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Sociopath vs. Psychopath in Criminals

In the world of forensic science, the words “sociopath” and “psychopath” are often used interchangeably. However, the study of psychology reveals some stark differences between sociopaths and psychopaths. 

For many years, people have been studying sociopaths and psychopaths in order to predict their actions and highlight similarities and differences. This has many real world implications, not only for psychologists and psychiatrists, but also for law enforcement. Many serial killers often share these traits, and can either be classified as sociopaths, psychopaths and/or narcissists.

Unlike common criminals, serial killers do not kill with a motive. They kill only to satiate their desire, and to fulfill the twisted ideologies that they create in their own minds. As a result, detectives and police officers often have to think outside of the box to figure out their next move.

One of the first steps in profiling is to classify a criminal as a sociopath or as a psychopath. To help you better understand the difference; it is best to define each of these personality disorders:

What is a Sociopath?

A sociopath is a person suffering from extreme antisocial disorders. Any person can be a sociopath. Most of us have this notion that only serial killers and mentally deranged individuals can be sociopaths. That’s not true at all. Anyone can be a sociopath: a member of your family, your neighbor, your friend or even your partner. It might come off as shocking in the first place, but not all sociopaths display tendencies that make it easy to identify them. Based on statistics, the chances that you may have encountered a sociopath in your life are very high. According to estimates, at least one person in twenty-five is a sociopath. This means that almost four-percent of the total population has this disorder. It is very likely that you may have come across a sociopath at several points in your life. It might be in an office, at a bar or virtually any place.

Most sociopaths are highly manipulative. They know how to charm their way from one situation to another. If you ever come face to face with a sociopath, you’d be amazed at how well-groomed they are. Many psychologists get fooled by this facade as well. However, sociopaths often wear a mask. In their attempt to show off that they are just as similar as other members of the society, sociopaths generally try to integrate themselves by following the examples of others.

When you first think about sociopaths, names such as Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman come to mind. These are incredibly popular TV characters that depicted famous sociopaths. It’s difficult to understand the cold and constantly calculating mind of a sociopath, mainly because we know very little about them in the first place. The reason why is pretty obvious: most sociopaths don’t consider seeking help, simply because they don’t consider that they have a problem in the first place.

In order to be characterized as a sociopath, individuals must display a set of behaviors and tendencies that have been highlighted by neuroscience. One of the defining traits of sociopaths is the fact that they have very little regard for laws and the difference between right and wrong. When you are about to do something wrong, a voice in your head often tries to stop you. Even a simple act such as lying leaves a normal thinking about whether it is right to lie or not. However, sociopaths do not care about all this. It’s not because they haven’t been told what’s wrong and right, it’s because such people generally have no respect for doing the right thing.

To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, the patient must undergo a clinical review. The mental health professional must be qualified to make a diagnosis. While analyzing the patient’s mental condition, the psychologist or psychiatrist must refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The person must meet three of the following criteria put forth by the Manual:

  • Repeatedly performing acts that would generally qualify a person for arrest (it doesn’t matter if the individual was caught or not);
  • Lying to gain personal benefits, fooling others and repeated deceit;
  • Highly impulsive- they do not plan for the future;
  • They have very little regard for the safety of their own self or those around them;
  • Extreme lack of remorse. These people are indifferent to the suffering of others.

Moreover, in order to be classified as a psychopath, a person needs to be at least 18 years of age. However, they should have a history of problems since the age of 15. This is important, because it helps establish a long-term pattern of problems in such individuals.

Because of the fact that sociopaths are unable to understand the concept of boundaries and right and wrong, many of their actions are perceived as extreme in a normal society. Therefore, many are arrested and imprisoned. In fact, a survey that was conducted around the globe revealed that almost 50% of the men currently imprisoned in hospitals are antisocial, while almost 25% of women in jails are antisocial.

There have been many famous serial killers who were diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders. Some of these include Gary Gilmore, a criminal who was convicted and finally executed in January 1977. His crimes were mostly purposeless, but his crime spree received a lot of interest.

Another famous modern day example of a criminal sociopath is Jodi Arias. Arias murdered her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. According to herself, she killed her boyfriend in self-defense. However, a cursory study revealed that this was a premeditated murder. Arias had also taken explicit photos of her boyfriend before killing him. Alexander’s body was found with multiple stab wounds as well as blunt force trauma to the head.

