The words “psychopath” and “sociopath” are triggering. Both call to mind something unrestrained and maybe even dangerous. We hear them in reference to everything from serial killers to politicians, the two terms seeming interchangeable at times when in fact, they hold two different meanings. So, what is the difference between someone who is diagnosed as a psychopath and someone who is diagnosed as a sociopath? Much of it comes down to how they interact with others.
A psychopath is someone who lacks empathy for others but comes across as charming. Their callous personality allows them to manipulate others, all while maintaining an awareness that their behavior is wrong but not caring that it’s wrong. In order to keep up the appearance of fitting in with society, many psychopaths have learned to mimic the emotional responses that “normal” humans display in the same situations. It should also come as no surprise that psychopaths are almost always narcissists.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, tend to behave more timidly and are less charismatic. In fact, antisocial personality disorder is the official diagnostic term for those who are more commonly known as sociopaths. Unlike psychopaths, sociopaths are capable of forming deep emotional bonds, though they are also capable of reckless behavior, consistent lying, and physical aggression. A sociopath may feel deep guilt over harming someone who is close to them but will experience no remorse when it comes to hurting a stranger.
The designation of “sociopath” is only given to adults, but by the age of 15, the person must have already had repeated law violations, shown disregard for the safety of themselves or others, and consistently displayed irresponsibility in family and work situations.
Both personality disorders have been widely studied, especially among criminal populations. Sadly, both conditions are likely usually caused by childhood trauma or abuse, but psychologists are hesitant to pinpoint an exact cause. Though it is rare that someone suffering from either disorder would seek treatment on their own, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has shown some results.
So, the next time you hear someone call their boss a “psychopath,” take a pause and ask yourself if he’s actually a sociopath instead. And remember that, like all mental health disorders, treatment and diagnosis is always best left to the professionals.