CLOSE
iStock
iStock

What’s the Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath?

iStock
iStock

You see them on the movie screen; you read about them in the news. They’re calculating, charismatic, cold-hearted. But are they psychopaths or sociopaths?

Look to pop psychology for your answer and you’ll get a lot of conflicting opinions. Some folks believe that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made, the products of difficult childhoods and traumatic home environments. Others say “sociopath” is just the latest buzzword for “psychopath.” There’s no real consensus.

But there may be a reason for that: neither “psychopath” nor “sociopath” is a clinical diagnosis. They're common terms for people who exhibit "pathological" personality traits. In the U.S., such traits fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, or APD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which issues the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its 5th edition (DSM-5). The World Health Organization calls this dissocial personality disorder, or DPD.

APD and DPD are essentially the same thing. In order to be diagnosed with either, a person must exhibit “disregard for and violation of others’ rights.” The DSM-5 lists 6 major criteria [PDF]:

  1. Impairments in personality including a lack of remorse, egocentrism, "goal-setting based on personal gratification," and the inability to form mutually intimate relationships;

  2. Pathological personality traits, including manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness, hostility, irresponsibility, impulsivity, and risk-taking;

  3. These personality traits and impairments must be stable and consistent over time;

  4. These personality traits and impairments are not normal for the person's developmental stage (many toddlers could easily be described as psychopaths) or cultural environment;

  5. The person's personality and behavior are not explained by a medical condition or substance abuse; and

  6. The person has to be at least 18 years old—a contentious criterion, since many psychologists feel that children can begin displaying signs of APD at a very young age

Another frequently used "psychopath test" is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or the PCL-R, a 20-question checklist used by researchers, clinicians, and the courts to measure antisocial tendencies. (You can see the list to check yourself, or your boss, here.)

It's worth mentioning that there is a big difference between psychopathy and psychosis. The two words sound similar and are both used as slurs, but that's where the similarity ends. Unlike psychopathy, psychosis describes the condition of losing touch with reality, undergoing rapid personality changes, and having trouble functioning. The terms are typically mutually exclusive; most people with APD will never experience psychosis, and vice versa.

Scientists are still not sure what causes APD. Some recognize two forms of psychopathy, primary and secondary, each with its own set of causes [PDF] and manifestations. Traumatic childhoods and difficult home environments can definitely contribute, but there’s also a clear physiological component. A genetic variant called MAOA-L has been linked with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and brain scans of people with APD have shown low activity in areas related to empathy, morality, and self-control. 

This does not mean that all people with APD are violent, nor does it mean that they’re bad people. Many cases of APD go undiagnosed because the people in question are living successful, ordinary lives. 

For proof, just look at neurologist James Fallon: Fallon has spent decades researching the anatomical side of so-called psychopathy. His research has helped identify areas of difference in the brains of people with APD. One day in 2005, Fallon was looking at the brain scans of people with APD, as well as those of people with depression and schizophrenia. Sitting on his desk at the same time were a stack of scans from Fallon’s family members taken as part of a study on Alzheimer’s disease. 

“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he told Smithsonian. The brain in the image appeared to belong to a psychopath—but the scans at the bottom of the pile belonged to his family members. Shaken, he decided to look up the code on the scan to determine whose brain he was looking at.

It was his own brain.

Fallon couldn’t quite believe it. His first thought was that his research had been wrong, and that low activity in those brain areas had nothing to do with APD. Then he talked to his family. Duh, they told him. Of course you’re a psychopath. His mother, wife, and children had recognized and been living with his personality issues all along.

Fallon underwent more tests, which confirmed the diagnosis. Over time, he realized that he’d known all along. Throughout his life, he wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian, strangers had commented that he seemed “evil,” and while he was never violent, he did have an icy streak. He had put other people in danger. He had also just generally been “kind of an a**hole,” he admitted to Smithsonian.

“I’m obnoxiously competitive,” he told the magazine. "I won’t let my grandchildren win games … I’m aggressive, but my aggression is sublimated. I’d rather beat someone in an argument than beat them up.”

Fallon believes his relative success may be the result of growing up in a healthy, stable environment with a lot of support. He was raised in a loving home, which, he says, may have helped him overcome some of his ugliest impulses.

APD currently has no cure. Finding successful treatment methods has been tricky, in part because people with APD tend to feel pretty comfortable with their personalities and have little motivation to change. Still, some, like Fallon, are determined to do at least a little bit better.

“Since finding all this out and looking into it, I’ve made an effort to try to change my behavior,” Fallon told Smithsonian. “I’ve more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
How Are Royal Babies Named?
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

After much anticipation, England's royal family has finally received a tiny new addition. The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second son was confirmed by Kensington Palace on April 23, but the name of the royal newborn has yet to be announced. For the heir to the British throne and his wife, choosing a name for their third child—who is already fifth in line to the throne—likely won't be as easy as flipping through a baby name book; it's tradition for royals to select names that honor important figures from British history.

According to ABC WJLA, selecting three or four names is typical when naming a royal baby. Will and Kate followed this unwritten rule when naming their first child, George Alexander Louis, and their second, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Each name is an opportunity to pay homage to a different British royal who came before them. Some royal monikers have less savory connotations (Prince Harry's given name, Henry, is reminiscent of a certain wife-beheading monarch), but typically royal babies are named for people who held a significant and honorable spot in the family tree.

Because there's a limited pool of honorable monarchs from which to choose, placing bets on the royal baby name as the due date approaches has become a popular British pastime. One name that keeps cropping up this time around is James; the original King James ruled in the early 17th century, and it has been 330 years since a monarch named James wore the crown.

If the royal family does go with James for the first name of their youngest son, that still leaves at least a couple of slots to be filled. So far, the couple has stuck with three names each for their children, but there doesn't seem to be a limit; Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to George VI in 1936, shouldered the full name of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios