Are There Differences Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths?

What are the differences between sociopaths and psychopaths?  Nothing and everything, as it all depends on what is meant by each term.  To continue we need to create an unambiguous framework for each term.  According to Kent Kiehl, PhD, there are no differences between sociopaths and psychopaths because they both measure the same thing – the etymology is merely different.  For others, the term ‘sociopathy’ is synonymous with Antisocial Personality Disorder.  What follows assumes that we are talking about the differences between ASPD and psychopathy.

ASPD is diagnosed via clinical use of the DSM-V or other revision.  It is a clinical diagnosis and a psychotherapist or psychologist is one who confers such.  Traditionally the disorder is thought to be composed of varying degrees of impulsivity, criminal behavior, deception and lying, disregard of the rights of others, and a lack of remorse – among other traits.  This diagnosis is used because observable behaviors are easier to measure than one’s mindset.  It is thought that trained professionals have should have little difficulty in determining if one is antisocial.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is a much more nuanced disorder whose confirmation is made via professional use of the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised.  This instrument measures many facets of narcissistic, antisocial, and other facets that are observable based on a case history and interview.  Most people who are ASPD are not psychopathic.  Nearly everyone that is psychopathic is ASPD.  Careful training is required for administrators giving the PCL-R as some facets such as a lack of long-term goals, lack of affective empathy, and other facets may not be as easily measured as the traits associated with the diagnosis of ASPD.  It should be noted that neurological differences have been found between those that are psychopathic and those that are ASPD but not psychopathic.

Some will argue that sociopaths and psychopaths differ by using other criteria, but in reality, we only have two possible groupings: those that have ASPD and those that were confirmed as psychopaths by the PCL-R.  If one does not meet the cutoff for a confirmation of psychopathy, then they are not psychopathic.  If one does not meet the criteria for ASPD, then they are not antisocial.  Trying to create further differences only clouds the potential for understanding how these two fundamentally different groups differ from each other.

If you are using ‘sociopath’ to mean one confirmed by the PCL-R, then there are no differences between a sociopath and a psychopath.  If you are using ‘sociopath’ to mean one with ASPD, the differences are vast.  And, if you are using the term ‘sociopath’ to mean anything else, you are merely muddying what should be crystal clear at this point.

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  1. Aurienne says

    “It should be noted that neurological differences have been found between those that are psychopathic and those that are ASPD but not psychopathic.”

    You see this is the thing I place first in the hierarchy of determination between the two terms. Although all diagnostic processes and instruments involve measurements of behavior exclusively, it is the fact that Psychopathy is being shown again and again to truly exist as being nested in a sort of neurodevelopmental disorder the symptoms of which often surface very very early in childhood.

    Although I agree this does debase any appearance in current diagnostic clarity, and indeed even makes space for supremely strange potentialities such as comorbidities between the neuropathology of Psychopathy and trauma and/or experience based pathology inherent in Sociopathy – but I believe that model is probably quite reasonable when compared to the current one which is “Yeah erm. . . ASPD, some of them are even Psychopaths but we don’t like to talk about that.”

    Dr. David T. Lykken even makes it really very clear in his book The Antisocial Personalities, which was published wayyyyyy back in 1995, that Sociopaths were clearly far more responsible for crime and were the product of crappy environments than Psychopaths, who were antisocial because of “internal peculiarities” as he called them and were infinitely fewer in number.

    That book, by the way is EXCELLENT irrespective of its age and only feels thin in those places where the latest neuroimaging research would have made his arguments even finer in their tenor. The man is dead now, however, so I don’t expect a revised edition.

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