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Psychopath Vs Sociopath Essay Contest

When we talk about serial killers in fiction (and in real life) we tend to talk in terms of ‘psychopath’ or ‘sociopath’ and, often, interchangeably. Let’s have a look at what makes them similar, but also they behave differently and what we might need to consider if we are writing characters with these traits.


First, let’s dispel some myths.

  • Not all psychopaths or sociopaths are killers, though most serial killers are thought to be psychopaths
  • The traits listed below for psychopaths actually help many of them enjoy high-level positions in their place of employment (again, without killing anybody!)


The Similarities

Both psychopaths and sociopaths are described under the umbrella of ‘Anti-Social Personality Disorder’:

‘Antisocial personality disorder is a particularly challenging type of personality disorder, characterised by impulsive, irresponsible and often criminal behaviour. Someone with antisocial personality disorder will typically be manipulative, deceitful and reckless, and won’t care for other people’s feelings.’ NHS definition


In what ways are they similar? Both may:

  • exhibit violent behaviour
  • be unable to control their anger
  • lack feelings of remorse or guilt
  • exploit, manipulate or violate the rights of others
  • demonstrate disregard for core societal rules, laws
  • behave irresponsibly and show disregard for normal social behaviour
  • blame others for problems in their lives
  • repeatedly break the law and/or have a history of conduct disorder

In the article to follow, I am assuming that you want to read up on these two disorders for crime fiction writing purposes. I, therefore, explore the different ways a psychopath or sociopath may carry out a violent crime.  I don’t intend to cause any offence to anyone who displays these traits J

Scroll to the bottom to see an infographic summary of this guide!

The Psychopath

You could be forgiven for thinking there are murderous psychopaths around every corner, considering the proliferation of characters depicted as psychopaths in TV, film and fictional novels. Though not quite that prolific, 1% of the population are thought to be psychopaths which, when you think about it is 1 in every 100 people you come across! In fact, up to 4% of all CEOs are thought to be psychopaths… scary stuff!



A psychopath is thought to be the product of a mix of faulty genetics, biology and serious childhood trauma or abuse:

genetic makeup + brain patterns + childhood trauma = psychopath!

It is thought that an under-developed paralimbic system (responsible for controlling impulse, goal-seeking, motivation and emotional processing) is the trigger here. fMRI scans show the differences between normal brain and psychopathic brain because the paralimbic tissue shows evidence of thinning in a suspected psychopathic brain.

A clinician could also test for psychopathy using the Dr Hare’s ‘PCL-R test’ (Psychopathic Checklist – Revised) which measures patients against 20 traits:

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioural controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavioural problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility

If you’re interested in finding out more about this test, you can have a read of more info here or even take a psychopath test here!


Psychopathic Traits

Research shows that psychopaths are overwhelmingly male. They are also on the extreme end of the spectrum of personalities that fall under the Anti-Social Personality Disorder umbrella.

Our psychopath is likely well-educated and has a high IQ – they could have a great career. They lack empathy entirely but may be able to mimic it as an emotion. They are also renowned for being incredibly charming – how might this have helped your killer to gain access to the victim? Where did they meet?

They are a controlled, highly manipulative individual who can become wholly fixated on a task. These traits are mirrored in the state of the crime scene: minimal physical evidence has been left behind.

This person cannot make close personal attachments and remain cool under pressures like punishment, fear, stress or disapproval. Additionally, they cannot detect emotional nuances in language or facial expressions; for all of these reasons, the usual threats made under police interview are unlikely to phase a psychopath. How will your fictional detective tease out a confession if one is needed?

Their inability to respond to punishment means psychopaths are six times more likely to re-offend following a stint in prison. Is your psychopath already known to police?


Not to be confused with: ‘Psychotic’ – someone suffering from a manic depressive disorder.

Famous psychopaths: Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, Hannibal Lecter

Find out more: Watch Jim Fallon’s TED talk ‘Exploring the Mind of a Killer’ and also Jon Ronson’s ‘Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test’. If you’re interested in the fact about CEOs often being psychopaths, you’ll also love this article!



The Sociopath

You are much more likely to have met a sociopath as 4% of the population are classified as this.



Trauma or abuse occurring before puberty is the key factor in determining sociopathy, as is early institutionalisation; perhaps your killer has spent time in a mental institution or prison. If we think of psychopaths and sociopaths as opposites, as the nature versus nurture debate, sociopaths are the nurture; they are not born as such but learn the behaviours because of their abusive upbringing.


Sociopathic Traits

Unlike the psychopathic counterpart, a sociopath is unlikely able to hold down a steady job for long and may be uneducated. You will need to build a back history of short stints at various jobs: What kinds of occupations would your sociopath likely have?

