Before we start explaining the differences between a psychopath and a sociopath, let’s get into the meat of why you’re here. Below is a free psychopath vs sociopath test you can take to try to analyze one of your friends and see if they fit in either category.
Do you tend to plan things for your group of friends to do together? I’ve tried, but I can’t guarantee that my friend will go along with the plan if they’ve found something “better.” I don’t plan things anymore. They can’t stick to a plan and don’t even like having one! Of course! We love a plan.
In this article, you’ll learn about a subject that fascinates, scares, and intrigues many: psychopaths. I’m also going to talk to you about a subject that equally fascinates, scares, and intrigues many: sociopaths.
These two terms, “psychopath” and “sociopath,” are often used interchangeably. They’re used to describe a person who is, for lack of a better word, “crazy.” It’s not exactly nice to call someone a psychopath or a sociopath, even if they did something that hurt your feelings. And it might not be accurate, either.
While psychopaths and sociopaths have a lot of common traits, there are subtle differences between the two terms. Let’s explore how the American Psychiatric Association defines both of these terms and what separates a psychopath or sociopath from the rest of the “normal” population.
Where can you find information about psychopaths, sociopaths, and the like? In the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This manual is in its fifth edition, and has been used by professionals to diagnose patients since 2003. (The first DSM was published in 1952.)
But the DSM-5 doesn’t have a specific diagnosis for psychopathy or sociopathy. Instead, both of these terms fall under a disorder called Antisocial Personality Disorder, or ASPD.
A person who is a psychopath or a sociopath may be diagnosed with ASPD, but not all people with ASPD may be considered psychopaths. Narcissists, for example, fall under the umbrella of ASPD.
Before we look at the subtle differences between psychopathy and sociopathy, let’s look at what it means to have Antisocial Personality Disorder.
By the age of 3, a child develops a sense of self. They see themselves as separate from other people. As the child grows, they learn more about the world. They also learn more about themselves and the personality traits that make them who they are.
As this learning takes place, their sense of self grows and may change. This sense of self influences the way a person may interact with others and who we choose to let into our circle of friends.
The sense of self may influence the career a person chooses or how they decide to spend their time. Having a strong sense of self puts achievements, failures, and other events into perspective.
People with antisocial personality disorder don’t have a developed sense of self. Or, their sense of self if overinflated. Something is lacking. They might not recognize their personality traits or how they fit into a larger society.
This distorted sense of self plays into their lack of empathy and their ambitions. Some people with ASPD may seek wealth or fortune to feel satisfied. Others have a hard time being consistent with their family, friends, or colleagues.
Most people recognize sociopaths or psychopaths as lacking empathy. They are not able to tap into the feelings of other people. Does that mean they are incapable of caring or loving? Not always. But does it mean that they are more likely to display hurtful behaviors?
Yes. Without empathy, it’s hard to step back and say, “This isn’t right,” or “Maybe I should get permission before doing something.” If you knew that nothing you could do would harm someone, you might behave differently too, right?
Other personality traits that may point to a psychopath or sociopath include:
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hmm…maybe I know a sociopath.” It’s not uncommon to have a distorted sense of self, lack empathy, or display attention-seeking behaviors. Children often have these traits, because they are still developing. But once a child reaches adulthood, they should be able to have a healthy sense of self and understand empathy. They should also know how to behave in a way that doesn’t hurt themselves or the people around them.
If a person can go about their business without harming anyone, they’re not likely to be a psychopath or a sociopath. But if their behavior is unusual, alarming, or harmful, then it might be time to go see a professional.
Again, both of these terms fall under the larger umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Whether someone is a psychopath or a sociopath, they are likely to exhibit unusual behavior or a lack of empathy. But there are some minor, minor differences between a psychopath and a sociopath that are important to note.
The first is that psychopaths have a much harder time forming bonds with people. A sociopath isn’t a loner. They form emotional connections with friends and family, even if they aren’t entirely empathetic. A psychopath doesn’t have the same capabilities to form close bonds, even if they are able to charm and manipulate the people that they do meet.