One of the most notorious serial killers of his time, Ted Bundy not only raped and murdered women, but he often mutilated their dead bodies. Like most sociopaths who turn in to criminals, Bundy also lived on the fringes of society, with little to no friends. He tried going to college, but dropped out twice. Moreover, like a classic sociopath, Bundy knew how to turn himself in to a pleasing, charming man. He even married (though he divorced his wife later on). In later interviews, his wife said that she never thought his husband was a sociopath. This just goes on to prove that Bundy often wore a mask.

There are hundreds of other criminals who have been classified as sociopaths. However, contrary to the popular belief that all sociopaths commit crimes at one point or another in their lives, not all criminals can be classified as sociopaths. Most psychologists have agreed to the fact that sociopathic behavior tends to last throughout a person’s life. However, the intensity of these behaviors tends to lessen when a sociopath enters their 40s.

Sociopaths display a variety of different characteristics. Some of these include:

1. Lying Without Purpose
Most of us lie with a definite motive. It’s either for personal gain, or to hide our mistakes. However, most sociopaths are chronically dishonest. They just prefer lying in order to see whether they can get away with it or not. The severity of the lie varies: from simple lies about whey could not attend a function to large-scale cons, where they lie about their lives, backgrounds and work. Even if they are caught, sociopaths don’t feel any guilt for their actions.
2. They Don’t Care about Immorality
According to Stout, sociopaths have the capability of understanding what’s right and what’s wrong. However, sociopaths don’t really care about following these rules. Generally, the normal man feels guilty when they do immoral things, such as stealing from somebody else. Even a simple act such as cheating on a test can make a person feel guilty. This often causes internal conflict within a person. However, sociopaths feel none of this. They are unable of feeling any sort of guilt or remorse, which means they do not think twice before committing immoral acts. Even when someone explicitly explains to them that they are doing wrong, a sociopath just doesn’t get it.
3. They Don’t Care About Hurting Others
When asked, many serial killers were quick to highlight the fact that they felt nothing when injuring or hurting their victims. They know that they are being hurtful, but they just don’t care. The astounding lack of empathy is one of the defining traits of sociopaths. On a purely intellectual level, they know that they are causing pain to another person. However, they are unable to feel that pain for themselves.
4. Impulsive Actions
Another defining characteristic of sociopaths is their impulsivity in taking actions. According to Stout, most sociopaths generally find boredom to incredibly painful. Most of their actions are fueled by their desire to alleviate boredom. As a result, many sociopaths often tend to engage in impulsive acts which generally turn out to be dangerous. For instance, most sociopaths prefer experimenting with drugs, stealing cars or even snatching items from others.
5. They Enjoy Manipulating Others
Playing with the feelings of others is a favorite pastime of many sociopaths. According to the Mayo Clinic, many sociopaths prefer using their charming personalities in order to gain personal benefits or pleasure. Most sociopaths generally entrap men or women by making false promises and creating an illusion of love. They like seeing others do things for them that a person normally would not do.
6. They Don’t Care About Work
One of the most common traits that sociopaths often exhibit is their lack of devotion to work. Many profiled serial killers who were diagnosed sociopaths often held jobs for short whiles. They were not really focused on a particular job. Most of them did odd jobs at small companies before leaving work. These people don’t feel any sense of duty, which is why they tend to perform their jobs in a highly inconsistent and irresponsible manner.
7. Self-Centered
Sociopaths are extremely self-centered individuals. They don’t care about anything or anyone but themselves. Many famous psychologists, such as Checkley, have said a major reason for this is because sociopaths are incapable of feeling any sort of love. Because they themselves can’t feel a thing, sociopaths don’t care. They are only focused on themselves, and generally pay little to no attention to the needs of others.

What is a Psychopath?

Now that we have a clear idea about what a sociopath really is, along with their defining traits, it is time to focus our attention to psychopaths. As mentioned, psychopaths are markedly different from sociopaths. In the late 1800s, doctors that generally worked with mental patients began to notice a number of different similarities.

For instance, they began to notice that patients who generally appeared to be perfectly sane on the outside often displayed instances of moral depravity and insanity. To further explain this point, doctors began to notice that these people possessed virtually no civic sense or ethics. Thus, doctors began to refer to such individuals as psychopaths. The term began to gain popularity in the early 1900s, and it wasn’t long before the term was being widely used in international journals, etc. In simple words, the word psychopath generally denotes the “monsters” that lurk in our society.

