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An Issue of Empathy: The Similarities and Differences Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths

Many of us believe we can instinctively discern between psychopaths and sociopaths. The psychopath is a monster like Hannibal Lecter or Jeffrey Dahmer, one who relishes in the pain of others. On the other hand, a sociopath can function in society, and is likely the cold-hearted man who left his girlfriend for her best friend, or embezzled thousands from his boss. The sociopath seeks to please his or herself, disregarding others, while the psychopath actively seeks to harm.

This notion is somewhat true, but does not relay the full reality. The terms psychopath and sociopath are not real psychological diagnoses, but are cultural labels that are derived from the behaviors of people diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASP). Psychologists diagnose ASP in patients based on a long-standing pattern of disregard for the rights of other people. Some specific symptoms of ASP include:

  • A failure to conform to social mores or established laws
  • Lying or deceitful behaviors, such as using aliases, conning others, or blatant dishonesty.
  • Impulsive behaviors; lack of ability to plan ahead
  • Irritability or aggressiveness as demonstrated by violence
  • Recklessness and disregard for the safety of oneself and others
  • Irresponsibility without concern
  • Lack of remorse


Studies in Empathy: Sociopaths vs Psychopaths Comparison

Many psychologists agree that Antisocial Personality Disorder is based upon several factors including genetics, social environment and upbringing, childhood abuse and other psychological factors. These psychologists agree that ASP is not inherited and cannot be diagnosed until one has reached 18 years of age.

While ASP’s traits describe both the typical psychopath and sociopath, the difference between the two comes down largely by degree. Many experts believe that psychopaths’ differences from most people derives more because of their genetics, while sociopaths tend to disregard others based on their experiences. It is believed that psychopaths lack the ability to consider right and wrong, and often find pleasure in harming others. Sociopaths typically have become disconnected from morality, and believe their own needs supercede the wellbeing of others.

Another distinction is that sociopaths usually disregard strangers and the law, but can form close relationships with people who they will treat with much more respect. On the other hand, psychopaths can coldly turn against their friends and family.

Psychopaths also tend to be organized and methodical. When sociopaths break the law or harm others, it is typically in a moment of impulsiveness. When psychopaths commit crimes, it is typically planned out, frequently to cause large amounts of damage. Psychopaths also tend to have more control over their emotions, and do not usually commit crimes that demonstrate an uncontrolled moment of anger, while sociopaths lose their temper more often.

Furthermore, sociopaths tend to be identified by their nervousness and temper, while psychopaths can frequently go about their daily lives seeming like normal, if not charismatic and friendly people. This is due to their meticulous care to their composure that sociopaths lack.

The differences between psychopaths and sociopaths are important, but both derive from similar types of abnormal behavior. While psychologists typically do not refer to people with ASP as sociopaths or psychopaths, it may be important for people to be cognizant of the differences between these two labels. It may be helpful to consider the signs of sociopaths and psychopaths to better manage one’s social interactions.



1. Bonn, Scott A. “How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath.” Psychology Today. N.p., 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

2. “Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms.” Psych Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

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