Revisiting the Age Old Case of Diagnostic Confusion: Sociopath vs. Psychopath


by Daniel Linder

As Robert Hare had indicated in an article written in 1996, "The distinction between psychopathy and anti-social personality disorders is of considerable significance to the mental health and criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, it is a distinction that is often blurred, not only in the minds of many clinicians but in the latest edition of DSM-IV."

The DSM-IV has both disorders; psychopath and sociopath lumped together under 301.7: Antisocial Personality.

There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since the age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more of the following:

1-failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

2-deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

3-impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

4-irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

5-reckless disregard for safety of self or others

6-consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

While the DSM's diagnostic criteria are accurate and valid to the extent that they apply to both psychopathy and sociopathy, the failure to not provide additional criteria that would enable the clinician to more clearly distinguish between the two has unfortunate treatment implications.

There is obviously some overlap. For both sociopath and psychopath, lack of remorse, being extremely dangerous, deep, longstanding and pervasive characterological disturbance, significant family of origin dysfunction, an extremely poor prognosis, living on the fringes, alienated existences apply.

However, they are quite divergent in a number of ways. Let's think in terms of general tendencies like appearance, socio-economic status, level of intelligence and education, modus operandi, motivation and criminal history.


A sociopath (ASPD) is known to appear as if it is immediatly apparent that he is either in some kind of trouble or he's about to make trouble for someone else. S/he appears to be a non-conformist or someone who was never able to conform. S/he usually conjures up a 'tough guy' image that fits the DSM description, "failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest, irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults." Chances are you would not be inclined to trust this person.

The psychopath is known to appear to be just like anyone else. S/he could be you or me. There are no distinguishing features that call attention to differences associated with any kind of danger. His or her dress is conventional, business-like or casual. Chances are, there would be no reason not to trust this person.

Socio-economic status

Their disparate appearance tendencies have socio-economic implications. Sociopaths generally appear 'rougher' looking or street-wise, perhaps more unkempt and as if they come from blue-collar, poorer, disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more likely to appear as if they live on the fringes of society.

We might think of the psychopath's general appearance, on the other hand, to be associated with being more clean-cut, polished and a white-collar, middle-upper-class background. It's more likely that psychopaths are working and not resorting to crime to survive.

Level of intelligence and education

Continuing in an effort to flesh out sociological distinctions between the two, we may also expect the sociopaths to be less educated because of their disadvantaged background, and also be less verbal - having less command of the English language.

Having been raised in a poor, urban, drug-infested, gang and crime-ridden environment is a far cry from what it's like in middle-upper class suburbia. Sociopaths might also be less intelligent as measured by traditional intelligence testing instruments.

Psychopaths, in contrast, are known to often present as articulate, charming and charismatic.

Style/ Modus-operandi (MO)

There is a dramatic contrast between how the sociopath and psychopath operate in the world. We often see the sociopath acting out in public with 'reckless disregard for safety of self or others.' We can say the sociopath's anti-social behavior tends to be overt, impulsive and without forethought.

The MO of the psychopath, on the other hand is much more covertly deceptive, and is extremely calculated and sophisticated in his or her planning. S/he does not act impulsively and carefully plans ahead as to who s/he will prey on, how s/he will go about it and what they are going to do to the one preyed on.


As previously stated, the sociopath's behavior is described as acting with blatant disregard for who is around, overtly, impulsively, that is, without fore thought, without remorse, in ways commonly associated with anti-social behavior. It is the way they have learned to survive in the world. If they want something, they will just take it. If they want sex, they will rape someone, someone easy or in close proximity. If angry, they will become violent, they operate without any internal controls.

As previously stated, the psychopath operates covertly, is careful and methodical and selects his prey with an elaborate plan in mind. The psychopath's motivations appear to be power driven. S/he gets off on control, manipulation, humiliation, and is a master at reading and exploiting other people's vulnerability. Their crimes tend to be more ritualistic and involve torture. Compared to sociopaths, psychopaths are masters of deception while sociopaths are known to lack that kind of sophistication.

Criminal History

We'd expect sociopaths to have extensive criminal histories filled with assaults, robberies, rapes and murders. The overwhelming majority has contributing drug/alcohol problems, whether they are using, dealing or both. The sociopath's modus operandi tends to be overt and care little about exposure.

Psychopaths usually have shorter criminal records, as fewer people are aware of what they are doing. Since their modus operandi is of a covert nature, it's less likely they'd be arrested. They are not going to get caught as quickly. They operate covertly, making sure they cannot be seen or exposed.

Are these distinctions adequate enough to make two separate diagnoses or are they to be treated as two distinct disorders?

It would seem that there are profound treatment and diagnostic implications. While it appears that there is some overlap, there are as many, if not more differences between the two, that they are not one and the same.

As Hare stated, "An unfortunate consequence of the ambiguity inherent in the DSM-IV is likely to be a court case in which one clinician says the defendant meets the DSM-IV definition of ASPD, another clinician say he does not, and both are right! The first clinician uses only the formal diagnostic criteria whereas the second agrees that the defendant meets the formal criteria but argues that he or she dos not have the personality traits described in the 'Associated Features' section of the DSM-IV text. The failure to differentiate between psychopathy and ASPD can have serious consequences for clinicians, psychiatric patients and society as well."

"Perhaps this situation, an unfortunate and unnecessary one in my view, will be rectified in the DSM-V. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that interpersonal and affective traits are more discriminating of the construct of psychopathy than they are the socially deviant behaviors reflected in the DSM-IV criteria for ASPD."(Cooke)


By Daniel Linder

In the mirror above the masses

Faces of predators mask

Diabolical malevolence

One driven by insatiable need

To exploit and humiliate

Seduce and trap

In his torture chamber


There's no escaping

His merciless snare

No defense against

An unknown enemy.

