What’s The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath?

Lonely man alone in at the end of the tunnel

It’s not uncommon to hear the words “sociopath” and “psychopath” in our culture. So many Hollywood movies have people cursing or accusing someone as one or the other.

In our society, they are terms that are casually thrown around to describe anybody who’s behaving in a manner that is thought to be wrong in some way. Usually, in what is considered an insane manner.

But, despite countless movie portrayals, most psychopaths are not the knife-wielding maniacs we get presented with in those dramatic storylines. Both psychopathy and sociopathy are extremely misunderstood.

We are led to believe they are people always behind evil, often violent, crimes. But the vast majority will be people who are suffering and struggling to live a more normal life.

The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are often used interchangeably to describe someone or sometimes a group of people. However, in mental health terms there are significant differences between the two.

While sociopathy and psychopathy share similarities in terms of antisocial behavior, their origins, emotional capacities, and behavioral patterns set them apart. Understanding these differences gives valuable insights into the intricacies of human behavior and these mental health disorders.

Are sociopathy and psychopathy official diagnoses?

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not officially recognize sociopathy or psychopathy as distinct disorders. This is the guidebook used by most mental health professionals in the USA.

Instead, the DSM-5 includes a diagnosis known as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This covers many of the traits associated with both sociopathy and psychopathy. A diagnosis for ASPD can only be made if a person is aged 18 or over.

Many mental health professionals now consider the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” to be outdated and stigmatizing, instead using ASPD to describe people who have these traits. 

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The DSM-5 describes ASPD as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:”

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

How many people are psychopaths and sociopaths?

Estimates suggest that a small but notable portion of the adult population in the United States exhibits clinically significant signs of psychopathic traits. The American Psychiatric Association reports that around 1.2 percent of adult men and approximately 0.3–0.7 percent of adult women fall into this category.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 3–5 percent of the American population can be classified as sociopaths. Around three out of every 100 males and one out of every 100 females exhibits sociopathic tendencies.

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, psychologist Dr Martha Stout provides an even higher estimate. She believes that as many as one in 25 Americans could be sociopaths or have an ASPD.

Key differences between sociopathy and psychopathy


Sociopathy and psychopathy are both terms used to describe personality disorders characterized by a lack of empathy, remorse and an inclination towards antisocial behavior. The distinction between these two conditions lies in their origins and the ways they manifest. 

These are the main differences between a sociopath and a psychopath:

Origins and causes

Sociopathy is thought to be primarily influenced by environmental factors, such as neglect, childhood trauma or a dysfunctional upbringing. Someone with sociopathic tendencies may develop their antisocial behavior due to learned patterns, adverse experiences, or exposure to dysfunctional social environments. It is more prevalent in families with a history of the condition or with other mental health conditions.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is thought by experts to have a greater biological factor. It is believed to be a more ingrained personality disorder – with neurological and genetic elements playing a significant role. Frequently, psychopaths display certain physiological markers, including brain abnormalities and a reduced emotional response.

Behavioral patterns

Both sociopaths and psychopaths engage in antisocial behaviors. But their motivations and behavioral patterns differ. 

Sociopaths tend to be impulsive and erratic in their actions, frequently driven by short-term gratification. They may exhibit a range of disruptive behaviors, such as disregard for the norms of society, deceit, and aggression that can include violent outbursts when provoked.

Psychopaths are usually more methodical, manipulative and calculated in their behavior. They tend to meticulously plan their actions, often driven by a predatory nature. In many cases, they are known to groom people to prepare them for their manipulation and exploitation. But they have learned how to display a front of rationality and relative soundness of mind, often coming across as engaging and witty, and exhibiting (superficial) charm.

Emotional expression and interpersonal relationships

Sociopaths usually have emotions to some degree, but these tend to be short-lived and shallow. At least partly due to this, they often struggle to form genuine emotional attachments. For personal gain, they will at times mimic emotions. But, while they can be manipulative, they will still usually conform to societal norms.

Psychopaths have a profound lack of emotional depth. Consequently, they will have more pronounced difficulty forming emotional bonds or maintaining any semblance of normalcy in relationships. They struggle to understand or feel any guilt, and they do not have much if any empathy. Psychopaths are cunning manipulators, experts at feigning emotions and exploiting others for personal gain – and without any remorse. This is because most psychopaths, lacking empathy, will not even consider for a second that they’ve done anything wrong.

Prognosis and treatment

woman in counseling

Getting an accurate diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional is crucial for people with sociopathy or psychopathy in order for them to receive appropriate treatment and support.

Treatment for both sociopathy and psychopathy can be difficult as they are complex mental health disorders. However, there are various treatment options available that can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Sociopaths are usually more responsive to therapy that addresses their environmental influences and emotional behavior. Factors such as awareness, motivation, co-occurring disorders, and treatment engagement will significantly impact the prognosis.

Psychopathy is notoriously more difficult to treat. This is because the lack of emotional depth, remorse and any empathy makes people who are psychopaths very unlikely to seek or go for therapy. So the prognosis for psychopathy is generally poor.

However, there is research to suggest that people displaying psychopathic tendencies can learn to inhibit and control their impulses. Those who learn to develop self-discipline and self-control can play a useful part in society – with many doing very well in business, law, and government.

Treatment at Tikvah Lake Recovery Center

Our friendly, experienced team offers a range of treatment options to address all types of mental health problems. We have many decades of combined experience in successfully treating people with addiction and mental health diagnoses through our individualized treatment programs.

At our family-run recovery center, everyone who stays with us is embraced as part of our family. Our picturesque, luxury campus provides a serene and secluded environment that is important for a journey to recovery and well-being.

Surrounded by tranquil nature and nestled beside a stunning lake, we are blessed with abundant Florida sunshine – which all help to enhance the healing process.

Additionally, because there’s no point being in a healthy environment if not eating healthily, our gourmet chef prepares only the very best and most delicious nutritious fresh food daily, to further aid your recovery. Healthy snacks and fresh fruit are also available throughout the day.

Whatever your mental and emotional health concerns are, and whether they are for you or someone you care about, we can help. Please call us today for a confidential chat to learn more about our personalized mental health programs and how we can support you toward lasting recovery.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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