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
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios