“I think a lot of psychopaths are just geniuses who drove so fast that they lost control.” – Criss Jami, Killosophy
They are two terms that are often used interchangeably in our society today, especially in our favorite television shows and on the silver screen. Often portrayed as that cold, calculated serial killer, capable of unspeakable evils, lacking any sense of remorse. While the two certainly do share a number of similarities, experts in the field assure that the two terms have their own distinguishable features. However, due to the massive misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental illness, most people couldn’t be bothered to see beyond this stereotype to understand this significant difference. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary confuses the two, with the definition for Sociopath stating, “a sociopathic individual: psychopath.”
If you are searching the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,’ the two terms aren’t actually listed as their own official diagnosis. Instead, they both fall under the term ‘antisocial personality disorder,’ and are not well defined. Both disorders are associated with a disregard for the rights of others as well as for the laws and social norms that help to determine how the average person acts on a regular basis. They also lack remorse or guilt for their actions, sometimes to the point of demonstrating complete indifference regarding the harm that their choices cause others. They are impulsive, manipulative, irritable and often aggressive. However, while the two have a great number of similarities, the differences are incredibly important.
A sociopath is defined as “a personality disorder that causes extreme antisocial attitudes as well as extreme antisocial behaviors.” Arguably, it’s not the clearest definition to work with! Often seen as loners, preferring to avoid any and all social scenarios. Unfortunately, in our current society that can be incredibly limiting. This can, in most cases, lead to an inability to hold down a steady due to the human interaction that it requires, causing them to bounce around.
Their career isn’t the only are in their life that is regularly changing, moving from place to place without making a connection with any one location. This can lead them to live on the outskirts of society, unable to comfortably fit in. As an outsider, we regularly perceive them as being ‘crazy’ or ‘dangerous,’ void of feelings or the capability to connect with another human being, however, this isn’t true. While relationships don’t come easily to them, they can create a meaningful connection with an individual, or even a small group.
Sociopathy is generally understood as a condition that is created due to the presence of severe trauma throughout childhood, such as having experienced physical or emotional abuse. This causes them to shut down emotionally. They are so detached from the concept of emotion that they aren’t even able to fake an emotional response, they simply don’t understand how to act compassionate or empathetic towards others. In time, they even give up trying to make this work, accepting that it is just who they are. To others, however, this can come across as cold and uncaring.
It is important to note that sociopaths generally do have a conscience, realizing that their actions do have the ability to impact others, however they make the choice not to allow it to affect them. For example, if they manipulate a ‘friend’ or family member, they know that they are potentially causing emotional pain for this person and may even feel a little bad about their actions, but not enough to change their mind. Instead, they shrug it off by justifying their decision.
In contrast, a psychopath is defined as “someone who has a mental disorder that causes violent or abnormal social behaviors.” Unlike a sociopath, when someone sees a psychopath as a danger there is a good reason for it. While not all psychopaths will become aggressive or violent, they are far more likely to cross the line.
While a sociopath will acknowledge that their actions may cause harm to another, psychopaths have no conscience at all. This isn’t something that they have control over, as it is largely recognized as a genetic or inherited condition. There are actual fundamental differences between their brain and that of a healthy individual, specifically in the areas of emotional regulation and impulse control. They don’t consider the consequences of their actions or entertain any concept of ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ simply acting on whatever they want at any moment and they don’t care who they have to hurt in order to get it.
Their actions are cold and calculated, planning out their attacks. For example, a 2002 study reviewed the murders associated both with psychopathic killers, and those who weren’t psychopaths. They concluded that only 48.4% of homicides conducted by average people were planned out to some level in advance, whereas that number was 93.3% for psychopathic killers. They crave control and will go to great lengths in order to achieve it.
While sociopaths are capable of human connection, psychopaths are completely incapable of true emotional attachment. They may appear to care about someone, however, this is nothing more than a tactic for personal gain. They are masters of manipulation, incredibly gifted actors. They can fake anything from sympathy to love, compassion to understanding. This can make them nearly impossible to identify.
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