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Psychopath vs sociopath which is worse

Have you ever met someone that turned your world upside down? Who tried to destroy every good thing in your life? Who was manipulative and good at it? We often blame ourselves when we meet these types of people. We tell ourselves that it is our fault we let our walls down and that we trusted these people, however when you encounter a sociopath or a psychopath, they often hide their true character in order to gain your trust. Once they have gained your trust, before you know it, your world is shaken apart.

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, which causes much semantic confusion, as there are differences each term. It is important to understand that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) formally classifies both psychopathy and sociopathy as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Those terms are used by the lay public far more than is the ASPD designation, however. Here’s a breakdown of all three labels and why some are used more often than others, depending on the clinical picture.

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)

Antisocial personality disorder is listed in the DSM under the Cluster B personality disorder group, one that is characterized by dramatic and unpredictable behavior. An antisocial personality fits the profile in that such individuals ignore or subvert the rules of society. Individuals with this personality disorder demonstrate behaviors that disregard the violation and rights or others and society. To formally diagnose ASPD, signs and symptoms must be present before 15 years of age although this diagnosis cannot be made unless the individual is at least 18 years of age. The following are signs and symptoms of antisocial personality disorder:

  • Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in a criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
  • Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Blatantly disregards the safety of self and others
  • A pattern of irresponsibility
  • Lack of remorse for actions

Conduct disorder can be diagnosed in individuals with these characteristics if they are younger than 18 years of age.

Traits of a sociopath

Sociopaths are characterized by volatile behavioral patterns. These individuals often demonstrate emotional outbursts and a lack of self-control. Sociopaths can form attachments to other individuals and in general, enjoy being around other people although they have no regard for rules put in place by society. For individuals already genetically vulnerable to these behaviors, sociopathy is set in motion by specific environmental factors such as a troubled childhood, traumatic interpersonal relationships or a history of abuse.

Traits of a psychopath

In contrast to sociopathy, psychopathic behavior result more from genetics or congenital injury (such as a head injury at birth), than from environmental factors. Psychopaths are extremely manipulative and can easily gain other’s trust, however they do not form attachments to others. Individuals with psychopathic traits lack empathy and therefore feel no remorse when causing harm to another individual. Their actions are often preplanned and the crimes they commit are often highly organized and meticulous. Psychopaths are usually deemed more dangerous than sociopaths because they show no remorse for their actions due to their lack of empathy. Both of these character types are portrayed in individuals who meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder.

Warnings signs for developing sociopath or psychopath characteristics

Children and teenagers may exhibit warming signs of certain behaviors leading to the development of psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies.

  • Aggression towards people or animals
  • Violent outbursts
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of empathy
  • Destruction of property
  • Lying
  • Theft
  • Serious violation of rules or laws
  • Bedwetting and fire-setting (found more in psychopathy)

Like many other personality disorders and maladaptive tendencies, long term psychotherapy is the mainstay treatment for these maladaptive behaviors. Since these are deeply ingrained characteristics, treatment may not be successful in some individuals, especially those who are psychopathic.

Sociopath is a term people use, often arbitrarily, to describe someone who is apparently without conscience, hateful, or hate-worthy. The term psychopath is used to convey a sociopath who is simply more dangerous, like a mass murderer.

Although sociopath and psychopath are often used interchangeably and may overlap, each has its own clear lines of distinction. For example, sociopathy is the unofficial term for antisocial personality disorder (APD), while psychopathy is not an official diagnosis and is not considered an APD.


Click Play to Learn the Difference Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths

This video has been medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS.

Differences Between Sociopath vs. Psychopath

Psychopaths are classified as people with little or no conscience but are able to follow social conventions when it suits their needs. Sociopaths have a limited, albeit weak, ability to feel empathy and remorse. They’re also more likely to fly off the handle and react violently when confronted by the consequences of their actions.


  • Make it clear they do not care how others feels

  • Behave in hot-headed and impulsive ways

  • Prone to fits of anger and rage

  • Recognize what they are doing but rationalize their behavior

  • Cannot maintain a regular work and family life

  • Can form emotional attachments, but it is difficult


  • Pretend to care

  • Display cold-hearted behavior

  • Fail to recognize other people’s distress

  • Have relationships that are shallow and fake

  • Maintain a normal life as a cover for criminal activity

  • Fail to form genuine emotional attachments

  • May love people in their own way

Willem H.J. Martens argues in his infamous article “The Hidden Suffering of the Psychopath” that psychopaths do at times suffer from emotional pain and loneliness. Most have lead hurt-filled lives and have an inability to trust people, but like every human being on the planet, they, too, want to be loved and accepted.

However, their own behavior makes this extremely difficult, if not impossible, and most are aware of this. Some feel saddened by the actions they are unable to control because they know it isolates them from others even more.

Approach to Violence

While it’s common to think of sociopaths and psychopaths as being inherently dangerous, this is more a construct of a TV drama than a true reflection of the disorder. Violence, while certainly possible, is not an inherent characteristic of either sociopathy or psychopathy.

