Psychopath, Sociopath — is there a difference?
Recently there was some discussion at this blog about the differences (if any) between the terms psychopath and sociopath. (The discussion was in the comments thread of the post My Own Private Dexter.)
I contacted Dr George Simon Jr, PhD, psychologist, author and blogger (also his articles here) to ask his opinion on the meanings of those two terms. Here is Dr Simon’s response, re-formatted by me for ease of reading. Over to you, Dr Simon.
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The concept of “psychopathy” was introduced by Cleckley in his landmark book The Mask of Sanity. What Cleckley noticed in a certain subset of antisocial personalities (social parasites and criminals) was that some individuals had the uncanny ability to appear “normal” or even “charming” while having so little human empathy and so little conscience that they could use and abuse others without the slightest compunction or remorse. He also noticed that their tendency to lie was uniquely pathological in that it appeared nonsensical (i.e. they lied even when the truth would suffice). He and others considered this to be an extraordinary pathology of the mind, and a derangement bordering on a type of insanity — hence the title of the book “mask of sanity.”
Shortly after Cleckley’s work, the term psychopathy fell into disfavor among professionals and many preferred the label “sociopathic” to describe social predators. While professionals agreed that there did seem to be a unique personality type devoid of empathy and conscience, the core pathology of these individuals began to be seen more as a severe type of social dysfunction as opposed to a derangement of mind. And sociopathy was viewed by most as the most extreme form of antisocial (i.e. “against society”) personality disorder.
In any case, both “psychopath” and “sociopath” refer to a unique subset of individuals with antisocial personalities. And whereas your “garden variety” antisocial personality is pretty much a social parasite, frequently either living in disregard of the law or actively violating it and engaging in wide range of impulsive, reckless behaviors, psychopaths or sociopaths can in fact lead outwardly appearing respectable lives yet have no conscience about using and abusing others. They are the archetypal “snakes in suits.” An example would be Bernie Madoff.
Now if this weren’t confusing enough, there is even more confusion about terms:
- lay persons as well as clinicians frequently use the terms antisocial personality and sociopath as if they were synonymous
- some folks prefer to use the term dissocial personality to describe recalcitrant antisocial personalities
- others want to reserve the term dissocial to those with specific genetic predispositions to antisocial behavior
- many lay persons use the term antisocial to describe someone who’s being stand-offish or ostracizing themselves from a group, when in fact, asocial would be the best term to describe someone who naturally lacks interest in social interaction, and avoidant would be the best term to describe someone who actively retreats from social involvements.
- many folks confuse the terms psychopathic and psychotic [for Simon’s disambiguation of these terms, go here.]
The very best source on all this is the renowned Theodore Millon and a comprehensive discussion of these issues can be found in any of his numerous works, one good example of which is Personality Disorders in Modern Life.
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Additional Notes from Barb:
Dr George Simon’s post Predators Among Us: The Psychopaths explores this terminology issue in more depth. Here’s a brief quote from the article:
. . . disturbances of character vary in type and intensity. And long before it became fashionable to view certain personalities as “almost a psychopath,” I proposed that there was one type of personality (the covert-aggressive) who had all of the manipulative characteristics of a psychopath but couldn’t quite rise to the level of character pathology to be classified a genuine conscienceless predator.
The same post touches on Gavin de Becker’s thesis (The Gift of Fear [*Affiliate link]) and the TV series Dexter. There, have I whetted your appetite enough?
You might also like to read Simon’s post Character Spectrum Disorders where he further canvasses the moveable feast of terminology, including the term narcissistic personality.
To wrap this up, here’s a quote from Simon’s article Psychopathy: Is It Really Everywhere?
it’s crucial to remember that along that continuum of character disturbance, there are many conscience-deficient, abusive, exploitation-oriented, self-absorbed, and manipulative individuals who are not severely disturbed enough to be rightly labeled psychopathic, but who are nonetheless character-impaired enough to leave a trail of badly bruised victims having the misfortune to be involved with them in some way.