These are perfectly normal human beings on the outside, but are characterized as untreatable predators who would stop at nothing to get their way. They plan their targets carefully, and are often very meticulous in their execution. Many of the world’s most notorious serial killers were diagnosed as psychopaths.

While there are major similarities between psychopaths and sociopaths, the term psychopathy generally applies to individuals who suffer from hereditary causes. On the other hand, sociopaths are characterized as those individuals who suffer from brain injuries or traumatic situations which develops a sense of hatred for society in them.

Psychopaths are generally emotionless in whatever they do. They don’t care about the feelings of others, and never get involved. Like sociopaths, they suffer from a deep lack of empathy. Psychopaths generally suffer from a dissociated state, with a very low-state autonomic nervous system. Most importantly, such individuals also suffer from a deep lack of anxiety, which makes it very difficult for them to feel anything at all. Even in situations where such individuals are caught, they don’t feel any guilt or remorse for their actions.

Currently, there are no defining theories that can provide clear indication about what motivates such individuals. However, numerous studies of prominent psychopaths have revealed a common pattern: almost all of these individuals have a desire to control and dominate others.

Famous serial killers such as Dean Corll, Juan Vallejo Corona and David Berkowitz were all high profile serial killers. They all suffered from psychopathic disorders. When planning to kill, each of these individuals were very careful about their selection of the victim. They would spend days meditating about the next murder. Only a handful of these guys ever committed murders spontaneously. Everything, ranging from the tool of murder along with the place was decided beforehand.

Many of the most prominent serial killers in the past century exclusively preyed on women. Ted Bundy, Berkowitz and Corona all focused on pretty young women most of the time. That is simply because women were much easier to manipulate physically and bring under control. Women couldn’t wrestle against the powerful men. However, most of them didn’t have to.

They fell willingly in to their trap. Most psychopaths are pretty charming individuals. They have a way with words, and generally maintain presentable appearances in order to integrate with society. This makes it easy for them to talk to others, even though they are pretty introverted on the inside.

Most psychopaths often display an attitude of entitlement. They think they have power over others, and aren’t shy of showing it. They often get violent in case someone goes against their word. These people also have an insatiable appetite and often tend to prefer sadism. Because they have a complete disregard for the laws of society, these individuals are generally fearless. Many of the serial killers were actually proud when discussing their killings. They weren’t even troubled when caught by the police. This just goes on to highlight the fact that most of these guys don’t really bother being caught. The only reason why they try to evade arrest and remain free is because it allows them to service their desires for a longer period of time.

When interviewed, many serial killers were quick to highlight their experience when killing their victims. Many of them likened their experience to an orgasm. They considered it to be a way of relieving their inner desires and satisfying their thirst for dominance and control.
According to medical science, there are four different types of psychopaths. The oldest distinction was made by a psychologist name Cleckley, who distinguished between primary and secondary psychopaths. However, with the passage of time, there are now four different types of psychopaths. Here’s a brief description of each type:

Primary Psychopaths

Primary psychopaths are individuals who do not show any response to aggression or punishment. They don’t care about the disapproval or stress of others. Many primary psychopaths are able to get their antisocial impulses under control and become integral parts of society, simply because it meets their purpose at certain times. According to Cleckley, primary psychopaths suffer from a condition known as semantic aphasia. This means that words do not hold the same meanings for them as they do for us. Even when given explicit orders about what to do and what to avoid, primary psychopaths end up doing the wrong things. As a result of this, many primary psychopaths find it difficult to obey a chain of command.

Secondary Psychopaths

Whereas primary psychopaths do not prefer taking risks (they like to keep everything under their control), secondary psychopaths generally don’t mind taking risks. Such individuals also react to stress and also worry about certain things. Most importantly, these individuals are also prone to guilt. They actually feel that they did wrong. This leads many of us to conclude that secondary psychopaths are not fully psychopathic.