Another difference between psychopaths and sociopaths is that psychopaths tend to display much more aggressive behavior. Serial killers are generally regarded as psychopaths, not sociopaths.
While sociopaths may emotionally hurt people through manipulation or not caring about their feelings, it’s unlikely that they’ll get violent. A sociopath may also be impulsive, but again, not as likely to become a serial killer.
When a sociopath displays impulsive or harmful behavior, they tend to recognize it. They can just explain their behavior away. But a psychopath is unlikely to recognize that they are doing anything remotely wrong.
They will think out their manipulative and hurtful behavior, and at no point do they think they are in the wrong or that they could cause harm. It’s unlikely that a psychopath will go to a mental health professional for help, because they simply do not think they need it.
Of course, if they went to a mental health professional, they wouldn’t be told that they were a psychopath. The therapist would more likely diagnose them, as they would diagnose a sociopath, with Antisocial Personality Disorder.
There are only subtle differences between sociopaths and psychopaths, but knowing these differences may help you identify when it’s better to keep your distance from someone who could hurt you.
In an ideal world, the answer would be “yes.” When you act like the person that you want to be, you are likely to live at peace. You have no conflicts and don’t toss and turn at night over what you have done in the past. But we all know that our behaviors aren’t so simple.
The decisions we make may feel wrong, but we do them anyway to satisfy an itch, get caught up in the moment, or just because we feel the urge to act out.
What happens when a disorder or a condition leads us to these behaviors? What happens when a disorder or condition leads us to believe our behaviors are in line with our ideal self, even though these behaviors are dangerous? These are questions that psychoanalysts and therapists have been trying to answer for decades.
They look at ego syntonic and ego dystonic behaviors and conditions. Let’s talk about what these two terms mean, and when they pop up in addiction, disorders, and everyday life.
In order to understand ego syntonic and ego dystonic behaviors, you just understand what the “ego” is. All terms were coined by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. He believed that all humans possessed an ego that negotiated between the id (our primitive nature) and the superego (the moral conscience.)
Think of the angel and the devil on your shoulder. The devil is telling you to rob a bank so you have more power. The angel is telling you not to do that. The ego negotiates, finding more ethical ways to gain power and satisfy all parts of your personality.
The ego helps us become our ideal self. Our ideal self satisfies the urges of the id, while staying in line with the ideals set by society and the superego. Ego syntonic and ego dystonic behaviors are determined by the ego’s desires and someone’s ideal self.
“Ego syntonic” refers to behaviors, values, and ideas that are aligned with the ideal self and current self-image. If you believe that you are a hard-working person, getting up every day and working at your 9-5 is an ego syntonic routine. If you believe that you are an honest person, telling the truth when you made a mistake is ego syntonic.
Conversely, “ego dystonic” refers to behaviors, values, and ideas that are not aligned with the ideal self. If you believe that you are a hard-working person, spending an entire week sitting around watching TV is an ego dystonic behavior. If you believe that you are an honest person, lying is an ego dystonic behavior.
This classification is important for therapists to understand for two reasons. The first is that ego dystonic behaviors, thoughts, or values can be extremely distressing to a person. If you believe that you are a hard-working person, but reflect on a week of sitting on the couch doing nothing, you probably aren’t going to feel so good.
But there is another reason why this distinction is important. Just because a behavior is “ego syntonic” does not mean that it is an ethical, healthy, or positive behavior.
As you will learn, “ego dystonic” behaviors and values can be completely healthy, but due to mental conditions, stress, or society at large, these healthy behaviors become distressing to patients.
When a therapist taps into whether a patient sees their behavior as in line, or opposing to, the ideal self, they can better understand how to treat the patient or approach their distress.
The discussion of ego syntonic vs ego dystonic behaviors arises frequently when discussing eating disorders. For many people experiencing an eating disorder, their harmful behaviors do not appear harmful.
