Psychopath and sociopath are popular psychology terms to describe violent monsters. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Norman Bates in Psycho and Annie Wilkes in Misery. In making these characters famous, popular culture has also burned the words used to describe them into our collective consciousness.
Hiding in full view
Psychopaths and sociopaths certainly do exist. And they hide among us. Sometimes as the most successful people because they’re often ruthless, callous and superficially charming, while having little or no regard for the feelings or needs of others. These are known as “successful” psychopaths, as they have a tendency to perform premeditated crimes with calculated risks. Or they may manipulate someone else into breaking the law, while keeping themselves at a safe distance.
They’re master manipulators of people’s feelings, but are unable to experience emotions. Sound like someone you know? Well, heads up. You do know one; at least one. Prevalence rates come in somewhere between 0.2 per cent and 3.3 per cent of the population.
What’s the difference?
Psychopaths and sociopaths share a number of characteristics, including a lack of remorse or empathy for others, a lack of guilt or ability to take responsibility for their actions, a disregard for laws or social conventions, and an inclination to violence. A core feature of both is a deceitful and manipulative nature. But, sociopaths are normally less emotionally stable and highly impulsive — their behaviour tends to be more erratic than psychopaths. When committing crimes sociopaths will act more on compulsion. They will lack patience, giving in much more easily to impulsiveness and lacking detailed planning. Psychopaths, on the other hand, will plan crimes down to the smallest detail, taking calculated risks. The smart ones will leave few clues that may lead to being caught, they don’t get carried away in the moment and make fewer mistakes. Psychiatrists use the term psychopathy to illustrate that the cause of the anti-social personality disorder is hereditary. Sociopathy describes behaviours that are the result of a brain injury, or abuse or neglect in childhood. Psychopaths are born and sociopaths are made. In essence, their difference reflects the nature versus nurture debate.