What is the Difference Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths?

At its simplest, one could say a psychopath cares, and a sociopath doesn’t. But like all mental health conditions it is a lot more complicated than that. Both conditions appear to apply to people with high levels of intelligence, and the description ‘high functioning’ is often placed before both terms. But whilst they may have similar traits, sociopaths and psychopaths can be clearly identified, the former appears to be ignorant; the latter appears to be evil.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), 2013, groups both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD).  People with antisocial personality disorders tend to have several behaviour traits in common:

  • A belief that they can behave however they want to;
  • Disregard for the conventions of the law;
  • A grandiose sense of self that disregards the needs of other people;
  • An inability to demonstrate remorse or guilt for their victims; and
  • A tendency toward violence

The DSM5 defines a person suffering from a personality disorder as reflecting “adaptive failure” which involves an “Impaired sense of self-identity” or “Failure to develop effective interpersonal functioning”. Such people (according to some studies, maybe one in 25 of the population) do not appear on the ‘public radar’ until they transgress societal norms and/or commit crimes.

Research appears to show that there is a genetic component to psychopathy that is to say there is a biological basis, specifically in the brain where there is underdevelopment or loss of mass in the amygdala region of the brain.  This is the area responsible for impulse control and emotions. The recent development of improved techniques of brain imaging has helped to shed light on this mechanism. Studies have confirmed that amygdala dysfunction is associated with psychopathy. Tiihonen et al ( 2000)  explored the relationship between amygdaloid volume and degree of psychopathy in violent offenders. They found that high levels of psychopathy were associated with reduced amygdaloid volume.

Freud helpfully, made a clear distinction between psychopathology and neuroses.  While both were caused by a weakness in the ego, the former, psychopathology was caused by an excess the Id (uncontrolled drives) Sociopathy, on the other hand, would be described as a neuroses that is a result of an over developed superego or conscience (“you shouldn’t have done that”).  While Freudian analysis tends to lack scientific rigor and is a product of its time, to view the distinction between psychopathology and sociopathology as a dichotomy is quite useful in this case. Since although both lead to antisocial behaviour, their causes are quite different.

Origins of sociopathy are more debatable.  Dr Martha Stout  suggest that while there may be a biological vulnerability to sociopathology, childhood plays a very definite part and she cites, trauma, abuse and infant attachment disorder  principal causes. Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy in certain limited circumstances but not in others, and with a few individuals but not others.

What’s the difference?

The clearest fictional example of the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is portrayed in the Arthur Conan-Doyle novels of Sherlock Holmes, particularly as recently interpreted by the UK BBC. Holmes, the detective is detached and aloof does not care for the norms or rules of society but will work out matters of interest to the exclusion of anything else including food and sleep. Notably, he finds relationships difficult and whilst of high intellect he cannot understand the feelings of others, even when he has offended their feelings. His nemesis on the other hand, the character Moriarty, whilst as intelligent as Sherlock, is filled with emotion and gets pleasure from hurting people. Holmes is the sociopath, Moriarty the psychopath.

In the real world Charles Manson, killer of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby amongst others is a good example of psychopathology. Psychopaths are undoubtedly dangerous because they have no emotion about their victims and cannot perceive what they are doing as criminal or wrong.   Serial killers who see their victims as inhuman objects to be tortured and killed such as Myra Hindley and Ian Brady are good illustrations of psychopaths

How can you spot a sociopath or psychopath?

Well if they are ‘high functioning’, until you are on the end of their wrath, you can’t. And even then you are probably not in the position to distinguish between the two. High functioning sociopaths can make great political or business leaders. For example the UK wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill let the city of Coventry be bombed, with the loss of life and property, because he knew that if he had taken action to protect the population the German government would know that the British had broken their codes on radio transmissions. Churchill potentially displayed sociopathic tendencies. Sociopaths can be sometimes defined as are those who manipulate the people around them to serve their own ends.

Not all sociopaths are high functioning however,  so many are on the edges of society. Their nervous and easy-to-anger tendencies mean they often can’t keep either friends or a steady job.  If they do turn to crime they are likely to be easily caught because they tend not to plan and therefore make mistakes.

High functioning psychopaths are aware of their situation and can disguise or cover their actions in public, sociopaths less so.  It is not surprising therefore, that many psychopaths in prison or in death row in the US have charmed women who visit them in prison. Jeff Skilling the former CEO of Enron at the time of its collapse displayed high functioning psychopathic behaviour.  He both encouraged a predatory culture, not just on other corporations but also to those who were deceived into buying Enron shares. Even on the day before the whole shebang collapsed, he managed to convince a reporter he was leaving because of a commitment to his family.  Unlike sociopaths psychopaths can be successful especially in the corporate world. They can successfully imitate emotions so they may have families and long term relationships.  The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe is a perfect example of a psychopath. He murdered 13 women and attempted to murder three more in a spree lasting 5 years and had a pretty and intelligent wife who was a teacher and she never suspected a thing.

So what is the difference?

As you can read from the above descriptions, sometimes not a lot. Would you want to share a house with either? Definitely not.  The psychopath however, normally requires an external stimulus to go into ‘bad mode’. The sociopath does not have a ‘bad mode’. All of her/his actions are perceived by her/him as rational and appropriate.


  1. Stout, M: The Sociopath Next Door, Doubleday (2006)
  2. Tiihonen, J., Hodgins, S., Vaurio, O., et al ( 2000) Amygdaloid volume loss in psychopathy. Society for Neuroscience Abstracts

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