Only the miracle of happenstance

Keeps this menace away.

A mutated soul

Allegedly a human being

Who can never change

Will never change enough

Can't rehabilitate

No chance for redemption

No room for risk

Or compromise

The threat he poses

Must be removed

He must be caught.

Taken away,

Be kept at bay

Locked away

Permanently and forever

Or be executed.

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  • angie


    4th Aug 2011

    I have read many articles and books ect.. on the differences between psycopath and sociopath. As my information tells me~ tis article seems to have them backwards. The sociopath is the educated, manipulative, functioning in society, and the psychopath is more likely to take what he wants, rape, murder, that type. I was just wondering if this is a misprint? I was married to a sociopath for 11yrs and 2 children~ I know him well~now. He is a sociopath but and from what I have read in the past fits all the criteria for a sociopath, but in this article he fits psychopath? I would like some clarification here please. Thank you for your time~Angie

  • Daniel Linder, MFT

    Daniel Linder, MFT

    8th Aug 2011

    Thank you for your request for further clarification.

    It's comes down to, "You say to mat tos and I say to mate toes." From a clinical diagnostic perspective, there are clear distinctions between the two personality disorders as I had attempted to clearly delineate. If you would like to substitute psychopathic for sociopathic; or psychopathic for antisocial personality; that's fine. My point is to focus on the differences and to respond accordingly. Both pose serious risks and challenges being in a relationship with either one.

  • Amuani


    27th Sep 2014

    Dear Sstiles,You know in many ways I had a GREAT childhood .and in ohrtes, it was horrible. What I did, apparently, until recently, was to idolize and rationalize the bad parts which left me pretty needy and also enabling .I put my own spin on some pretty horrible things that happened to make them acceptable that's what children do in order to survive.My egg donor was not the Beast of Budapest and she didn't lock me in the the closet and routinely beat and starve me, but she didn't nurture me either. After I realized about her TOXIC enabling (which I had trivalized in the past) and how serious this was, I finally started to realize that I had totally idolized her to the point that I could literally NOT SEE that she was controlling me, using me, and that she did not value me for me,, and never had. She isn't a psychopath I don't think, but she is a TOXIC ENABLER and this makes her in many ways, just as bad, becauuse she enables the Ps in the family to remain in the family, to continue to do their dirty deeds and she covers up for them, and minimizes the consequences if she can. I call this psychopath-by-proxy and that is just about what it is. If she were to accept what she has done for what it really is, she could NOT LIVE WITH HERSELF. It would destroy her self image and her world.I can no longer live with that deception either in her, or in myself. Just as my P-son is what he is and just as my egg donor is what she is. I can accept that now, and it was very painful to accept that, but I can't change either of them. They are set in concrete and etched in stone. I must either continue to grieve over this or to accept it as it is. It isn't what I would desire, but IT IS WHAT IT IS.It is only recently that I have felt the acceptence come into my heart and soul and the anger, bitterness, etc against my egg donor leave my mind. It was almost an instant sort of thing. It was like I actually felt it flow out of my body like some demon possession had left. I feel different now, I feel CLEAN, if that makes any sense, I can't think of a word that really describes how I feel.I'm not perfect, and I don't have to BE perfect, and ohrtes in my circle don't have to be perfect either, just HONEST. Just willing to sit down and work out problems in an honest manner, not name call, or be hateful and blame placing and projecting for their own faults.I recently had a quarrel with a long time friend. He broke his word to me in a small deal we had, but HE sees it as changing the deal not breaking it. When I confronted him about this, he became enraged, called me names, shouted at me, and projected all kinds of things on to me, rather than accept the truth of the matter in that HE broke his word. It wasn't a big deal or financially devestating (the total was about $100 bucks that I was out because of him breaking his word). The thing that hurt the worst was that when I tried to confront him about it, to clarify it and to save the friendship that we had had (I thought) since college days, he acted totally hateful. Part of it I think (and this is not an acceptable excuse) is his male chauvanism, and it is difficult for him to admit to a woman that he was wrong. This man has been married to two P women who worked him over pretty well for a period of 30+ years total between the two of them. Again, this does not excuse how he treated me. I really was hoping to salvage the relationship, and have him acknowledge he had broken his word, apologize for doing so, show remorse for doing so, and never again break his word to me. For whatever emotional reasons he was unable to do this, so because I set a boundary that meant he had to 100% keep his word to me, and he was not willing to acknowledge and accept that boundary, our friendship of 25+ years is at an end.There are lots of things about how this an runs his life that I don't approve of but they are not DIShonest things, just different life styles .but because he will not accept that I am entitled to 100% honesty in my dealings with him, because he can excuse not being 100% honest, because he cannot sit down and discuss a problem in an adult manner, but rather ATTACKS (defensively) me, I don't want to continue the friendship which was obviously more important to me than to him. He isn't a psychopath by any means, but he was unwilling to accept a fault in himself. But that is NOT my problem, I won't make it my problem, and I won't accept the consequences for HIS PROBLEM.

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About Daniel Linder, MFT

Daniel Linder

Relationships. I was born with a keen sense about relationships, was always assessing how close and intimate people are with each other. I had a knack for relationships. The importance of relationships cuts to the core of who I am. The combination of clinical training, 25 years of professional experience treating dysfunctional, non-intimate couples and families, as well as rigorous self analysis has given me a lot to work with. I put what seemed to come naturally to me under a microscope in an effort to break the process of building healthy relationships down to concrete essentials: Understanding of Basic Principles, Communication Skills, Self-realization and Intimacy.

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