Sociopathy vs Pyschopathy

by Harley Therapy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

The words sociopath and psychopath might sound similar. Plus they are often both used to describe a person with dubious morals, no sense of right and wrong and no remorse for uncompassionate behaviour. And both sociopaths and psychopaths struggle to feel empathy and have no problem with manipulating others. However there are differences and psychopathy could be described as a more extreme version of the condition. Read on as we uncover the differences.

What is sociopathy?

Sociopathy refers to an inability to function within a society, or to interact with people in a healthy way. Sociopaths often do not understand commonly established social norms, resulting in antisocial behaviour. People with this personality type are often more strongly motivated by their inner wants and needs rather than by the concern for those around them.

Sociopaths are willing to sacrifice other people’s comfort in order to pursue their selfish goals. They may use manipulation or aggression as a means to get what they want. Simply put, they put themselves above anything else, and they are not afraid to use whatever means necessary to satisfy their own needs.

Interestingly however, sociopaths realise what they are doing is wrong, possessing ability to differentiate between right and wrong, but their selfishness often overrides their conscience. Furthermore, they are also capable of developing strong, positive bonds with other people that they sincerely care about.

Sociopaths are torn between the needs to complete selfish goals and be close to others. This might be the reason why sociopaths may come across as reckless and abrupt, even chaotic. There are however cases of high-functioning sociopaths. These are people who are often very intelligent with greatly developed social skills which help them achieve what they want even more effectively. They may not engage in many social behaviours, but they understand them and know how to use them towards their own advantage. On a positive note, research suggests that with the right environment and stimulation, sociopaths can learn to adjust better to the society and develop their empathy. They are not a great danger to society as they rarely engage in highly criminal behaviour.

What is psychopathy?

Psychopathy is the more extreme version of sociopathy.

Media and pop-culture have played a major role in creating a stereotypical image of the psychopath as a ruthless serial-killer, who spends their days plotting murders. But that is not always the reality. While psychopaths do engage in cruel and heartless behaviour, they are not all brutal criminals. The main aspect of their personality is a complete lack of empathy for fellow humans. Neurobiological studies show the brain areas connected to the feeling of remorse or empathy are inactive in psychopaths when exposed to scenes which would usually bring out these emotions. For example, when psychopaths were watching videos of people in accidents they did not react in any way, they could not imagine or feel the pain of another person. Therefore, as the name suggests psychopathy might be the result of more psychological; biological aspects rather than social ones.

Psychopaths are great manipulators, they have no problem with using other people to achieve what they want. They are cold, callous and unemotional. Unlike sociopaths, psychopaths cannot create loving and caring bonds with others. They just do not have the emotions for it. Surprisingly this is not the impression most psychopaths give off.

Most psychopaths come across as extremely charming, intelligent and trustworthy. Their interactions are carefully planned though, in order to help them complete their personal goals. Their behaviour is not shaped by the environment but rather by their innate traits. Therefore, youth programs have been developed in order to help young people diagnosed with early traits of psychopathy. Early recognition and treatment could help with preventing further development of the condition.

Below is a list of some signs that could be used as predictors of sociopathic or psychopathic behaviour. Please be aware that diagnosing someone with one of these antisocial personality types is a long process which requires specialist knowledge.

Signs of sociopathy

  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathologic egocentricity and grandiose sense of self
  • Shallow emotions

Signs of psychopathy

  • Great charm
  • Lack of realistic, long term goals
  • Extreme lying skills
  • Feeling of superiority and entitlement
  • Ability to switch their empathy on and off (used as a way to manipulate people, not driven by actual emotions)

Find a therapist now.

Need an Appointment ASAP?

Here's who's next available...

See other available therapists ›
Are you a therapist?
Apply to be on the platform  ›