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Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

My last post drew some comments about the use of the word psychopath when describing Joran van der Sloot, the lead suspect in the Natalie Holloway disappearance, so I wanted to clarify what I am referring to when I use the terms psychopathy or psychopath.

The age old debate of psychopathy versus sociopathy is not one that can be answered easily. This is mainly because the words are often used interchangeably, and even when the terms are clearly defined by one scholar, another may disagree and choose to use the term in an entirely different fashion. Looking up these terms in dictionaries can lead to more confusion as the definition for psychopathy may include the word sociopathy in its description and vice versa!

While I realize that contributing another discussion on this subject will not close the broader argument, I think it will help clarify how I use the terms here on the Forensic Focus blog, which will, at the very least, hopefully help readers understand what I am referring to. I try to use research as my guide in defining and applying these terms to my discussions, rather than the popular usage that is sometimes tossed about in the media.

Research suggests that, “psychopaths are a stable proportion of any population, can be from any segment of society, may constitute a distinct taxonomical class forged by frequency-dependent natural selection, and that the muting of the social emotions is the proximate mechanism that enables psychopaths to pursue their self-centered goals without felling the pangs of guilt. Sociopaths are more the products of adverse environmental experiences that affect autonomic nervous system and neurological development that may lead to physiological responses similar to those of psychopaths. Antisocial personality disorder is a legal/clinical label that may be applied to both psychopaths and sociopaths” (Walsh & Wu, 2008).

In other words, in the mental health field there is some consensus that psychopathy is more of an innate phenomenon whereas sociopathy, which has a similar clinical presentation to psychopathy, is more the result of environmental factors (poverty, exposure to violence, permissive or neglectful parenting, etc.). This is of course difficult to prove, as the nature versus nurture debate never seems to have a winner, and for good reason–it is very likely that both our biological components and environmental exposures influence and shape us fairly equally.

In 1941, Hervey Cleckley published The Mask of Sanity, which described diagnostic criteria for the “psychopathic personality.” Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, eventually elaborated on Cleckley’s work to create the PCL-R, the “gold-standard” assessment measure used to diagnose psychopathy.

The PCL-R identifies interpersonal deficits (such as grandiosity, arrogance and deceitfulness), affective deficits (lack of guilt and empathy), and impulsive and criminal behaviors (sexual promiscuity, stealing, etc.) that are typical deficits of the psychopath. In his book, Without Conscience, Hare stated that the difference between psychopathy and sociopathy “reflects on the origins and determinates of each.”

However, other differences between psychopathy and sociopathy, aside from origin, have been cited. The capacity to feel attachment and empathy towards another and to feel guilt and shame after doing something wrong is not associated with psychopathy; however it is suggested that sociopaths can emotionally attach to others, and feel badly when they hurt those individuals that they are attached to. The sociopath will still lack empathy and attachment toward the greater society and will not feel guilt in harming a stranger, or rebelling against laws, but does not lack empathy entirely, as is typical with the psychopath.

Therefore, both psychopaths and sociopaths are capable of committing heinous crimes; however, the psychopath would commit crimes against family members or “friends” (as well as strangers) and feel little to no remorse.

The last main difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is in the presentation. The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying.  The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.

Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have “normal temperaments.” The sociopath will lie, manipulate and hurt others, just as the psychopath would, but will often avoid doing so to the select few people they care about, and will likely feel guilty should they end up hurting someone they care about.

So, while these two terms seem interchangeable on the surface because they share many of the same characteristics, they are more like two sides of the same coin. Looking at the differences may seem futile; however, looking at psychopathy and sociopathy as different constructs may prove to be helpful in understanding the etiology of these disorders, and in the development of effective treatment methods.


Hare, R.D. (1993). Without conscience: The disturbing world of psychopaths among us. New York: Pocket Books.

Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books.

Walsh, A., & Wu, H.H. (2008). Differentiating antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy: Evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and sociological considerations. Criminal Justice Studies, 2, 135-152.

Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

Kelly McAleer, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
McAleer, K. (2010). Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Sep 2010
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