What's The Big Difference? Sociopath Vs. Narcissist

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 06/21/2022

In your lifetime, you’re statistically quite likely to meet at least one sociopath and a few narcissists. The rates for sociopathic and narcissistic behavior are surprisingly high in the general population. Knowing how to identify a sociopath or a narcissist, as well as knowing how to tell the difference can be a lifesaver when it comes to navigating family, friendships, and romantic relationships. 

But how can you identify a sociopath? What are the identifying features of a narcissist? And what difference does it make? Here, you’ll find all you need to know about sociopaths, narcissists, and how to tell the two of them apart.

What is a Sociopath?

When it comes to determining whether or not someone is a sociopath, mental health professionals actually prefer different terminology. Instead of diagnosing someone as a sociopath, a psychologist or psychiatrist will look for an antisocial personality disorder.

According to DSM-5, the elements for the diagnosis of a person with antisocial personality disorder include the following:

  1. Disregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub-features:
  2. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in a criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
  3. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
  4. Impulsive behavior
  5. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
  6. Blatantly disregards the safety of self and others,
  7. A pattern of irresponsibility and
  8. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

The other diagnostic criteria are:

  1. The person is at least age 18,
  2. Conduct disorder was present by history before age 15
  3. and the antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

In addition to those signs of antisocial personality disorder, mental health professionals look for a conduct order that developed or manifested in the patient before the age of fifteen, plus four or more of the following traits:

  • Unable to keep a consistent job (or to maintain consistency in school).
  • Refuses to conform to social norms, including the laws of the land.
  • Ignores the truth when it is inconvenient; lies, cons, uses false identities.
  • Doesn’t plan ahead; is hesitant to or refuses to set goals.
  • Exhibits irritable and/or aggressive actions; starts fights; assaults others.
  • Acts without regard for the safety of themselves and/or others.
  • Behaves irresponsibly; shows inconsistent progress or repeated failure when it comes to meeting work and financial obligations.
  • Doesn’t show remorse when harming or mistreating others.
  • Does not or cannot sustain a committed romantic or sexual relationship for more than one year.

If you notice that you or a loved one is exhibiting these sociopathic traits, you can use this sociopath quiz. With this quiz, you can identify some of the indicators that might point to your being a sociopath.

What is a Narcissist?

You might be wondering if someone is a narcissist. If you are, you’re probably framing the inquiry as a yes/no question. However, according to the diagnosis guidelines used by psychologists and psychologists to identify narcissistic behaviors and tendencies, narcissism actually exists on a spectrum. This means that determining whether or not a person is a narcissist is not a simple yes or no. instead, they’ll display narcissistic behaviors to varying degrees of severity; by looking at how pervasive or intense these behaviors are, mental health professionals can get a better sense of the narcissism they’re dealing with.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), there are nine specific patterns of thought and action that can lead to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. They are:

  1. A grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
  4. A need for excessive admiration
  5. A sense of entitlement
  6. Interpersonally exploitive behavior
  7. A lack of empathy
  8. Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
  9. A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes

In order for someone to be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, a mental health professional must confirm the existence of at least five of these nine symptoms or signs of narcissism.

In addition to these signs of narcissistic personality disorder, narcissists also display a knack for the grandiose, especially in their fantasies and their behaviors. Narcissists will also exhibit a nearly constant need for attention and admiration. All of these patterns of behavior usually start in their youth and then continue into adulthood.

What’s the Difference?

As you can see, there are a lot of points where sociopathic and narcissistic behaviors overlap; it can be difficult to tell them apart sometimes. However, the key to differentiating the two lies in the details. There are some common traits and some differentiating traits that are key to determining whether a person is a sociopath or a narcissist. 

When it comes to shared characteristics between sociopaths and narcissists, there are several points to consider. First of all, sociopaths and narcissists have the potential to be charming and successful, and they are usually both highly intelligent. They are also likely to be dishonest and manipulative, with grandiose or exaggerated views of themselves. Both narcissists and sociopaths are known to justify their behavior, especially when they are hurting or mistreating those around them. They are often insincere, even if they’re able to fake the appropriate actions and reactions for the emotional or social circumstance.

In terms of differences between narcissists and sociopaths, these are a bit more difficult to spot. It’s often and matter of nuance. For instance, sociopaths tend to be more manipulative, probably because their reputation and ego aren’t at stake the way that they are for a narcissist. Also, sociopaths are much less interested in getting the attention or approval of others; that’s more of a narcissist’s thing. Plus, a sociopath is more likely to show (or even fake) interest in others, especially if will help them get what they want. A narcissist, on the other hand, is much less likely to ever let the conversation stray away from themselves.

These similarities and differences can help you set apart the sociopaths and narcissists that you’re likely to come across during the course of your lifetime.

Sociopath vs. Narcissist vs. Psychopath

Since both sociopaths and psychopaths fall into the category of antisocial personality disorder, it’s also handy to see the differences between a psychopath and a narcissist. First of all, when a narcissist does something that is morally wrong, they’re likely to feel at least a little bit of remorse. Their remorse is often linked to how they think others will perceive them: they want to be seen as good people, even when they do something wrong. A psychopath, on the other hand, will feel no remorse; they won’t even try to justify their wrong actions. They don’t care much what others think, as long as they are getting what they want.

Furthermore, since narcissism is strongly tied to self-esteem, a narcissist is much more likely to put others down than a psychopath. This is so that the narcissist can feel superior to those around them. A psychopath, on the other hand, will often sweet-talk those around them, although this is often in an attempt to manipulate them to get what they want.

Other Issues that Might Get Confused

Just because someone is showing a few of the signs of narcissism or antisocial personality disorder doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an antisocial personality disorder. There are other mental health issues that could easily be confused for sociopathic or narcissistic behavior. For example, anger management issues could result in outbursts and reckless behavior that is common for sociopaths. Or, social anxiety could result in the constant need for approval and affirmation that is common for narcissists. Other common mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, can have similar signs and symptoms to sociopathic, psychopathic, or narcissistic patterns of behavior.

In the end, it is important to rely on the opinions and diagnoses of mental health professionals. Their expertise and experience make them the most qualified when it comes to properly diagnosing issues such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder.

Conclusion

Even though sociopaths and narcissists have a lot of similar characteristics, it is possible to tell the two apart. Plus, you can even differentiate a narcissist and a psychopath, since psychopaths – just like sociopaths – also suffer from an antisocial personality disorder. Recognizing the signs and signals of sociopaths, narcissists, and psychopaths can benefit you in the long run, as can seeing the differences between the three. For more about the symptoms and traits of sociopaths and narcissists, you can check out online quizzes to assess their characteristics.