“Psychopath” vs. “Sociopath”: Is There A Difference?

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WATCH: What Is The Difference Between "Psychopath" vs. "Sociopath"?

Think of your classic con artist: they lie, they’re manipulative, they don’t care about anyone else, and they lack remorse. Are these criminals psychopaths? Sociopaths? Both?

People tend to think that a sociopath is a psychopath who doesn’t go around doing criminal things. Likewise, psycho remains shorthand for all kinds of deviant antisocial behavior, from stalking to murder.

We’ve got some news for you. Despite all the confusion around the terms psychopath and sociopath, clinically speaking, there is no difference. The DSM 5, the Bible of psychiatric disorders, doesn’t define sociopathy or psychopathy as official diagnoses. The technical term for it these days is antisocial personality disorder or ASPD, in case you were interested.

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What does psychopath mean?

In 1847, the term psychopathy was coined. Originally, it referred to any disease related to a mental illness. It comes from Greek roots meaning “suffering soul.”

In 1885, the term psychopath became more widely known in relation to a horrible story: a girl named Sarah Becker was killed in Russia. A woman confessed to the murder, but her confession was thrown out after a psychiatrist, Ivan M. Balinsky, described her as a “psychopath.” While Dr. Balinksy likely meant this in the general sense, the English-speaking world took it as a mark of her violent, self-interested nature.

What does sociopath mean?

In 1930, an American psychologist, G. E. Partridge, studied the general category of psychopath closely. He came to the conclusion that psychopathy was too broad a definition to be useful. He proposed changing the expression to sociopathy to define antisocial behavior.

Sociopath meaning “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience,” was first recorded by 1940-45.

Sorry, Dr. Partridge, but sociopathy didn’t really stick, either. While psychopathy and sociopathy aren’t terms commonly found in a clinical setting, that doesn’t stop armchair psychologists from using them which is why they are still so common in writing and online.

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