These people are generally quite daring and adventurous, and tend to play by their own rules. These people are primarily motivated by a desire to escape and avoid pain. However, they often succumb to their temptations. As they become anxious towards a particular act or an object, their attraction towards it also increases. These people become independent and start making their own rules very early in their life, which is one of the main reasons why they become so dissociated with society. Primary and secondary psychopaths are further divided in to two subclasses:

Charismatic Psychopaths

As the name suggests, charismatic psychopaths are generally quite charming. They maintain attractive appearances, and find it very easy to fool women with their wit. These people are generally gifted in one talent and another, and know how to use it well. For instance, Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who terrorized women during the 1970s, was able to charm women with very little effort.

These psychopaths are able to use their gifts in order to manipulate others. These people are also quite persuasive. Many psychopaths prefer to con their victims and get them to do stuff that they would normally not do for another person. In fact, some psychopaths have also been known to convince their victims to commit suicide or commit heinous crimes. Many times, religious or cult leaders who suffer from this problem often convince their followers to perform radical acts. These people tend to hold a near unshakeable belief in their own fictions, which makes them impossible to resist.

When studying psychopaths and serial killers, investigators mainly talked to survivors and people whom they had contact with. A surprisingly large number of women talked about the same thing: these men were generally quite appealing and alluring. They had attractive appeal which was extremely difficult to avoid.

Distempered Psychopaths

Such people find it difficult to integrate themselves in to society. They often tend to fly off in to a fit of rage in case anything goes wrong. These are mainly men with extremely strong sex drives, and are mostly obsessed with their sexual desires. They are also characterized by powerful cravings, such as drug abuse, pedophilia and kleptomania. Such individuals tend to rely on the “high” that they get from committing a task that has been deemed illegal or considered dangerous.

How They View the World

Psychopaths generally crave power and possessions. However, these people also have a very different perception of the world. Whereas most of us try to help those in need and assist them in any way we can, psychopaths generally feel a sort of pleasure in taking from others and usurping them.

Having gotten everything they can from a single source, these people turn their attention to another source. As mentioned before, psychopaths feel a certain pleasure in taking from others. This thirst for more is insatiable, which is one of the main reasons why these individuals are never able to create long-lasting relationships. Every single person in their life exists for a reason; to serve as a means to an end.

Scientific studies reveal that the reason for this is because most psychopaths often suffer from neurological abnormalities. These abnormalities generally exist in the frontal lobe of his brain. In many cases, psychopathic tendencies start becoming apparent in the early stages of a person’s life.

Many psychopaths often have a pretty different view of others. Because they are not conditioned to feel fear, these individuals don’t care if they do wrong. Numerous scientific research studies indicate this with the help of positron emission topography. The amygdalae, a region of the brain that can have an effect on a person’s tendency to showcase aggression, recklessness or sexuality can get damaged in case of a brain injury.
Recently, many scientific studies have shown that psychopaths generally suffer such problems by birth. These individuals also have heightened senses, which allow them to find caring, weak women. Because they don’t care about things going wrong, many psychopaths often continue to create strings of lies one after the another. They are so strong in their beliefs that it isn’t a problem for them to convince others of their beliefs.

They continue to deny reality until the very end. In many cases, psychologists tend to deny reality and often accuse their victims of suffering from mental delusions. They are so convincing that many women end up believing what they say, and thus fall in to their trap without an effort.

Comparison between Psychopaths and Sociopaths

                           Psychopaths                               Sociopaths

Suffer from

Antisocial personality disorder, dismissal, no conscience, lack of empathy

Antisocial personality disorder

Illness Origin

Often considered to be an innate condition, a problem that was caused by birth

Mainly caused by environmental factors, such as upbringing, brain injuries, traumatic events, etc.

Inclination towards violence




Low in most cases



Generally displays controlled behavior

Erratic, irritable behavior

Criminal acts

Psychopaths often take calculated risks and participate in criminal acts after carefully considering environmental factors

Opportunistic, impulsive criminal behavior. These individuals take excessive risks and often engage in impulsive violence

Criminal Predispositions

Often partake in premeditated crimes. Psychopaths generally like to take controlled risks, which is why they don’t mind committing fraud, etc.

They tend to leave behind clues and often take pride in their actions.

Social Relationships

These individuals are unable to maintain any sort of social or personal relationships. They only value relationships that could benefit themselves.

They often tend to showcase superficial normality in their relationships. In many cases, sociopaths feel a slight amount of guilt in their actions. However, they are very quick to dispel such feelings and move on with their lives.


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