A sociopath is most likely a loner from a poor socioeconomic background, often ending up on the streets and with problems with drug addiction.

Having said this, the sociopath could blend into society as they are able to form attachments where a psychopath does not; people of a sociopathic nature enjoy happy, loving relationships in our societies. Does your killer have friends or perhaps a lover?

The personality of a sociopath is characterised as erratic, angry and prone to rage; they respond to ‘slights’ by getting even with the world. As such murders committed by this type of person are often spontaneous in nature; this means a messy crime scene and evidence will more than likely be left behind because the killer has not planned to kill.

A police interview will be easier with a sociopath because they are vulnerable to stress, anxiety and shame where a psychopath is not. How might an interviewer use these weaknesses to glean a confession from a sociopath?


Famous sociopaths: Josef Mengele, Diazien Hossencofft, Sherlock Holmes

Find out more: Read ‘Confessions of a Sociopath’ by M. E. Thomas here. Also, ‘The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us’ by Martha Stout here.


For further reading and the sources used to inform my article, go to the Criminal Psychology section of my Non-Fiction Books and Journal Sources list!

A handy infographic by Healthtopia:

Like this:



      The differences between these two types of individuals are not always clear. More often than not the terms psychopath and sociopath are used interchangeably. In fact the DSM IV no longer lists either as a pathology opting instead for the diagnosis "antisocial personality" disorder. I do believe however that there is a distinction between the two personality types which I will endeavor to explain here, though this idea is not universally accepted. A psychopath is an individual that is usually driven and focused on their own gain with a single minded purpose. Like many of us, this personality has a degree of narcissism. It is the degree of Narcissism in the personality that aides in the definition. Narcissism in and of itself is not a negative element of one’s personality except when it is taken to extremes. An individual with a balanced sense of self worth can be considered to possess a healthy dose of narcissism. A sociopath by earlier definitions appear to be a total narcissists whose behavior are injurious to others. Furthermore there has not necessarily been a traumatic experience to account for this seemingly arrested development. It appears that even through their early childhood these individuals have been devoid of what we like to consider very human components, empathy, consciousness sincerity. These missing components of conscience, caring and empathy make these individuals more often than not destructive if not dangerous for others in their path. Sociopaths in their extreme form are society's great white shark and I suggest account for the more predatory, vicious hunter-type individuals that are serial murderers. The sociopath’s focus is in keeping with their extreme narcissism and is directed towards their personal gain without any regard to those that might be hurt or damaged as they move towards that end. It is not clear that they are consciously aware of this narcissism at least to the extent that they would become introspective about it.

To further illustrate this idea of sociopath vs. psychopath lets indulge in a few hopefully recognizable and easily understood societal archetypes. A Special Forces soldier, military snipers, intelligence operatives are in my opinion examples of socially accepted psychopaths whose focus is on their interpretations of God, country and perhaps family. It is their intent, rationale and espoused beliefs that gives them acceptance within our society. These individuals focus on their code of honor, something noble, consequently they are able to kill when necessary, gather intelligence, exploit others and gain information by what may appear to be nefarious means all in the name of what they deem as their higher goals. The danger is clearly evident when people in government rationalize their militaristic posture or domestic policies regarding the citizenry's right to know or protest as somehow unpatriotic, cowardice or tools of subversives. The point is that a psychopath is not necessarily a cold-blooded killer in many instances although I would say that all cold-blooded killers are definately psychopaths or sociopaths. we find psychopaths in all walks of life. Members of law enforcement sometimes fall into the category of psychopath though what is considered to be their ethical code is a more rigid standard than a corporate executive. These psychopathic individuals like the military Special Forces, snipers etc., although narcissistic and focused still may experience sadness, empathy and even sorrow regarding their actions. These individual's feeling are repressed and viewed as a necessary evil which enables them to live with their deeds and society's acceptance of their roles and what they have done or do for the greater good relieves their burden.

Simultaneously, this Kantian and utilitarian ideologies of duty and greater good do not make for strange bedfellows within the minds of these psychopaths. These individuals may go awry if they do not allow for introspection and fall too much into their idealized world which may be the result of ignoring the facts around them which might challenge their beliefs and justifications. The trauma of discovering that their reality is not supported by the facts/truth may lead to a sort of self-implosion that can have disastrous and destructive consequences to themselves and those around them.

