The Psychopath or Sociopath Next Door

Upon passing two people in the street the other day I heard one say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s a psychopath or a sociopath – or both!”

I’m no expert but from what I’ve learned studying crime and personality disorders I don’t think one person can have both of those qualities. So, how can you tell if that certain someone in your life is just annoying or has a diagnosable condition? Here’s a quick primer.

Both psychopaths and sociopaths are categorized as an antisocial personality disorder (APD) by the American Psychiatric Association, but when you dig deep there are some profound differences.

Psychopaths can be diagnosed with a brain scan. The portion of their brain that determines impulse control and emotions is underdeveloped. The condition is genetic and caused by nature. The sociopath has a normal brain but because of childhood trauma like physical, emotional or sexual abuse their disorder stems from the way they were nurtured.

A Quick Primer: But There Are More Nuanced Differences At Play Than Just These

A Vancouver doctor named Robert Hare devised a widely accepted checklist test to determine if a person is a true psychopath. The test was designed to be given to criminals or those suspected of a crime and is administered by two qualified experts. These doctors are on the lookout for certain characteristics in the test subject. What do they look for?

Psychopaths are charming and glib and they are expert at faking emotions. In reality, they are not able to feel any sort of emotional attachment to others or feel any empathy for another person. Psychopaths are cunning and devious but because they are usually so charismatic they are often able to hide their manipulative ways. They feel no guilt for their actions, are sexually promiscuous and cannot accept responsibility for their own actions. They think very highly of themselves and usually have many short-term marriages. They likely got in trouble with the law at a young age and have trouble controlling their negative behaviors. All this said, they are usually well educated, hold steady jobs and often appear entirely normal to the untrained.

Sound like that problematic person in your life? If not, maybe they are a sociopath.

While Trying to Analyze Others – Analyze Yourself As Well

A sociopath shares some of the psychopath’s behaviors described above, especially the manipulative, emotionless behavior and traits of lying, lack of shame and inflated ego. But sociopaths are driven by spontaneous outbursts of violence. They are often nervous and easily agitated. Children who torture animals or defenseless people are often diagnosed as being sociopathic. They have a huge sense of entitlement and believe others should provide them with what they want. They are not capable of caring about others and are only motivated by getting what they want. When confronted with their bad deeds the sociopath frequently responds with a cold, blank stare.

“The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear,” one unidentified APD patient wrote in a Psychology Today article entitled, “Confessions of a Sociopath”.

“I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to,” she wrote as she revealed details of her troubled childhood and her grown up thoughts of homicide.

“I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are,” she confessed. “I may have a disorder but I am not crazy.” This woman is described as an accomplished attorney and an active member of her church.

The truth is, psychopaths and sociopaths are all around us. It’s a safe bet that you either work with one, live close to one or are related to one. They cannot be cured but they can reign in their behaviors. Many appear to live a normal life.

There is disagreement among mental health experts over which has a higher likelihood to commit a violent crime. Is it the psychopath or the sociopath?

Some of the most infamous serial killers have displayed all the characteristics of the classic psychopath. Three examples: Ted Bundy (at least 36 victims), the ‘Killer Clown’ John Wayne Gacy (at least 33 victims) and the man who killed 10 and called himself the BTK killer, Dennis Rader. One could study thousands of serial killer cases and find many more with psychopathic tendencies.

But some in the field say the volatile and angry sociopath is the more dangerous of the two since they act out in unpredictable and impulsive ways and give in to instantaneous gratification more easily. However, those very behaviors also mean sociopaths are more likely to be caught after committing a crime because they act in such sloppy and spontaneous ways. This leaves the impression that they are the most crime prone.

But realize this: when a psychopath commits a crime it is likely to have been well thought out and executed in an organized and careful fashion so as to elude arrest. For my money the crafty psychopath’s ability to conceive and carry out heinous crimes – like serial murders – without a shred of remorse wins the title of most frightening.




  1. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Noozhawk Reader MaxWebXperienZ writes:

    I’ve studied and written about characteristics of psychopaths [you can recognize them almost instantly if you know what to look for]. I read the descriptions of psychopath vs sociopath and honestly, it’s like psychopaths are trailer trash and sociopaths are upper middle class. To me they are the same animal with the same basic characteristics. There are other dangerous segments of any culture: The self-assessed superior class of introverts drawn to law, medicine, finance, etc. absolutely trample society and get away with it quite nicely.

    • Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:33 am

      Diane Dimond replies to MaxWebXperienZ:

      I, actually, think you’ve got it backward, Max. Psychopaths are usually better educated and better able to mask their true thoughts. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are often less educated, have hair-trigger, explosive tempers and are frequently arrested because they are sloppy in their crimes. .

