Doc Bonn Explains: The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

Dr. Scott Bonn,Doc Bonn,Psychopaths

The study of criminal behavior includes an examination of mental disorders that can contribute to deviant behavior. Sociopathy and psychopathy are terms used in psychology and criminology to refer to two separate groups of people with antisocial personality traits.  Significantly, these conditions are not classified as mental illnesses and they are not official diagnostic terms.  In the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) both sociopathy and psychopathy are listed under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Many psychiatrists and criminologists use the terms interchangeably. I believe there are important distinctions between them, including their causes or etiology.

Sociopathy and psychopathy share many traits, which is the main source of confusion for differentiating them in psychology and criminology. Traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include:

  • A disregard for laws and social mores
  • A disregard for the rights of others
  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt
  • A tendency to display violent behavior and emotional outbursts

Although there is no consensus among professionals on exactly what differentiates sociopaths from psychopaths, among those who believe each is a separate disorder, there is a list of significant differences. First, sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. Second, they are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place. Some sociopaths form attachments to an individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general. In the eyes of others, sociopaths appear clearly disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath tend to be disorganized and spontaneous. Miguel Rivera (“Charlie Chop-off”) is a classic example of a sociopathic and disorganized serial killer, as is Jack the Ripper.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, often have charming and disarming personalities.  They are manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to other unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.  An example of such an individual is the serial killer Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) who had a family, career, civic life and avoided detection for 30 years.

When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail and often have contingency plans in place. Because of the marked difference between the method of crimes committed by sociopaths and psychopaths, the distinction between these disorders is perhaps even more important to criminology than it is to psychology.  That is because psychopathic criminals, unlike sociopathic criminals, commit highly organized crimes often after meticulous planning.  Ted Bundy is a classic example of the psychopathic and organized serial killer.

It is also appears that the etiology of psychopathy and sociopathy is quite different.  It is likely that psychopathy is the result of “nature” (genetics) while sociopathy is the result of “nurture” (environment).  According to the late David Lykken, a behavioral geneticist known for his studies on twins, psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more the product of childhood traumas and abuse.

Based on this model, sociopaths are capable of empathy or emotional connection with others but only to specific individuals, such as a family member or friend, and only in specific contexts.  Psychopaths, on the other hand, are simply incapable of empathy and are unable to form real emotional bonds with anyone.  It is the ability of psychopaths to effectively mimic empathy and emotional connection that make them particularly dangerous, unassuming and often highly successful criminals.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.

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Posted on March 28, 2012, in Serial Killers, Social Issues and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Ohh!! I am so glad you “pinged” my post. I’m happy that lead me to your’s. I have done a TON of research (not comparative to one who is fighting toward an MBA), and in doing so, compared what I experienced to each definition. I don’t remember which article I read, but FINALLY in it, found a distinction… without such, I wouldn’t have found the first step to coming to grips with my recent past. First, I had to understand the monster, and the status quote’s definition of ‘sociopath vs psychopath’ just didn’t do. Definite similarities, yes, but oh so different! Sociopaths don’t tend to be meticulous in their manipulations, which are used to see to a predetermined end. Psychopaths (such as was my experience) do…they plan for months and take equal time implementing each calculated step. One seems unable to hold a job and is flighty. The other is calm, observant, and holds down a career. In short, I held onto that 1 article which made the distinction, being convinced of the difference. I appreciate this entry! Thank you for stopping by my blog :D…

  2. Reblogged this on My journey of healing from psychological abuse and commented:
    I just had to repost this blog entry from Doc Bonn…EXCELLENT READ for those who are still questioning the difference, or are still in the learning/understanding phase. This is a MUST READ!

  3. Lifebegins45: Thank you very much for your interest and for reblogging my article. I just visited your fine blog and journal. It is very good to meet you. All the best and please stay in touch!

  4. Reblogged this on Phoenix Rising and commented:
    Hope you enjoy this great post by Doc Bonn about the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath.

  5. Reblogged this on Psychopath Resistance and commented:
    People need to know. Thanks, Dr Bonn!

  6. Thank you for the repostings of this aricle. I am grateful for your interest.

  7. I’m curious as to the difference between these two states and the state of “narcissism”. Are narcissists similar in emotional detachment and self interested planning at the expense of others?

    BTW: excellent blog. I’ll also have to check out your book it sounds to be a “current must read”


  8. Hmmm…sounds an awful lot like an article that was published in 2010.

  9. Thanks for this. Im not a doctor neither am I even studying for school or anything. I’m just simply interested in this subject. After reading terrible articles on this subject that make no sense whatsoever (e.g. Sociopath and Psycopath are the same word like sofa and couch), I’m glad to have stumbled upon this one. Really made it clearer and this is sort of what I thought. I also read somewhere that psycopaths are charming and know how to lure people to their traps by talking and persuading. Sociopaths in the other hand are kind of like opposites in charmingness, according to one book. However thanks. P.s. Sorry for my bad english, I’m technically not a native, I’m not sure if use for example british or american english and lastly I have two mother tongues so I mix up the grammar in both languades which really sucks:(

  10. I’m a student writing a research paper on sociopaths and psychopaths and how their minds differ from the mind of an average person and what causes these differences. If you could email me or give me some insight, I’d be very grateful. Your blog is very interesting and I’d love to use some of the information you’ve provided in here.

