Are Psychopaths and Sociopaths the Same?

“Are psychopaths and sociopaths the same thing?” is a question that I receive a lot.  The word ‘sociopath’ has had a bit of a Renaissance as of late thanks to books mentioning the term in their titles and due to pop culture references such as with the BBC show, Sherlock.  It’s unfortunate, because the current academic climate – see Kiehl’s book, The Psychopath Whisperer – does not use the word ‘sociopath’ at all.  Unfortunately this is all made infinitely more complicated as ‘psychopath’ – the correct term when referring to a “sociopath” – is not a medical definition but rather an academic definition.  This leaves some individuals equating the medical definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder, with the term ‘sociopath’ and the academic construct with ‘psychopath’.  We are left with a disjoint language as there is no agreement by the layperson as to which term should be used in which context.

ASPD is a medical definition as defined by any number of diagnostic manuals throughout the world.  This is usually diagnosed instead of a confirmation of psychopathy being made, though it is not impossible for a clinician to make both conditions known to an individual.  The term ‘sociopath’ should not be used as a synonym for this disorder as it complicates the already messy vernacular being used.  The confusion with the word ‘sociopath’ is usually conflated with the term ‘psychopath’, so using the term sociopath to not refer to psychopath leads to the word having two, incorrect, definitions.  This must be avoided at all costs.

As is evident in any search of scholarly journals, the term ‘psychopath’ has replaced the term ‘sociopath’ in academia.  Psychopathy refers to a very nuanced condition with multiple facets that goes beyond a “simple” diagnosis of ASPD.  Even if we avoid using the term ‘sociopath’ to refer to ASPD, using it to refer to the academic construct reflects a poor choice of words and would be now different than misusing various grammatical constructs.  It is simply incorrect.  Authors such as Martha Stout and M.E. Thomas have done a disservice to the climate of discourse by using these terms interchangeably when ‘sociopath’ has been completely discarded by academia.

Are psychopath and sociopath the same thing?  Yes.  However, the correct term is ‘psychopath’.  By playing fast and loose with word choices, many have complicated the landscape for properly discussing the condition, often confusing ASPD with sociopathy and sociopathy with psychopathy.  Sociopathy should be treated as a non-word much like ain’t or youns.  It is not proper terminology and reflects a misguided and misinformed “understanding” of the climate as a whole.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    I’ve seen academics using the term sociopath to refer to people diagnosed ASPD (in the scientific literature). I’ve also seen experts using psychopath and sociopath interchangeably. It’s a hell of a mess.

    • Jessica Kelly says

      I’m of the school of thought that we stick to the train of thought sponsored by Hare and Kiehl. I may not care for them, but the standardization of the vocabulary is a *must*.

      • FNP says

        I think part of the problem is that “sociopathy” was used at one point in the DSM to refer to ASPD, but it’s been ASPD for 25 years at least.

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