Psychopaths versus sociopaths: Is there a difference?

Jason Brien.

     Whilst the two terms are used interchangeably, there are significant differences between a psychopath and a sociopath. To begin, one of the easiest ways to differentiate between the two is to remember that the P in psychopath stands for primary or pure and the S in sociopath stands for secondary or social. This means that a psychopath is of primary origin. From birth. Pure. The sociopath however, as the name implies, is socially engineered. They are secondary. Below psychopaths in the hierarchy and constructed via social means (i.e., influenced by another/others).  

     It can be argued that sociopaths are merely victims of pure psychopaths who, as a result of exposure, adopt psychopathic traits of their own in response. Perhaps pretending and adopting the traits of a psychopath, when in the presence of, or being abused by, a psychopath, is a survival tactic. Therefore, a sociopath becomes a sociopath when raised within a psychopathic environment. However, it is possible, although tremendously difficult, to reform a sociopath into a functioning and healthy member of society.

     For a pure psychopath though, they are who they are regardless of society or their environment. Whether its the result of a dysfunctional amygdala, genetics or other as yet unknown causes, a pure psychopath is a psychopath for life. Behaviour modification may help them to adequately adjust to society and its rules, but ultimately they are in it for themselves and will step right over you if you get in their way.

     Surprisingly though, and contrary to popular belief, the pure psychopath is less prone to anger outbursts than the sociopath. Research has shown that as levels of psychopathy increase (as indicated by Robert Hares psychopathy checklist PCL-R) the calmer and the more 'in the zone' the psychopath becomes when the proverbial shit hits the fan.  

     So whilst the media and Hollywood movies portrays a psychopath as being unstable and having a hair trigger temper, this is actually not true and is more indicative of a sociopath. Pure psychopaths are cool, calm and collected under pressure. They have the mental awareness, clarity of thought and emotional stability that most of us would envy.  

     For the true image of a pure psychopath, think of an elite special forces soldier who is engaging enemy soldiers or engaged in other high risk activities. Do they suddenly lose their cool, blow their top and jeopardise an entire operation? No they don't. They remain calm, calculated and hyper alert as the situation progresses and intensifies. Or think of a highly specialised surgeon dealing with a complex 10 hour surgery where the patients life is at risk. Do they blow up at the 9 hour mark and suddenly start stabbing the patient to death with a scalpel? Again, no they don't. They remain cool and collected and get the job done (by the way, surgeons and special forces soldiers are within the top 10 list of professions held by psychopaths).

     Whilst confusion exists between psychopaths and sociopaths, there are key differences between them. Similarly, whilst the DSM-5 includes a disorder known as anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), many experts agree that ASPD does not fully encompass psychopathy. Most psychopathy researchers state that while all psychopaths are anti-social, and can thus meet the criteria for ASPD, not all diagnosed ASPD individuals are psychopaths.