Serial killers a’la Ted Bundy and Enron-like corporate executives are examples of psychopaths. The extreme narcissism in displayed by these individuals in the form of arrogance and remorseless plundering. Enron executives atypical of many corporate executives so relentlessly and callously lied to their stockholders and employees destroying lives that I would consider them sociopaths. The sadistic hunter/predator on one end and the guiltless corporate pirates on the other end illustrate both ends of the sociopathic spectrum. The commonality is that these individuals are all devoid of empathy, sadness or sorrow for anyone but themselves. Though they may be able to see other people’s perspectives and views, why bother unless it is to be utilized in the service of their manipulation. Psychopaths I believe can be manipulated due to their focus, while sociopaths are the focused manipulators. Both of these individuals see characteristics such as empathy, sincerity and kindness as fatal flaws and weaknesses to be exploited to their own end. Murdering individuals, robbing pensions (often a slow death) and exploiting workers for power and or wealth come easily to these individuals. As I've stated it is fair to say that all serial killers are psychopathic but not all psychopaths are serial killers. Some serial killers may be sociopaths but not all sociopaths are serial killers. With that thought in mind I do consider the most prolific and sadistic serial homicides as sociopathic predators. They have a focused intent and single minded purpose, they are of course narcissistic, fantasy driven and clearly not grounded in what most of us consider appropriate behavior in the real world. If they can be believed from their interviews only the most prolific serial killers (the sociopaths are without remorse).

Some serial killers appear to express regret for their deeds and speak of their unwanted compulsion to kill. This self-reporting aspect of these psychopaths are the biggest flaw regarding their veracity. How are we to know if they are truly sorry pre-arrest and some would argue, even if they are what does it matter? If we assume for a moment that they are remorseful then might we be able to put forth the maxim that all serial killers are psychopathic but not necessarily sociopathic? Some argue that all serial killers are without remorse but if their killing is an addiction where do they express this remorse, at SKA (Serial Killers Anonymous)? If we know anything we know that based on the many theories regarding personalities and personality development we know that there is a dearth of knowledge which is unobtainable; each individual is as complex as their DNA. The brutality of what they do cannot be excused because of childhood trauma. The fact is that underlying motives and feelings are harbored deep within the souls of individuals and can never be known with any certainty.

Now one might argue that to get to the height of the corporate world one must be psychopathic as with the military sniper or the intelligence operatives the agents of disinformation. I would venture to say that it is probably true among most corporations that a psychopathic or sociopathic personality aid their own advancement except within the confines of a few corporations that uncharacteristically are more concerned with employee welfare than company profits. This seemingly negative formula for advancement is probably true in most social environments. This rise to become as Tom Wolfe proclaimed of his character Sherman McCoy (in Bonfire of the Vanities) a Master of the Universe is probably a goal of many executives strive for. Obviously some corporations may not be profit but that is rare. Martha Stoudt’s (2005) in The Sociopath Next Door, addresses the increase of this type of personality in our society. Further adding to the confusion surrounding these definitions of sociopath vs. psychopath the recent book titled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work (Babiak and Hare, 2006). Hare describes the psychopath in ways that seem similar to Dr. Stoudt's. I am suggesting here that more often than not the sociopathic personality in some instances may appear to be the more extreme than that of the psychopath. Dr. Hare starts his operationalization of these terms on pg.18 of his book.  Language is of course key to understanding any science or culture. Therefore, the descriptions I have set forth will hopefully provide some insight for my students. Some might recognize Robert Hare as the creator of the PCL-R (psychopathic checklist-revised) created for measuring degrees of psychopathy. They might also ask who am I to question this noted researchers work. I do not so much as question it as suggest expanding it. This essay is only for the purpose of operationalizing the terms psychopathy and sociopathy for its utilization in my courses regarding serial murderers.

Returning to the subject at hand, although many corporate executives are probably psychopathic like th emost prolific and sadistic serial killers only the most ruthless can be considered sociopaths, lacking a conscience, one that never existed. Both personality types sociopath and psychopath are narcissistic and maybe fantasy driven. The sociopath by Stoudt's definition are incapable of the remorse, like there is some missing gene. Hare expresses the same sentiment regarding psychopathy.  I suggest that the psychopath may be focused, narcissistic but not necessarily remorseless or guiltless, I believe that psychopaths may actively choose to ignore the aforementioned feelings. For the psychopath there may be a possibility for change. It may be possible for psychopaths to change if they are able to learn why their actions are flawed and not in the best interest of themselves or their idealized goals. This change of direction possibly easier within the psychopathic structure is not conceivable within the sociopathic personality type. This is an attempt to explain the differences between these two personality constructs, however the only clarity may be the view that both personality types are the same essentially except how they came to be. The standard is that sociopaths are nurtured by their environments while psychopaths are nature's unexplained gift. If this is so then what are the implications for tests regarding race and ethnicity and cultural behaviors. If the cultural component is not included then there are more questions generated by the PCL-R than answers and for a researcher like Hare that should be good news!

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