Calorie counting, binging, and other behaviors appear to be in line with the person’s ideal self. Eating disorders are commonly viewed as “ego syntonic disorders” because a person may not believe that they are doing anything wrong.
What does this mean for a therapist treating the patient? They will not get anywhere by simply telling the patient that their behaviors are harmful. (After all, the patient has probably heard this “advice” from friends or family, to no avail.)
The therapist must instead try to dig deeper and focus on the patient’s emotional state. Once the patient believes that their harmful behaviors are not in line with their ideal self, they will have an easier time avoiding these behaviors and engaging in more healthy eating.
In order to prevent harmful or immoral behaviors, a therapist may have to address the root cause of the behaviors. Ego dystonic behaviors are rarely a standalone issue. They may be a part of a vicious cycle, like the cycle that happens when someone is experiencing addiction.
When someone is heavily addicted to a substance, that substance becomes a priority over the ideal self. A person may engage in behaviors that they would otherwise avoid so that they can get their “fix.” This could include stealing or lying so they can get money and afford more substances.
Knowing that the addict engaged in ego dystonic behaviors, they might feel more stress. They may feel bad about themselves, but are too wrapped up in their addiction to blame (or walk away from) the addicting substance. Instead, they go back to the substance, and the cycle continues.
Understanding this cycle can help not only therapists, but also medical professionals and legislators make decisions about how to address the addiction crisis that is hurting our communities.
Whereas an eating disorder is classified as an “ego syntonic disorder,” a disorder like OCD is commonly known as an “ego dystonic disorder.” People with OCD may be aware that turning the lights on and off 25 times is excessive.
They may see their “rituals” as harmful or frustrating. But they continue to engage in the behavior because they are experiencing the disorder.
Once a patient understands that their thinking leading up to their rituals is irrational, a therapist can better treat the symptoms of OCD and help their patient live a more normal life. CBT, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Cognitive Restructuring are all common treatments for OCD and other ego dystonic disorders.
But what if someone believes that their rituals are in line with their ideal self? They may not be diagnosed with OCD, even though they display similar behaviors and symptoms to a person with OCD. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or OCPD, is a disorder in which the patient believes that their rituals are healthy and in line with themselves. Diagnosis and treatment must be approached differently, all because of the patient’s perception of their behaviors.
Society at large plays an important role in shaping what the “ideal self” looks like and how it behaves. Eating disorders, for example, are not wholly caused by society’s adoration of thin models – genetics, biology, and overall mental health play into a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder.
But when society tells someone that they must behave in a certain way, people may believe that their behavior and actions are ego dystonic. This plays into the complicated and frustrating history of how sexual orientation fits into psychotherapy.
Currently, ego-dystonic sexual orientation is listed in the ICD-10 not under mental disorders, but “Psychological and behavioural disorders associated with sexual development and orientation.” Egodystonic sexual orientation is defined in the ICD-10 as:
“The gender identity or sexual preference (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or prepubertal) is not in doubt, but the individual wishes it were different because of associated psychological and behavioural disorders, and may seek treatment in order to change it.” They make a note that sexual orientation itself is not a disorder.
The ICD-10 is an international classification of disorders. In past editions of the ICD, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder. It was also listed as such in the DSM. In 1987, ego dystonic sexual orientation was removed from the DSM.
The American Psychiatric Association recognizes that people can feel distressed about their sexual orientation, but that societal bias may play a role in this distress.
They say that “Future research is needed to enhance our clinical care of the LGBTQ population and their families, including understanding if reduced societal bias actually leads to improved mental health outcomes.”
Psychoanalysis, the field in which “ego syntonic” and “ego dystonic” conditions were first listed, is not as widely accepted as it was in the mid-20th century.
Many therapists have moved on from the original ideas of Freud, although they acknowledge that Freud’s ideas influenced the way that we approach modern therapy today. The world of psychology is always evolving, and the ideas that we believe now may not hold water in 20, 30, or 50 years.