The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath — 5 Clues

If you watch crime TV shows, you frequently hear perpetrators referred to as sociopaths or psychopaths. You may have used the terms yourself — but do you know what they mean? 

Are sociopathy and psychopathy mental illnesses or immutable personality traits? How can you tell the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath? Here’s more information on these traits and five clues for telling the difference. 

What Are Sociopathy and Psychopathy? Are They Mental Disorders?

When people talk about sociopaths, they frequently refer to someone with antisocial personality disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies such individuals as having impairments in self and interpersonal functioning characterized by a lack of empathy and intimacy. They manifest manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness and hostility, and they behave irresponsibly and impulsively, often taking risks. 

Psychopathy isn’t defined as a distinct disorder. However, people frequently referred to as psychopaths in news reports and popular culture often display traits of narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. 

What Traits Do the Two Share?

When discussing the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath, it’s vital to know the traits those with antisocial personality disorder share: 

  • A disregard for laws and social mores: They think the rules don’t apply to them or rationalize breaking the law. 
  • Disregard for the others’ rights: People with this disorder don’t care who they hurt as long as they achieve their aims. 
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt: Apologies aren’t part of their repertoire — unless the words “I’m sorry” further their selfish aims. 
  • A tendency to display violent or aggressive behavior: Because they disregard other people’s rights and the law, they have little problem crossing the line between saying “hey” and slugging the person who stepped on their toe. 

5 Clues to Tell the Difference

Although the sociopath and psychopath share many similarities, they also have distinct differences. To find out which you might be dealing with, look to the following five clues. 

1. Sociopaths Let You Know They Don’t Care — Psychopaths Manipulate

Sociopaths don’t care how they hurt others — and they often brag about this fact. These are the folks who boast about making “conquests” with partners and then disparaging them. 

Psychopaths, conversely, know they can achieve their aims more effectively if you think that they care. They’ll lie to you and tell you you’re exclusive — while promising the same to four other partners. 

2. Sociopaths Act Impulsively — Psychopaths Plan 

Both sociopaths and psychopaths often commit criminal acts. However, when a sociopath crosses the law, their recklessness is to blame. They may think little of driving drunk or knifing someone in a bar fight but will play the victim when caught. 

Psychopaths don’t want to get caught, and they plan their criminal activities carefully. Instead of storming into a bank with a gun, they’ll walk through the front door with a well-polished resume. Then, they begin to embezzle funds when they gain sufficient trust. 

3. Sociopaths Rage — Narcissists Maintain a Facade

Sociopaths often let anger drive their behavior. If you spend time with them, you can sense the rage boiling below the surface, and you might know what buttons to push to make it erupt. 

However, psychopaths will smile and hug you before stabbing you in the back — after ascertaining no one will catch them in the act. They have superficial charm — think of serial killer Ted Bundy with his broken-arm ruse. 

4. Sociopaths Form Attachments — Psychopaths Form Shallow Relationships

Sociopaths try to form attachments with others, but they can drag those who enter relationships with them down a dangerous path. They may snap and harm the other in a fit of rage or force their partner to accompany their criminal schemes. Picture the abusive spouse who beats his loved one bloody while claiming to love them. 

Psychopaths seem incapable of forming anything but shallow relationships. They may form friendships or even marry to keep up a facade of normalcy. However, they keep their genuine selves hidden even from their spouses. Think of how Dennis Raider’s, aka BTK’s, wife and children didn’t know about his sadistic murder sprees. 

5. Sociopaths Disregard Safety — Psychopaths Minimize Their Risk 

Sociopaths frequently disregard their safety and that of others. They may use firearms in an unsafe manner, endangering themselves and everyone in their vicinity. 

Conversely, psychopaths minimize risk to themselves. While they aren’t opposed to using a weapon to further their aims, they’ll wear eye and ear protection. 

Look to These 5 Clues to Tell the Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

It can be challenging to tell the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath because the two share many traits. However, by noting the differences above, you can correctly label the brands of deviance you observe.