Psychopaths and sociopaths

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.


  1. garnetstar says

    The first red flag for me was the “born that way” statement: that some are “born with a psychopathic brain”.

    So, that means that they scanned a bunch of newborns and somehow quantitatively determined that some brains are physically one way (not psychopathic) and some are different (psychopathic)?

    It’s not even that “normal” can’t be defined, it’s that there’s no possible way to make the determination that some people’s brains are different (how?) at birth. Such a technique doesn’t exist.

    Sounds extraordinarily weak and fishy to me. I’d always heard that the no-conscience, no-empathy personality was first termed psychopathic, then, when the concept of personality disorders came up, more properly called anti-social or sociopathic. I.e., that the terms mean the same thing. I am not convinced by any specious “born” vs. “made” argument, without solid data.

  2. lanir says

    I’m not willing to uncritically accept that any form of mental illness is “undoubtedly… a danger to society.” This feels a lot like the kind of statement that requires propping up by confirmation bias.

    It is important to remember that the primary victim of any mental health issue is the person who has it. And that often these conditions can have their effects on others mitigated substantially through training and therapy.

    It also seems relevant to me that this person is a forensic pathologist who trains police. It sounds rather like he’s the sort of person who is giving police officers justification for excessive violence. I think I trust this guy’s opinion on mental health about the same way I trust Ben Carson’s opinion as a medical doctor. Less, actually. Carson at least has a clear obligation for the health of his patient where this guy can afford to fearmonger freely and let the bodies pile up without personal consequence.

  3. says

    This illustrates the problem of psychology by inventory: it’s hard to say if someone has a disorder, or it’s behavioral. And if there is a disorder is it something the sufferer is born with or did something happen to cause it? Unfortunately diagnostics can’t be “I know it when I see it” but that is basically the state of play.

    There was a fascinating article about a girl who was “born a psychopath” and I wanted to ask the author how they can tell it from behaviors or autism or an autistic person with learned responses. I think the story was interesting but I question whether someone should be institutionalized for life based on a diagnosis. As Bob Dylan said, “nowadays you might call him ‘autistic’ but back in the day we just called him ‘mean'”

    There does appear to be an actual disorder. But there is no test for it because (unless something has changed) psychologists don’t know what that disorder is, if it exists. Basically they are arguing about angels on pinheads.

  4. says

    Here is a thought experiment: is Elon Musk a sociopath? How could he possibly be; he functions supremely well in society. We just may not like some of his behaviors but, so what, he is being rewarded hugely. Or Trump: I doubt he was born an asshole -- he was raised ignorant and brutal and society rewarded him with its highest honors. It’d be hard to say there is something generally wrong with them so maybe I have to think that the problem is me: I don’t like them. But Marcus-no-like Syndrome is an opinion not a diagnosis.

    I used to think a lot about the military greats. Maybe Caesar had something wrong with him, and that was how he successfully coped with what we’d call massive PTSD. It’s also provocative to me that our military trains people to demonstrate behaviors we’d call extremely unhealthy if someone decided to be a sniper as a hobby.

  5. Bruce says

    So Johnson is implying that on January 6, an administration of psychopaths called up a large mob of their sociopathic supporters to take action?
    I’m not going to argue with the characterization, but it doesn’t look like solid advice for law enforcement.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … brain differences, particularly when it comes to their morality centers.

    Just where inside the skull do we find these?

  7. anat says

    Marcus @3: What? Autistic people are not ‘mean’. There is nothing in the definition of autism that has anything to do with mean behavior. They are also nothing like psychopaths or sociopaths. Autistic people are recognized by their need to have their environment constant and structured in specific ways (varies from one person to the next), by being very sensitive to certain sensory input (can be bright lights, flashing lights, certain sound frequencies, certain odors etc) to the point that exposure makes it very hard for them to cope, a tendency to over-interpret language in a very literal fashion (though they can learn to understand and use figurative language, and other non-literal uses such as sarcasm, it just takes longer), and the use of stimming and flapping to relieve tension.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Pierce @6: Well, one reads things like this;

    The study showed that psychopaths have reduced connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the part of the brain responsible for sentiments such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety.

    Another common trait of psychopaths (I’ve read) is fearlessness, and ability to focus on dangerous tasks without anxiety. A valuable trait, on occasion…

  9. TGAP Dad says

    @4 Marcus Ranum: “…if someone decided to be a sniper as a hobby.”
    These people exist. They are called “hunters”, or “sport hunters” or “trophy hunters”, if you will. They often reveal themselves with things like racks of antlers or rugs made of their victim’s hide.

  10. says

    The definitions I’ve gone by are:

    sociopath: someone who harms or kills and feels nothing
    psychopath: someone who harms or kills and enjoys it

    Bezos, Musk, and Jack Ma absolutely qualify under as psychopaths by that definition. Look at Bezos’s “policies” about how employees are mistreated, abused and punished. Look at Musk profiting from others’ misery (e.g. paypal, support for the overthrow of Bolivia’s democratically elected government), or Ma’s use of slave labour in Chinese prisons.

  11. flex says

    For those who might be interested, the study referenced by Rob Grigjanis @8 can be found here:

    It is an interesting paper, and no immediate red-flags popped out for me. The authors admit that they are looking at a fairly gross difference, not fine distinctions, in brain structure. Then the sample size is fairly small, 20 subjects who are identified as psychopathic and 20 who are identified as non-psychopathic using the same criteria.

    There are certainly limitations of the study based on the selection of subjects; people who are incarcerated. But that doesn’t automatically discount the data, even if we are all aware of how previous studies using prison inmate populations were flawed.

    The study also doesn’t address any causes for the identified differences, only that they appear to exist. Whether they are present in new-born children or appear during development is not discussed, and would not be within the scope of this paper.

    But the differences they did find are intriguing; in a this better not be added to the DSM without a hell of a lot more research way.

  12. mnb0 says

    Weird that a professional scientist doesn’t consult a professional scientific source. Like

    You can find the DSM-5 here:

    The most important point is neglected in both Plackett’s (who?) article and in MS’ comment:

    “… the boundaries between many disorder ‘categories’ are more fluid over the life course than DSM-IV recognized, and many symptoms assigned to a single disorder may occur, at varying levels of severity, in many other disorders. Scientific evidence places many symptoms on a spectrum with closely related disorders that have shared symptoms.”

    This makes about everything on this page rather useless, because of a false dichotomy. Of course this reinforces Plackett’s conclusion “that mass media, especially films and TV, do a poor job of accurately portraying the two traits”. Of course they do. I’d add crime novels as well. Confirming stereotypes like the Scary Evil sells way better than scientific accuracy. Also saying things like “Charles Manson was a sociopath/psychopath” in a way is comforting -- it implies that we, who say this, are not and hence mentally healthy and normal. A movie telling that “normal” people can have antisocial disorders is unsettling, unless put in the form of a (black) comedy. Good examples are Brutto, Sporchi e Cattivi (Ettore Scola) and Preparez vos Mouchoirs (Bertrand Blier). They might be too controversial for many American sensitivities.

    “So we are back to debating whether there is any useful distinction to be made between the two terms.”
    No. The scientific debate (of which there is little on this webpage) has moved on. See above. That doesn’t mean everything is understood, but that’s science for you.

  13. John Morales says

    One could just go by the words themselves; psychic (mental) pathology and social pathology.

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