The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used a lot in today’s popular culture. There are tons of references to these psychological illnesses in TV shows, movies, and even music; some of the most popular examples even feature main characters who claim to be a psychopath or a sociopath. The term “psycho” is used to describe anything that is exaggerated or out of the ordinary. But, in terms of mental health and medicine, what exactly is psychopathy? What makes a psychopath, what makes a sociopath, and how are these things different?
Here is some general information about both psychopaths and sociopaths, the mental health issues underlying their psychopathy, and the key ways to differentiate between a sociopath and a psychopath.
Antisocial Personality Disorder: The Common Ground
The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are both used to describe people who are suffering from antisocial personality disorder. Like most other mental illnesses, there are specific and officially accepted diagnosis guidelines that explain and specify exactly who is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. These symptoms and features are laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5).
According to DSM-5, the elements for the diagnosis of a person with antisocial personality disorder include the following:
- Disregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub-features:
- Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in a criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
- Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
- Impulsive behavior
- Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
- Blatantly disregards the safety of self and others,
- A pattern of irresponsibility and
- Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
The other diagnostic criteria are:
- The person is at least age 18,
- Conduct disorder was present by history before age 15
- and the antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
In short, antisocial personality disorder occurs only in adults who show behaviors that largely benefit themselves, even when it is to the severe detriment of others. They disregard the fallout of their actions, as long as they’re doing what they want to get what they want. This is combined with destructive patterns of behavior that start in adolescents and continue into adulthood. Of course, all of these symptoms and patterns must be taken together and analyzed by a mental health professional in order to result in a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. The psychologist or psychiatrist will also rule out schizophrenia or bipolar disorder before issuing a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.
In fact, psychologists don’t diagnose people as a psychopath or a sociopath. Rather, they diagnose antisocial personality disorder, and the differences between a sociopath and a psychopath speak for themselves from there.
Traits Specific to Psychopaths
The biggest indicator that sets a psychopath apart from a sociopath, even though they’re both technically under the penumbra of antisocial personality disorder, is the lack of a conscience. The conscience is often described as the little voice in a person’s head that helps to guide their moral decision-making. In the case of a psychopath, this little voice may be silent, which means that the psychopath has no real moral guidance and makes reckless and immoral decisions without any regard to how it will affect those around them.
Another thing that makes a psychopath different from a sociopath is that it’s not always clear to spot that they’re a psychopath. For example, a psychopath is often extremely skilled as an actor and manipulator. They always have their interests and goals in the front of their minds, and they’re willing to manipulate and even hurt people in order to achieve those goals and desires. They may even resort to violence in order to get what they want, although violence isn’t necessarily a key component or indicator of psychopathy. So, a psychopath’s intentions usually stay hidden, and the psychopath is able to keep these intentions concealed through their masterful ability to manipulate those around them.
Traits Specific to Sociopaths
There are a few traits that really set a sociopath apart from a psychopath. The most notable is the presence of justification of “bad” behavior or actions that might cause others pain or problems. Where a psychopath might continue in patterns of harmful behavior even though they know it’s wrong and destructive, a sociopath will often construct excuses or narratives to justify their actions. Sociopaths will come up with reasons why their actions might actually be fine, even though they’re hurting others with their behavior.
The other big indicator that sets a sociopath apart from a psychopath is the fact that they have a much harder time hiding their antisocial personality disorder. Where a psychopath can easily conceal their intentions and manipulations, a sociopath is often seen as lashing out or acting brashly. Others around them can see clearly that the sociopath is acting recklessly and without regard for those around them. So, where a psychopath might seem cool and collected and easily mislead and manipulate people, a sociopath will usually be perceived as prone to outbursts or particularly brash.
This is what leads people to ask “Are sociopaths dangerous?” On the whole sociopathic behavior can be dangerous, but at least it can be seen in advance. On the other hand, psychopathic behavior can be considered more dangerous than sociopathic behavior because it is often more insidious and harder to spot.
If you’re curious to know if you’re exhibiting the features of a sociopath, or if you suspect that you might be prone to sociopathic tendencies, you can check out this sociopath quiz. With this quiz, you can identify some of the indicators that might point to your being a sociopath. Either way, you’ll also be able to find out more about easily accessible mental health resources online!
Causes of Antisocial Personality Disorder
Mental health professionals and researchers aren’t sure what exactly causes antisocial personality disorder, although there are several theories about what the cause or causes could be. There have been some links shown between genetics and family history with antisocial personality disorder. That is, people whose parents have suffered from antisocial personality disorder are more likely to develop it themselves. There’s also been a connection shown between antisocial personality disorder and trauma, especially trauma experienced for long periods of time during childhood. This could include an unstable or abusive home life or time in prison during adolescents or young adulthood.
On the whole, men are much more likely than women to develop antisocial personality disorder. It’s still not known as to why this is the case, though. Other triggers or warnings from a person’s childhood that could point or lead to antisocial personality disorder include setting fires or cruelty to animals. These behaviors in childhood seem to be linked to antisocial personality disorder rather closely.
So, while there is no known, concrete cause of antisocial personality disorder, there are several patterns that emerge. Those who suffer from antisocial personality disorder – including psychopaths and sociopaths – often exhibit similar conditions in their childhood, and many of them have a family history of psychopathy. For this reason, the causes of antisocial personality disorder are considered to be both genetic and environmental.
Treatment for Antisocial Personality Disorder
Antisocial personality disorder is usually treated through intensive therapy. It is considered to be quite difficult to treat, and it often requires a lot of time, effort, and resources on the part of both the patient and the therapist. The key to effective treatment for antisocial personality disorder is the patient’s willingness to participate in the therapy. In many cases of antisocial personality disorder, the patient doesn’t believe that they have a mental health issue, and so they aren’t willing to participate in the treatment. This means that their antisocial personality disorder goes totally untreated in many cases.
Specific programs, such as anger management courses or alcohol and/or substance abuse recovery programs, can also help with the treatment of antisocial personality disorder. This is because the issues addressed in these specific programs, such as anger and substance abuse, are often linked with antisocial personality disorder. By helping to address those more superficial problems and symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, the patient can begin to uncover and chip away at the underlying issues. Of course, this is all done best under the supervision and guidance of a trained mental health professional.
Medications are also sometimes used in the treatment of antisocial personality disorder, although these cases are often linked to other mental health issues whose symptoms might align with those of an antisocial personality disorder. Such issues might include depression, anxiety, or aggression.
While both psychopaths and sociopaths fall under the same umbrella of antisocial personality disorder, there are some distinct differences between the two. The clearest distinctions can be seen in the conscience of the person in question, as well as in their behavior. Where a psychopath seems not to have a conscience and is willing to do anything to get what they want, a sociopath will spend time and effort to justify antisocial or destructive behaviors. And, while a psychopath often comes across as calm, cool, and in control, a sociopath will often exhibit brash or reckless behavior, usually without regard to the consequences.
The causes of antisocial personality disorder are unknown, and the treatment for antisocial personality disorder usually includes intense long term therapy and sometimes medication. There is no known cure for antisocial personality disorder.