenital injury, whereas sociopathy is more from environmental factors.”
It’s likely that genetics plays a role in sociopathy, but it isn’t caused by genes alone. People who show sociopathic behavior have often experienced childhood trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. Experts believe that certain individuals have a genetic risk for sociopathy and environmental factors could be a trigger for the condition.
It’s thought that genetics and biology are the primary cause of psychopathy. People who show psychopathic behavior have differences in the structure of their brain that can lead to functional impairments. Someone with psychopathy might have a diminished fear response as well as deformations in a part of the brain known as the amygdala.
Typically, most people who present symptoms of either condition will be evaluated for antisocial personality disorder. During the diagnostic process, a mental health professional may further evaluate someone to differentiate between psychopaths vs sociopaths.
Expert Insight“Both psychopaths and sociopaths are types of antisocial personality disorders. Antisocial personality disorders often disregard societal rules and violate the rights of others. Therapy helps these individuals gain more insight into their negative patterns of behavior.”
There is no clinical test for sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder. Instead, a professional will consider behaviors and thoughts when making a diagnosis. The term sociopath is frequently used by mental health providers, but it’s not considered to be an official diagnosis.
Psychopathy has been described as a more severe and violent form of antisocial personality disorder, but it’s also not a formal diagnosis. People who show symptoms of psychopathy might be diagnosed with ASPD. A professional may identify someone with ASPD as psychopathic if they have difficulty recognizing facial expressions or have minimal reaction to punishment.
While you’ll find clear differences when comparing a sociopath vs psychopath, both conditions can be very difficult to treat. It’s rare for anyone who exhibits sociopathy or psychopathy to be able to see any problems with their own behavior. However, both therapy and medication may be used in treatment.
Since those with sociopathy struggle with their emotions, therapists may work with someone to improve emotional regulation. People with sociopathic tendencies struggle with a lack of empathy, but studies suggest that, in general, empathy can be developed over time. Mood stabilizers and stimulants can help to control emotional outbursts and impulsiveness.
For those with psychopathy, treatment is often focused on reducing violence and criminal behaviors. Individuals are more likely to show symptoms in childhood, which means they may start treatment earlier in life. Antipsychotics and mood stabilizers may also be used to reduce aggression.
If you or a loved one has shown symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, it’s critical to seek help. A professional can provide a diagnosis and help you to understand the differences between psychopaths vs sociopaths. While there’s not a cure for either of these conditions, treatment can be a way to improve and manage symptoms. You should also consult with a professional to distinguish other mental health conditions, such as in the case of discerning between a sociopath vs narcissist.
You might also want to consider therapy if you have someone with ASPD in your life. A therapist can help you make sense of your loved one’s behaviors and can give you the tools you need to care for your own mental health. Don’t hesitate to reach out and seek the support that you need.
If you think you could benefit from the help of a therapist, Talkspace is an option for therapy and psychiatry. Our platform offers accessible and convenient online therapy that can help you address conditions like sociopathy and psychopathy, so you can live a healthier, happier, more rewarding life.
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Bisma Anwar is the Team Lead for the Talkspace Council of Mental Health Experts. A major focus in her work has been anxiety management and helping her clients develop healthy coping skills, reduce stress and prevent burnout. She serves on the board of a non-profit organization based in NYC called The Heal Collective which promotes advocacy and awareness of mental health issues in BIPOC communities.