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Psychopath or Sociopath … Is There a Difference?

Psychopath or Sociopath | A Closer Look at Terminology

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Psychopathy and sociopathy are often terms used interchangeably and naturally this creates some confusion. When “sociopath” and “psychopath” are used, typically they are referencing the same disorder. However, are these conditions really the same?

Actually no they are not.

But the background of the person using the term matters. They may not realize they have chosen the wrong term.

For the general public, it may be of no importance to discriminate between these terms or diagnostic groups (i.e., psychopath, sociopath, or antisocial personality disorder).

On the other hand, these distinctions are extremely important to a clinician involved in patient care or forensics, however less so for someone who has such a person in their life.

Individuals with antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and narcissistic personality disorder can cause considerable harm to their romantic partners, colleagues, and society as a whole.

For survivors, it is most important to get to a place of safety (emotionally and/or physically) in order to have a chance at a peaceful, happy life.

Splitting hairs regarding the true categorization of the individual tends to be of minimal benefit.

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But, we can’t ignore that this is a question that many would like the answer to, often simply out of curiosity.

Well, we are more than happy to explore it with you. Let’s give it a go!

Most specialists in the field use the term psychopath.

Neuroscientists primarily focus on the emotional processes dysfunction, rather than antisocial behavior only. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Many with strong psychopathic traits can remain within the confines of the law. Most never demonstrate violent behaviors, break the law, or cause obscene physical harm (e.g., assault, rape, murder).

2) Individuals with psychopathy are able to blend in well (via a mask) and achieve exceptional levels of success financially, educationally, occupationally, and socially (e.g., marry/ have children). Looking only at those behaviors one would assume there were no/ minimal traces of antisocial behaviors. However, if a clinician were to investigate the underlying emotional processes and the manner they interact with others, hidden traits of psychopathy would be visible.

3) Psychopathy is an emotional processing disorder (Blair, 2003; Kiehl & Buckholtz, 2010). Therefore, they are consistently unable to

a) process certain emotional states

b) recognize certain emotional states in others

c) experience certain emotional states

d) care beyond ‘self”

e) interact prosocially without using or manipulating others. The areas of the brain (and neurochemistry) associated with emotional processing are faulty.

Given the specificity of this disorder, neuroscientists rarely use the term sociopath to refer to the condition.

Researchers suspect that genetics, rather than social situation/ environment, is responsible for the symptoms we see within primary psychopathy (Blair, 2008).

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The diagnostic manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th ed., DSM-5) used by clinicians does not recognize the labels of psychopathy or sociopathy. However, a more general term that encompasses the basics of both conditions is present – Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).

Now, with that said, those with antisocial personality disorder, are a bit of a mixed bag. Given that it is not specific to psychopathy, this diagnostic category will also include individuals who do not have the brain pattern of primary psychopathy. But those under this category demonstrate antisocial behaviors, lack of remorse, antagonism, low empathy, and deceitfulness.

Individuals with primary psychopathy are suspected to demonstrate significant brain dysfunction. There have been problems identified with the paralimbic (e.g., amygdala, anterior cingulate gyrus), prefrontal (e.g., orbitofrontal, ventromedial), neurochemical (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin), hormonal, and mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system.

“I see. Psychopathy references a specific brain disorder. So now please tell me a bit more about the term sociopathy?”

Sociopath is an older term that is commonly used by the general public when they are describing psychopathy or those with antisocial personality disorder.

It is rare that an expert in the field of psychopathy research will use the term sociopath.

There has been a shift in terminology and although the term sociopath was regularly used in the past, most researchers now use the term psychopath to describe those with specific symptoms.

If neuroscientists/psychologists use the term sociopath, they tend to be referencing a group with antisocial behaviors (i.e., antisocial personality disorder). Individuals with antisocial personality disorder are highly irresponsible, self focused individual with minimal regard for societal norms or the feelings of others.

Those with antisocial personality disorder are not all disordered due to the same general underlying neurobiology, as with psychopathy.

Psychopathy is associated with a particular brain disorder that is consistent across the entire group (varying in intensity/degree and symptom expression) – however fairly homogeneous.

Antisocial personality disorder (sociopaths), on the other hand, are not all disordered due to the same condition or experiences. Sociopathy could be the result of environmental factors, such as cultural experiences, childhood mistreatment, survival strategies, abuse, or neglect. They are not all disordered in the same manner and therefore can have some areas of normal emotional capabilities. This is a heterogeneous group.

Conversely, psychopathy tends to be present from birth and not acquired from abuse or outside factors (aside from the result of brain damage/injury – psuedopsychopathy). Primary psychopathy is thought to be genetic. However, psychopathy can certainly be exacerbated by a chaotic/ abusive environment during childhood. But it would not be uncommon for someone with psychopathy to grow up in a normal/ supportive household, absent of abuse.

Antisocial personality disorder is a general term  and some with this diagnosis can have symptoms that are acquired due to various life circumstances. Some individuals who demonstrate antisocial behaviors may actually have a conscience. They can have a sense of loyalty to a group. Sociopaths might have some individuals that they care about and are protective of. They might feel a sense of remorse for harm or damage they caused. They may be able to form some kind of attachment or bond to others.

Therefore, unlike psychopathy, some of them might benefit from current treatments. With all that said, there are some researchers who will refer to this group – sociopaths, as simply dyssocial psychopaths (Valdez, Kaplan, & Codina, 2000). Dyssocial psychopaths do not meet criteria for psychopathy when evaluated via Dr. Robert Hare’s psychopathy assessment tool, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003).

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For your own distinction, here is one way you can look at this terminology confusion. In the professional world of diagnosing that is done by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or neuroscientist, the term antisocial personality disorder is used.

You will never go wrong if you use antisocial personality disorder, since psychopathy and sociopathy can be included under this umbrella term. Besides, antisocial personality disorder is the closest personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) that describes a psychopath. In our opinion, antisocial personality disorder is not fully descriptive of a psychopath. The most descriptive criteria are from neuroscience literature and the work of Dr. Robert Hare.

Researchers will of course continue to use the term psychopath, as they are describing and investigating the brain disorder that they are certain fits within the group – psychopathy. They rarely use the term sociopath.

Clinicians (psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists) when diagnosing patients, will continue to use the diagnostic label of antisocial personality disorder for both groups- as this is the most fitting category within the DSM-5.

You might also like the article: Psychosis Or Psychopathy? Go!

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References References

Blair, J. (2003) Neurobiological Basis of Psychopathy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 5-7

Blair, J (2008) The Amygdala and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex: Functional Contributions and Dysfunction in Psychopathy. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363, 2557 – 2565

Kiehl, K. & Buckholtz, J. (2010). Inside the mind of a psychopath. Scientific American Mind  September/ October, 21, 22 – 29

Valdez, A., Kaplan, C., & Codina, E. (2000). Psychopathy among Mexican American gang members: a comparative study. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 44, 46–58.

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