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Do They Have a Conscience?
A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He’s a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.
A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.
What is psychopathy?
According to a 2015 articleTrusted Source, healthcare professionals characterize psychopathy as involving:
- shallow emotional responses
- lack of empathy
- increased chance of antisocial behavior
However, psychopathy is not an official diagnosis.
Some researchersTrusted Source state that psychopathy is a form of ASPD, and healthcare professionals might diagnose ASPD in a person who demonstrates psychopathic traits. For instance, the American Psychological Association describes psychopathy as another term for ASPD.
Other researchers say that psychopathy is a separate condition but acknowledge that it has traits that overlap with those of ASPD. Research supports this overlap, with one study estimating that approximately one-thirdTrusted Source of people with ASPD meet the criteria for having psychopathy.
Some researchers have also described psychopathy as a more violentTrusted Source version of ASPD. An article from the journal Current BiologyTrusted Source also notes that people with high psychopathic traits show a noticeable lack of guilt and empathy.
Traits of Psychopathy
Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths tends to be born — it’s likely a genetic predisposition — while sociopaths tend to be made by their environment. (Which is not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.) Psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences. Research has shown psychopaths have underdeveloped components of the brain commonly thought to be responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Psychopaths, in general, have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath. People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals. Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.
But psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, holding steady, normal jobs. Some even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner. While they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves. They will carefully plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for every possibility.
Traits of Sociopathy
Researchers tend to believe that sociopathy is the result of environmental factors, such as a child or teen’s upbringing in a very negative household that resulted in physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma.
Sociopaths, in general, tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behavior than their psychopath counterparts. While also having difficulties in forming attachments to others, some sociopaths may be able to form an attachment to a like-minded group or person. Unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths don’t hold down long-term jobs or present much of a normal family life to the outside world.
When a sociopath engages in criminal behavior, they may do so in an impulsive and largely unplanned manner, with little regard for the risks or consequences of their actions. They may become agitated and angered easily, sometimes resulting in violent outbursts. These kinds of behaviors increase a sociopath’s chances of being apprehended.
Which Is More Dangerous?
Both psychopaths and sociopaths present risks to society, because they will often try and live a normal life while coping with their disorder. But psychopathy is likely the more dangerous disorder, because they experience a lot less guilt connected to their actions.
A psychopath also has a greater ability to dissociate from their actions. Without emotional involvement, any pain that others suffer is meaningless to a psychopath. Many famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Not all people we’d call a psychopath or sociopath are violent. Violence is not a necessary ingredient (nor is it for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) — but it is often present.
The Differences Between Sociopaths and Psychopaths
While psychopaths are classified as people with little or no conscience (a sense of right or wrong), sociopaths do have some ability to feel remorse. Both sociopaths and psychopaths have a persistent pattern of disregard for the safety and rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are central features of both types of personality disorder.
- Lacks empathy
- Has volatile behavioral patterns and is prone to rage
- Uses intelligence, charm, or charisma to manipulate others
- Displays impulsive behavior
- Cannot maintain a consistent work and family life
- Pretends to care
- Is cold and calculating
- Fails to recognize other people’s distress
- Has shallow relationships
- Rarely feels guilt regarding behavior