Sociopath or Psychopath, Which is a Serial Killer More Likely to Be?

Jack the Ripper,Dr. Scott Bonn, Doc Bonn

Sociopathy and psychopathy are both antisocial personality disorders and they share many common behavioral traits.  Their similarities lead to the confusion between them and help to explain why many people incorrectly believe they are the same, identical disorder.  Key traits that both 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

In addition to their similarities, each of these two antisocial personality disorders also has its own unique characteristics which are explained below.

First, sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated.  They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage.  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. They are frequently transients and drifters.  Third, it is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others.  They are capable of bonding emotionally and demonstrating empathy with certain people, and in certain situations, but not others.  Thus, some sociopaths are able to form attachments to an individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general.  Finally, in the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear clearly disturbed.  Any crimes committed by a sociopath will tend to be haphazard and spontaneous.  A sociopath who becomes a serial killer will most likely conform to the FBI’s disorganized category of serial predator.  Jack the Ripper offers a classic example of the volatile, spontaneous and disorganized serial killer.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have charming and disarming personalities.  They are very 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 well 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.  When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail and often have a contingency plan in place.  Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm and meticulous.  They make few mistakes.  A psychopath who becomes a serial killer would most likely conform to the FBI’s organized category of killer.  The charming Ted Bundy provides a classic example of the poised, articulate and highly organized serial killer.

The etiology or cause of psychopathy is different than the cause of sociopathy.  It is believed 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.  Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy or emotional connection with others but only to certain individuals, such as a family member or friend, and only in certain contexts.  Psychopaths, on the other hand, are simply incapable of empathy and are unable to form real emotional bonds with anyone.  Ironically, it is the ability of psychopaths to so effectively mimic empathy and emotional bonds with others that make them especially dangerous, deceptive and highly successful serial killers.

The traits of the psychopathic personality are more highly correlated with the characteristics of highly successful, organized serial killers than are sociopathic traits.  Many of the most infamous and prolific serial killers in U.S. history, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, Ed Kemper, Joel Rifkin, Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Ridgway, have manifested the central traits of psychopathy, and many of these killers have been classified as psychopaths by forensic psychologists.  A cool and unemotional demeanor combined with a keen intellect and charming personality makes the psychopath a very effective predator.

It should come as no surprise that the entertainment industry has provided many inaccurate examples of psychopaths in film, television and books, etc.  Psychopaths are often incorrectly presented by the media as scary people who look frightening or have other off-putting characteristics.  In reality, a psychopath like Ted Bundy can be anyone—a neighbor, coworker, lover or homeless person on the street.  Each of these seemingly harmless people may in reality prey ruthlessly on others around them.

Follow criminologist and media expert Dr. Scott Bonn @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website

Dr. Scott Bonn is located in Manhattan and is available for live on-air commentary, expert consultation and speaking engagements. More information about his experience and past media appearances can be found at his website, DocBonn.Com   Please call (843.808.0859) or email ( to discuss media opportunities.


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Posted on January 9, 2013, in Psychopath/Sociopath, Serial Killers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Doc Bonn,
    Thank you for clearing that question up for me, as I have had trouble distinguishing between the two. I do have a question about a particular serial killer, Richard Ramirez. By your definition he is a sociopath, however he is very well spoken and is intelligent. How would you classify him with disorganized crime scenes but also well spoken and intelligent?

  2. Excellent question, Elizabeth. The Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, actually exhibited characteristics of both organized and disorganized behavior. He is a mix of the two.

    • I have a question about that. What would be the characteristics of someone who happens to be a mix of the two?

  3. Is Narcissistic PD the root issue of psychopathy? Since sociopaths don’t need admiration, are more reactionary and less capable of keeping control over their emotions as well as lacking the bonding behaviours that make Psychopaths be able to get away with the sort of crimes they do – does that mean the majority of incarcerated criminals form this category of the population.. Is it even right to call what they have a personality disorder? As in AsPD – aren’t they more mood/conduct disorders? Seems like men from abusive backgrounds become sociopaths and women borderlines.

  4. what causes a serial killer too kill, and too keep killing?

  5. For my MSc in Investigative Psychology, I am doing a literature review around the question ” Are all Serial Killers Psychopaths?”. I am struggling to find literature that relates directly to the question and also doesnt include Sociopathy. Can you point me in the right direction please?

  6. You got everything wrong.It’s the exactly other way round.Sociopaths are intelligent,organised and superficially charming and they can lead a normal life without being “spotted”.On the other hand psychopaths are unpredictable and tend to get outbursts of rage.Richard Ramirez is a sociopath.

    • Actually, Ann, you’ve still got it wrong, as well as the author. Sociopathy and psychopathy really ARE the same. The differentiation only arose because some professionals believed that some- but not all- psychopaths were not born with their maladaptive traits, but rather acquired them as they grew up, due to societal/environmental influences.

      The distinctions described in this article seem to actually be describing the differentiation between primary and secondary psychopathy. Primary psychopaths are much less impulsive and score higher on measures of superficial charm and manipulation, while secondary psychopaths are more volatile and disorganized. This is also why the majority of incarcerated psychopaths are secondary psychopaths, while a number of politicians and CEOs can be pointed to as possible examples of primary psychopathy (also sometimes referred to as ‘successful psychopaths’, because compared to secondary psychopaths they are much less likely to be arrested for crimes).

  7. I think I may be a sociopath. There are only a handful of people I truly care about. And excluding one, I would get rid of any of them to prolong my own life, or for enough financial gain.

    Not proud of this fact, I’m actually thinking of talking to a professional because I’m afraid it will get worse over time. Only thing stopping me is lack of money, because as they said, no education, can’t hold a job. I worked at a place for a few years, would still be there if they didn’t lay me off, but that’s only because it was easy, routine. Another thing stopping me is thinking of the sociopaths who have went on to lead good lives. These are the sociopaths I know of who have had good lives:

  8. Reblogged this on A Bird in the Hand and commented:
    Intelligence without the ability to integrate empathy = a dangerous combination. IQ means nothing without the corresponding EQ.

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