If you’re a fan of the popular comedy show Superstore, you might remember getting a good laugh out of the episode where two pretty wacky questions were asked at the same time: “What’s the difference between a zombie and a cannibal?” and “What’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath?”
At first glance, these questions might sound funny because it’s easy to assume that both halves of these equations are the same. After all, we know that both zombies and cannibals eat human flesh. We also tend to use “psychopath and sociopath” interchangeably to mean someone who is violent, devious, or devoid of empathy. But are those terms really the same? Is there a difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? In this article, we’re going to find out!
Is there a difference between psychopaths and sociopaths?
Yes! Although we often say, “He’s a psychopath!” when watching serial killers on TV or referring to heartless people, the truth is that—diagnostically—there is actually a big difference between psychopaths and sociopaths.
In a nutshell, the core difference is that a sociopath might be someone who exhibits symptoms of antisocial personality disorder. Put simply, a sociopath might simply be someone who has low levels of empathy and difficulty connecting with others. By contrast, a psychopath is someone who can be sadistic and manipulative. Let’s take a look at the key differences.
Contrary to popular perception, psychopaths can have feelings and they can be aware that their actions are wrong. They might also be aware that their actions are directly harmful to others. Unfortunately, however, many psychopaths are aware of this and choose to hurt people anyway.
Psychopaths may also pretend to care how someone else is feeling if it suits their agenda, even if they really do not care about that person or their feelings. As a result of this behavior, many psychopaths may struggle to develop or maintain normal, healthy relationships with other people.
Although they might use people to get what they want, people with this condition are rarely able to form relationships that delve beyond the fake or shallow surface of their initial attraction. While a psychopath may take care to keep up appearances, their facade of success, generosity, transparency, or kindness is rarely genuine.
Rather, a psychopath is likely to manipulate their environments and the people around them in order to maintain a convincing cover for something illicit and possibly criminal. Ultimately, at the core, psychopaths are charming, manipulative, and calculating.
Sociopaths, by contrast, couldn’t be more different. Sociopathy is often associated with traumatic childhood experiences, including parental neglect, sexual abuse, or physical abuse. People who are diagnosed with sociopathy also have a low capacity for empathy and a certain amount of disregard for other people’s feelings. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all sociopaths are evil, calculating, or violent. In fact, this is one of the core distinctions that sets sociopaths and psychopaths apart.
So far from being glib and superficially charming, many sociopaths struggle to forge genuine connections with others. Sociopaths may be awkward, blunt, or abrasive in conversation and this—combined with a general lack of interest in what other people are thinking or feeling—can make it difficult for them to make friends.
And unlike psychopaths, sociopaths are likely to experience difficulty in holding down a job. Conditions such as sociopathy make it difficult for a person to regulate their own impulse control, so sociopaths may often behave in bizarre or erratic ways that are incompatible with the stability required to maintain a successful career.
So, while psychopaths may be capable of living a double life, earning a good living, and manipulating others into doing what they want, the same cannot be said of sociopaths. Therefore, sociopaths are unlikely to be the glib, conniving monsters we imagine when we use the terms ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ interchangeably.
And while we’re debunking stereotypes, it’s also important to note that neither psychopaths nor sociopaths are inherently violent. Although we often associate violence with both of these mental health disorders, the truth is that the stereotype of the sadistic psychopath is primarily a convenient Hollywood trope.
Exaggerating sociopathy and psychopathy for the purpose of a plot device is convenient, but it’s not entirely accurate. Both psychopaths and sociopaths are likely to feel isolated from the rest of the world and this can lead to a great deal of frustration and loneliness.
As a result, this pent-up frustration can sometimes lead to bouts of rage, but studies show that this rage is not always harmful or directed at other people. In fact, most sociopaths are more likely to harm themselves than to harm others. And psychopaths are far more likely to use manipulation than violence to control others.
While there can certainly be exceptions to the rule, it’s important to dispel common misconceptions and maintain an accurate understanding of these common mental health conditions. If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be exhibiting symptoms of sociopathy, psychopathy, or antisocial personality disorder, you can conduct a self-assessment of your symptoms by taking this free sociopathy test from Mind Diagnostics.
Online diagnostic tools such as this one are not meant to serve as replacements for professional psychiatric assessments, but they can help you develop your understanding of certain symptoms. If you or someone you love are experiencing symptoms that you find concerning, you may find it helpful to check these symptoms against a list of clinically accepted diagnostic criteria. After completing this self-guided assessment, you will be redirected to a results screen with more information about your answers and what they indicate about your mental health. You will also receive information about your treatment options and the contact information for a therapist in your area.
Whether you are struggling with symptoms of your own or you’re being affected by the behavior of someone you love, it’s important for you to know that you can get help any time. When you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. But you can find hope and help with a simple click by connecting with a therapist online today!