Doc Bonn Explains: The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath
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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 Doc Bonn, Dr. Scott Bonn, Mass Deception, Psychopaths, serial killers, Sociopaths, The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.