With that being said, people with APD will often go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate others, whether it be to charm, disarm, or frighten them, in order to get what they want. When psychopaths do become violent, as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, they’re just as likely to hurt themselves as others.

Martens notes that the more a psychopath feels socially isolated, sad, and alone, the higher his or her risk for violence and impulsive and/or reckless behavior.

Origins and Development

There are some who say that “sociopaths are made and psychopaths are born,” but this characterization may be too far broad. Although it is true that psychopathy is believed to have genetic components (perhaps caused by the underdevelopment of the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and impulsiveness), there are clearly other factors that contribute to the behavioral disorder.

A well-regarded study into psychopathy suggested that psychopaths often have a history of an unstable family life and/or were raised in poorer neighborhoods prone to violence. Many have had parents who were substance abusers and who failed to provide parental guidance or attention.

This typically translates to unstable and failed relationships in adulthood and a fixated sense that you have been “robbed” of opportunities and advantages afforded to everyone else. Sociopathy also tends to be associated with harmful childhood experiences, including sexual abuse, physical violence, or parental instability.

Sociopaths have a conscience, albeit a weak one, and will often justify something they know to be wrong. By contrast, psychopaths will believe that their actions are justified and feel no remorse for any harm done.

This differentiation may suggest that nature plays more of a role in the creation of a psychopath than a sociopath. This is supported in part by a 2014 review of studies in which as many as a third of people diagnosed with sociopathy essentially “give up” their antisocial behavior in later life and develop well-adjusted relationships.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies APD by a range of personality and behavioral traits that describe how a person functions, how they relate to others, and how those beliefs express themselves by actions.

Self-Functioning Characteristics

Self-functioning characteristics are those that reflect what a person is like and how that person views his or her actions or goals. In order to be diagnosed with APD, you must exhibit all of the following characteristics:

  • Attaining self-esteem from power, personal gain, or pleasure
  • Egocentricity or self-centeredness
  • Setting goals based on personal gratification with little regard to law or ethics

Interpersonal Characteristics

Interpersonal characteristics are those that describe how a person interacts with others in general. You must also exhibit these traits to be diagnosed with APD:

  • A lack of empathy for other people’s suffering or hurt or when confronted with the hurt or anger of people they have manipulated
  • The inability to have a truly mutually emotionally intimate relationship because of the instinct to control (by dominance or intimidation), coerce, or deceive

Behavioral Characteristics

Behavioral characteristics complete the clinical diagnosis by describing the route a person will take to either control, coerce, or deceive, such as:

  • A strong tendency to disregard commitments, promises, and agreements, including financial ones
  • Difficulty in making plans, preferring to believe you’re able to nimbly navigate problems as they appear
  • It is not uncommon for someone with APD to be in repeated fights or assaults.
  • Lying as a means to gain social entry or advantage, such as proclaiming yourself a decorated war hero when you have never served
  • Making decisions on the spur of the moment with little regard to consequence if an immediate goal is to be achieved
  • Persistent anger or irritability, even over small things, as well as mean, spiteful behavior
  • Reacting with callousness, aggression, remorselessness, or even sadism when confronted by the fallout of your actions
  • Risk taking, becoming easily bored, and an ability to ignore personal boundaries and justify even the most outrageous of actions
  • The emotional manipulation of others—for example, pretending to be interested in someone simply to achieve a goal


APD has no cure or first-line recommended treatment. Instead, therapeutic strategies often focus on problematic behavior, coping skills, and comorbidities such as substance use disorders. Typical approaches include:

  • Talk therapy (individual and group)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Mentalization-based therapy (MBT)
  • Democratic therapeutic community (DTC)
  • Impulsive lifestyle counseling
  • Medications (antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers)

Psychopaths and Sociopaths vs. Narcissists

Despite common usage and some overlap of features, not all people with narcissism are sociopaths/psychopaths, and not all sociopaths/psychopaths are narcissists.

Sociopathy falls under the classification of antisocial personality disorders, which are marked by ”a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.” In contrast, narcissism is a distinct personality disorder.

However, DSM-V classifies both antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders as cluster B personality disorders, a category that also comprises borderline and histrionic personality disorders.

In practical application to daily life, the main differences lie in the person’s intent. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are self-serving; they exaggerate their self-importance, crave constant praise, go to great lengths to feed their ego, and are exceedingly concerned with image, For these reasons, narcissists often appear to be successful and high-functioning. Unlike sociopaths, some narcissists are capable of empathy and remorse. People whom the narcissist hurts are merely unintended casualties on the way to a desired result.

 The American Psychiatric Association (APA) estimates the prevalence of NPD at 0% to 6.2% of the population.

On the other hand, sociopaths intend to harm others and often derive pleasure in the act. They aren’t concerned with what others think of them; they lack the narcissist’s preoccupation with image, which frequently translates to an inability to hold a job and maintain relationships.

The APA estimates the rate of APD at 0.2-3.3%. It’s most common among men who have alcohol and/or substance use disorder, those in prison and other forensic settings, and those living in poverty and other adverse conditions.