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

You may have heard people refer to someone else as a “psychopath” or “sociopath.” But what do these words really mean?

You won’t find a definition in the official mental health guide, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. Instead, they use a different term: antisocial personality disorder.

Most experts believe that psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits. Such people have a poor inner sense of right and wrong. They also cannot understand or share the other person’s feelings. But there are also some differences.

Do they have a conscience?

The key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether they have a conscience, a quiet inner voice that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He’s a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Center.

The psychopath has no conscience. If he lies to you to steal your money, he will feel no moral qualms, although he may be pretending. He can watch others and then act like them so that he “doesn’t get recognized,” Tompkins says.

A sociopath usually has a conscience, but it is weak. They may know it is wrong to take your money and may feel some guilt or remorse, but this will not stop their behavior.

Both lack empathy, the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath cares less about others, says Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D., author of the book Midas Complex. A person with this personality type views others as objects they can use to their advantage.

They are not always cruel.

In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually villains who kill or torture innocent people. In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead, they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.

“At worst, they are cold, calculating killers,” says Kipnis. Others, he says, are adept at climbing the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to do so.

If you learn some of these traits from a family member or co-worker, you might be tempted to think that you live or work with a psychopath or sociopath. But just because a person is mean or selfish doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disorder.

“Cold-blooded psychopath, short-tempered sociopath.”

It’s not easy to recognize a psychopath. They can be smart, charming, and able to imitate emotions. They may pretend to be interested in you, but in reality, they probably don’t care.

“They are skilled actors whose only mission is to manipulate people for their own ends,” says Tompkins.

Sociopaths are less able to play along. They make it clear that they are not interested in anyone but themselves. They often blame others and find excuses for their behavior.

Some experts consider sociopaths to be “hot-tempered.” They act without thinking about how others will suffer.

Psychopaths are more “cold-blooded” and prudent. They plan their moves carefully and use aggression in a planned way to get what they want. For example, if they need more money or status in the office, they will make a plan to remove any barriers that stand in the way, even if it is another person’s job or reputation.

Brain differences

Recent studies show that the brain of a psychopath is not the same as that of other people. It may have physical differences that make it difficult for a person to identify with someone else’s distress.

Differences can even change basic bodily functions. For example, when most people see blood or violence in a movie, their heart beats faster, their breathing quickens, and their palms sweat.

The psychopath has the opposite reaction. He becomes calmer. Kipnis says the quality helps psychopaths be fearless and take risks. “They are not afraid of the consequences of their actions,” he says.

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