This is the question that often gets asked, since the terms psychopath and sociopath are often bandied about, often without being defined or differentiated. They are often also used interchangeably, but is there actually a technical difference between the two?
The picture here is confused by the fact that difference sources and resources appear to give different answers on the topic.
Broadly speaking, psychopaths are considered to largely be born and sociopaths are considered to be more made. The motivations for their antisocial or destructive behaviour may also sometimes differ, though the behaviour itself is often similar.
In one sense the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath doesn’t matter, since they are both toxic, destructive personality types and they both inflict the same kind of emotional and physical damage on others. The definitions can also overlap and sometimes even appear contradictory between different sources. Let’s look at the difference in more detail.
The Difference Between a Psychopath and Sociopath Summarized
We have embedded a table on the main differences we could find between the two definitions of psychopath and sociopath from different sources. Broadly speaking, psychopaths are thought to be more born and have a genetic basis for their disorder, whilst sociopaths are thought to be more made and created by environmental factors such as childhood and trauma.
Even this distinction is a little muddy and may not fully capture the difference between the two, since it is not actually obvious that genetics alone is what creates even the psychopath, and that environmental factors may also contribute to their condition.
This is an issue we constantly see when we look at psychopathic serial killers, where they may have had a pre-existing tendency which was acted upon by early life experiences and trauma to create full blown psychopathy.
Another way of looking at the issue is to see a psychopath as a more extreme form of a sociopath, and covering a smaller portion of the population at around 1%, with around 4% of the population fitting the broader definition of sociopathic traits. Most or all psychopaths are sociopaths, but not all sociopaths are psychopaths.
See the table for this and some other commonly cited differences between psychopaths and sociopaths.
Psychopaths vs Sociopaths – Key Differences
|Estimated to be 1% of the population||Estimated to be around 4% of the population|
|Considered to be born, in the sense of having a genetic basis to their disorder||Considered to be made through early environment and culture|
|Condition seen to be partially or largely hardwired into them||Just learn their destructive traits because of the people they are around or to get by|
|Actively enjoys hurting and killing others - has a sadistic streak||Will hurt or kill others as a means to an end or to relieve boredom|
|Born to be bad||Learns to be bad|
|Tends to be more calculating||Tends to commit antisocial acts more impulsively and "on the fly"|
|Unable to form lasting relationships||Can form relationships|
|Total lack of ability to feel guilt, remorse or empathy||May have a limited ability to feel guilt, remorse or empathy to a few selected people|
|Displays no physiological arousal or "fight/flight" response to comitting bad or illegal acts.||May display some discomfort or arousal at breaking laws or doing bad things.|
|Brain functions differently to normal people. Parts of brain responsible for impulse control and emotional processing do not work.||Less evidence of this. May displays some physiological response to their toxic behaviour|
|Cannot be "diagnosed" as such. Psychopathy operates on a continuum as determined by the Psychopath Checklist.||Diagnosis comes under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder and tends to be cut and dried, on or off, yes or no|
|eg. The sadistic serial killer who enjoys torturing others.||eg. The sociopathic bank robber who will kill others if he has to but doesn't go out of his way to. Doesn't derive pleasure from killing or torture itself.|
Similarities Between Psychopaths & Sociopaths
As well as the differences, it is perhaps also important to point out the similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths, since there is also a lot of crossover between the two concepts.
Similarly, the differences between the two personality types are still diffuse and uncertain, and there will surely be people who have experienced others who display the character traits of both psychopathy and sociopathy, without seeming to fit clearly into either category. This is certainly the case in this writer’s own experience dealing with toxic personalities.
Here are some similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths:
- They are both ruthless, immoral characters who are happy to wipe out and destroy anyone that gets in their way or dispose of someone who is no longer any use to them
- Both are egocentric, manipulative, deceitful and impulsive personality types
- Both character types commit physical or psychological evil towards others (from this sense, does it matter which type they are?)
- Both characters have little or no ability to empathize with others, meaning there is no boundary or limit on how they will treat others.
The Semantics of Psychopathy & Sociopathy
In reality these differences are in most cases for academic and formal study purposes and make no difference to how these character types should be regarded and responded to in real life work and personal relationships.
This is what we mean by the specific diagnoses of, and differences between, psychopathy and sociopathy being largely irrelevant, certainly from a practical, real world perspective of actually dealing with them in relationships. Either way, they are not someone you want in your life so the advice for dealing with them is basically the same – escape and evade.
We have a great quote below from lifelong psychopathy expert Dr Robert Hare which brilliantly sums up how the entire issue of the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths may be entirely semantic and relate purely to a person’s view on whether these people are born and made.
In other words, the words psychopath and sociopath could be seen simply as two different labels to be put on the same basic personality type. Here is Dr Hare’s view on this:
“In many cases the choice of term (psychopath or sociopath) reflects the user’s views on the origins and determinants of the clinical syndrome or disorder described in this book.
Thus, some clinicians and researchers – as well as most sociologists and criminologists – who believe that the syndrome is forged entirely by social forces and early experiences prefer the term sociopath, whereas those….who feel that psychological, biological and genetic factors also contribute to development of the syndrome generally use the term psychopath.
The same individual could therefore be diagnosed as a sociopath by one expert and a psychopath by another”
Advice For Dealing With Psychopaths & Sociopaths Remains The Same
Whether you are caught in a relationship with someone you define as either a psychopath, a sociopath or even a narcissist, the best solution in almost all cases is to get away from the relationship as quickly and quietly as possible. This means detaching yourself from their influence and control as soon as you can and breaking off all contact with them whenever possible.
For romantic and personal relationships, this means ending the relationship in whatever way is practical at the time. For work relationships, this means seeking out a new job or department to get away from the psychopath or sociopath. Take things in a gradual step by step way if this feels easier but the goal still needs to be to get away as soon as is practically possible.
When children and financial commitments are involved the situation can be more difficult and the strategy becomes more about keeping contact to an absolute minimum and setting firm and clear boundaries on this contact.
Seeking out the help of a therapist and close trusted friends and family with this can be beneficial. Psychopaths and sociopaths are experts at cutting you off from support systems so it is important to restore these in any way you can.
To finish our article we have embedded below another excellent video featuring Dr Ramani Durvasula summarizing, not so much the differences between them as this is covered in video embedded near the top, but on specific advice and perspectives to take to limit the damage these people can do in your life.
More specifically the emphasis on self valuing and self respect as the core for healthy relationships and a satisfying life is fantastic, actionable advice which can help people caught up in toxic relationships to step back from all the manipulation and see clearly when a relationship is not benefiting them or their self esteem and to get away.
Psychopaths and sociopaths are very manipulative and will deliberately trap you in a narrow focus with a barrage of excuses, rationalizations and justifications for the basic fact they are not treating you well and when caught in this spell, the first vital thing to do is step back and see the wood for the trees again. Once you pull out of this narrow focus and see the relationship for what it is, it will be much easier to break away from it.
See also the MedCircle website for full series’ of podcasts on Psychopathy, sociopathy, personality disorders and whole host of other psychological and mental health topics. Dr Durvasula offers fantastic insight and clarity on many topics regarding mental health and toxic relationships.
Our Resources page also has links to more excellent on videos on these toxic personality types. Some resources use the term psychopaths, others use sociopath, but the general patterns of abuse they engage in and advice for dealing with these people remains the same for the general population.