We have all seen movies or TV series where a bad guy does some extremely bizarre things in an incredibly well-calculated fashion; he might plan attacks, commit fraud, or hurt people with a complete lack of concern for his actions. Upon seeing such people, we tend to immediately brand them as psychopaths. At other times, people use the term sociopath instead.
But hey, is there actually a difference between the two?
Psychopaths are patients of psychopathy, a personality disorder found among humans. Unlike many other ailments, this is one of the most difficult afflictions to spot in humans, as patients appear absolutely normal on the outside without displaying any obvious symptoms (as typically occur in biological disorders) that can be spotted using traditional medical equipment. The patient may display manipulative self-serving behavior, show no regard for the safety or wellbeing of others around them, be extremely volatile, and be devoid of any empathy or conscience.
Due to many similarities in their behavior, sociopaths, i.e. patients suffering from sociopathy (an informal term referring to a pattern of antisocial attitudes), are not always readily discernible from psychopaths. Still, the term ‘socio’ being attached to the word gives us the idea that, unlike psychopaths, sociopaths tend to develop due to the environment in which they live. They typically have a grandiose sense of self, display shallow emotions and impulsive behavior, and may also have a persistent need for stimulation.
Psychopaths vs. Sociopaths
Nature of the disorder
Psychologists believe that psychopaths are born with the disorder, meaning that they have a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic tendencies. Medical research shows that psychopaths tend to have brains that are structurally different from the brains of normal people. More specifically, the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and memory regulation may be underdeveloped in psychopaths.
In most cases, sociopaths are not born with any disorders. Rather, they ‘become’ what they are due to various environmental factors, such as their upbringing, childhood trauma or a history of emotional abuse. As a result, they tend to be more impulsive and less calculated in their decisions and actions.
Conscience plays an integral part in all of our actions, especially in the ‘wrong’ ones. According to L. Michael Tompkins, a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center, psychopaths have no conscience. In other words, they won’t feel bad if they lie to you about an important thing, steal something or hurt someone. They may display regret, but they won’t actually feel it.
Sociopaths, on the other hand, have a conscience, albeit a weak one that won’t be able to prevent them from doing something they think is wrong or immoral. In other words, before committing a fraud, they know that what they’re about to do is wrong, but that won’t stop them from actually doing it.
The other vital personality trait that dictates most of our actions is empathy – the ability to see things from others’ perspective and feel how they feel. Although both psychopaths and sociopaths fail to empathize, according to Aaron R. Kipnis – a psychologist and author of The Midas Complex – psychopaths have no regard for others. If it comes to it, they may use others for their own good with complete disregard to others’ wellbeing or even survival.
Psychopaths tend to be quite good at hiding/manipulating their emotions. As a result, they appear absolutely normal, sometimes even charming or trustworthy. They may also be quite intelligent (for example, Hannibal Lecter). Sociopaths, on the other hand, have a harder time mingling and interacting with people, often making them stand out in a group as being ‘weird’.
Although both psychopaths and sociopaths pose a threat to members of the society in which they live, it’s the former that can be deemed more dangerous, as they have no conscientiousness and experience almost no guilt associated with their actions.
Not all patients are dangerous!
There is one incredibly important thing that one should keep in mind…. just because a person suffers from a personality disorder doesn’t mean that they are dangerous to people or society at large. One should understand that such disorders are beyond the control of individuals; even normal people show sociopathic behavior in certain situations. People suffering from personality disorders may have trouble adjusting to the ‘conventional’ way of living, but that doesn’t mean that they wish to harm others.