Although I had not really looked into the formal definitions of the words, I used to distinguish between sociopaths and psychopaths by thinking of the former as people lacking in conscience and in empathy, who pursue their own interests without thinking of the needs or feelings of other people. One can think of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos but pretty much any oligarch would seem to fit into this category. I saw psychopaths as going even beyond that and being willing to even physically harm people who stood in their way. Serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer would be psychopaths.
But somewhere along the way, I read that there really was no difference between the two terms and started using them interchangeably. Now comes along an article in Discover magazine by Benjamin Plackett that says that using the two terms interchangeably is not correct and that a useful distinction can be made using brain science between the two terms.
Both psychopaths and sociopaths are severe types of an antisocial behavior, capable of extreme violence and a disregard for the feelings and experiences of other individuals. While they both undoubtedly present a danger to society, they also have significant differences, which start to manifest at birth.
“The psychopath is born with a psychopathic brain, which … doesn’t function properly to allow for normal social experiences,” explains Scott Johnson, a psychologist and independent consultant who provides forensic mental health training to law enforcement and prosecutors. “The sociopath, on the other hand, we believe is born with normal brain, but something goes wrong during their nurturing.”
One immediately sees a problem and that is the concept that there is something that we can identify as a ‘normal’ brain. The idea that we can identify some type of brain as normal at any stage is problematic but this article suggests that we can.
Though the cause may differ, psychopaths and sociopaths both have brain differences, particularly when it comes to their morality centers. This often shows up on CT and PET scans. They also tend to lack empathy and sympathy almost entirely, particularly psychopaths. “They often just seem like don’t care for other people at all,” says Johnson. They might enjoy the feeling of inflicting pain or exercising control over others, unincumbered by feelings of guilt, anxiety or remorse.
There are some significant differences between the two phenomena, however. Psychopaths are better at delaying gratification. Subsequently, they can meticulously plan their wrongdoings – not all of which are inevitably violent. Psychopaths also commonly commit financial fraud. “A psychopath doesn’t necessarily need to hurt someone physically, their motivation can be narcissism and a thrill of what they perceive as ‘the game’ and that can be achieved in different ways,” explains Johnson. “Approximately 70 percent of psychopaths cross the line into sexual or physical violence.”
Sociopaths, however, are even more likely to be violent, but less likely to be calculating. They struggle to delay their gratification and frequently lash out. “Almost all sociopaths cross over the line into violence. They’re not cunning enough to prepare an attack, they act on impulse.” Because of this, sociopaths are more likely to be caught than psychopaths.
It appears that mass media, especially films and TV, do a poor job of accurately portraying the two traits, with a survey finding only 21% accuracy.
I recall the TV series Sherlock in which one person refers to the Benedict Cumberbatch character as a psychopath and he corrects him by saying that he is not but is instead a ‘high functioning sociopath’. Maria Konnikova disputes that self-description. She first argues that there is no distinction between sociopaths and psychopaths and that Holmes is neither because Holmes’s coldness does not arise because he does not lack feeling but that he has trained himself to not let that overpower his reason and judgment. She points to other qualities that do not make him a sociopath.
So we are back to debating whether there is any useful distinction to be made between the two terms.