  11. Jamie Schwartz

    Now, I’m confused. I was always taught that the sociopath is ‘born’ a sociopath. They are incapable of empathy and feel no remorse for their actions. I was always told that one cannot ‘cure’ a sociopath and the only way to keep society safe is to keep them incarcerated. Every television episode that deals with ‘criminal minds’ or ‘law and order’, portray the sociopath as charming, lacking empathy and remorse, can fool people for years regarding the true nature of their personalities. Psychopaths are always portrayed as impulsive, outwardly dangerous and a product of severe childhood cruelty or neglect.
    Maybe there have been advances in psychology of which I am unaware. I’ll keep reading the literature.

    • Socio is to do with society, but I wasn’t sure whether this meant ‘nurture’ caused sociopathy or that it was prefixed with socio because they do not mix well in social groups. Im still confused and think they have more in common than apart

  12. Hope this format holds out. Just wanted to point out that about a third of the articles I’ve found on the subject has the same definition for the opposite word. I’m not trying to say anyone is right or wrong. I have always been taught that the Sociopathic behavior has more to do with the person who can fit in, etc. This is an example from:

    As you can see, they have the same descriptors, but have the opposite words meaning… the opposite. Anyway, just so everyone is aware. Funny, as I recall having a little disagreement with my dad about it, he was under the impression that Psychopath meant what I was describing as Sociopath. So now I think I know the reason why. :-).

    Psychopath Sociopath
    Predisposition to Violence: High Varied
    Impulsivity: High Varies
    Behavior: Erratic Controlled
    Criminal behavior: Tend to leave clues, act on impulse Tend to participate in schemes
    and take calculated risks to
    minimize evidence or exposure

    Criminal Predispositions: Tend impulsive, opportunistic
    crim. behave, excessive risk
    taking, impulsive or
    opportunistic violence
    Tendency for premeditated
    crimes with controllable risks,
    criminal opportunism, fraud,
    calculated or opportunistic

    Social relationships: Unable to maintain norm
    relationships. Values relationships
    that benefit themselves.
    Tendency to appear
    superficially normal in social
    relationships, often social
    Suffers from: Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD);
    lack of empathy or conscience, delusional. Antisocial personality disorder

  13. So, the format did not hold, sorry. If you follow down, the labels apply first to psychopath and second to sociopath. i. e. Predisposition to violence: High = Psychopath Varied = Sociopath. Go to the other website to see in more clearly.

  14. Actually this article has the two terms reversed a psychopath is NOT all that charming, a sociopath is charming and very manipulative

  15. Jamie and Critic…….well spotted. The psychopath can find it hard to adopt to social norms,cues and behaviors, where as the sociopath will blend in like a chameleon, mimic behaviors and emotions and hold down jobs.

    However, Dr. Bonn might be right about the nervous disposition, psychopaths are to emotionally damaged to be nervous where as a sociopath might score very high on both psychoticism and neuroticism for example.

    The whole nature nurture debate is just forever ongoing and i think by now we can conclude that nurture will always influence what nature created and that nature will always have an input in to the effect nurture can have on future behaviors. nature nurture are not mutually exclusive, psychopath or not….it might be general trends within groups of psychopaths or sociopaths but remember that each serial killer, for example, are individuals with very different upbringings and personalities….they are not made from the same mold by any means and applying group findings to individuals are a formula for disasters and misdiagnoses. .

    Research ….I think it is important to point out that when Mr. Bonn is saying “based on this model” is exactly that…..based on one model……there are countless of models out there and thousands of very good research out there with many of them contradicting each other. There are many many models out there explaining psychopathy/sociopathy from many different perspectives and school of thoughts.

    The truth is that we know very little of psychopaths and serial killers……remember, we only know about psychopathy and serial killers from the ones we caught..they might be the defect/unintelligent ones.,,,The intelligent ones might have very different characteristics even if psychopaths or sociopaths and they are still out there……happy halloween…lol..

    Nature do not favor the weak ones

  16. Thank you a lot for sharing this with all folks you actually recognjise what
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  17. Jeffrey Dahmer is not a psychopath, he has Borderline Personality Disorder. I can’t believe I know more about psychology than a doctor of sociology.

    • Also sociopathy and psychopathy are the same thing and they are caused by high testosterone. All men’s brains lack violent impulse control, the amygdala is irrelevant. Do I have to teach you people basic psychology? Common people this isn’t a difficult subject.

  1. Pingback: Dr. Scott Bonn Writes to Serial Killers « Doc Bonn Blog

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