  2. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:34 am

    Reader Dear Ms. Dimond,

    I’m writing to commend you on your July 8, 2017 web article titled “Psychopaths, sociopaths are common, scary” in the Albuquerque Journal ( It came thru my Google Alerts for the term “Psychopaths”. My fascination with psychopathy and sociopathy led me to introduce the concept of Online Psychopathy (April 2014). Given we all live in the Information Age, and increasingly dependent upon information technology, I’m sure psychopaths and sociopaths will increasingly use cyberspace to their advantage.

    So intrigued by how they’ll use technology to manipulate & victimize others, I introduced “online psychopathy” when I presented my construct, iPredator (2010), before the Colorado Psychological Association (November 2016) and Vermont Psychological Association (March 2017).

    Thank You for writing an excellent article and I have disseminated your post throughout my social media accounts. Pasted here is the link to my internet safety website introducing online psychopathy. My goal is to one day truncate the checklist down to 40-50 signs enabling online users to recognize an online psychopath.

    Online Psychopathy Checklist:

    Michael Nuccitelli, Psy.D.
    NYS Licensed Psychologist

  3. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:37 am

    ABQ Journal Reader Mary Smith writes:

    Diane, Your column today explaining the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths is excellent.
    I don’t think I know of anyone who is one of these, and I hope I’m right.

    I look forward to your column every Saturday in the ABQ Journal.

    Mary K Smith

  4. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:40 am

    Reader Denise Robles writes:

    Narcissism, lack of empathy, high functioning. Qualities that might fit well in a ruthless businessman. Insulting women, competitors, critics shamelessly, vindictively. Sounds like our so called Commander in Chief.
    Stunning to me you don’t seem to see it.

    • Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:41 am

      DD replies:

      Who says I don’t see it? But this column was not about politics or the president of the United States. It was about how to distinguish between a psyhopathic and sociopathic personality. ~ DD

  5. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:56 am

    ABQ Journal Reader Mike Gandy writes:

    Another great article that caught my attention. Thanks for this, Diane! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the correlation between crimes committed and different Myers-Briggs personality types.

    • Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 7:57 am

      DD replies;

      Gotta admit I’ve never heard of Myers-Briggs. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip! ~ DD

  6. Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Facebook Friend Alexandrea Merrell:

    UGHH – Love you Diane, hate these type of articles.

    1 in 5 people has mental health issues. Arm chair psychologists, armed with their 2 bit understanding of extremely complex mental health issues have caused severe damage to the personal and professional lives of people that they openly refer to as socio or psycho. I work with adults who are victimized by work place bullying, stalking, harassment, and revenge porn. Frequently the perpetrator justifies actions that include labeling the victim a “psycho” or “sociopath” simply because the victim didn’t act in a way that the perp wanted.

    “That b*tch wouldn’t put out…what a psycho”

    “He didn’t even cry when I told him his mother died….he has no emotions…must be a sociopath”

    Even the above comment “reminds me of someone we all know” don”t know.

    Mental health evolves. In the 1970’s people didn’t have a real concept of what we now call ADHD or Aspergers or Autism… but guess what. They are all characterized by what seems like a lack of empathy, an inability to read social cues, a different way of processing emotion. Many of these people were labeled as sociopaths and psychopaths. Can you image? Children were openly labeled as sociopaths and psychopaths….and thanks to crime TV shows, grew up terrified that they were future serial killers, grew up ashamed , grew up afraid to interact honestly with people for fear that they would be discovered as defective…only to later in life be diagnosed not as sociopaths and psychopaths but as having aspergers.

    When I went to law school and sat in on trials, lawyers called defendants sociopaths and psychopaths without distinction or reference. Child custody cases, divorces, the other side is always a psycho or a sociopath.

    The fact is, the vast majority of people with mental health issues, including those with genuine sociopathy and psychopathy live among us and never kill anyone or commit a crime or affect with your life in any way. The current popularity of these “10 ways to spot a sociopath” or “are you dating a psychopath” or “top 20 careers that attract sociopaths” are just self serving and abusive. Can you image an article called “10 ways to spot a diabetic”…you wouldn’t want to marry someone who might end up fat after all!

    In case you were wondering….journalist is #6 on the list of careers that attract sociopaths.

    Again…much love to you, but this type of article just affirms erroneous and really damaging stereotypes that have long lasting effects.

    • Diane Dimond on July 10, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      I thank you for your insightful comments, Alexandrea. This column was not intended to arm people with the ability to diagnose others. It was written only to differentiate between the two labels. After all, psychopaths and sociopaths are quite different. ~ DD

  7. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Facebook Friend Julie Lennox writes:

    A Manger & assistant manager I used to know. Both at the same location at the same time. Very scary to deal with people like this.

  8. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Facebook Friend Cynthia Lea Clark writes:

    Diane, I am a Forensic Psychopathologist and appreciate your article because I come from the school where sociopaths and psychopaths are different entities except for the hybrid the sociopathic psychopath and I appreciate articles that explain to people the differences! I can only do so much 🙂

  9. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Facebook Friend Marilyn Salzman writes:

    Thanks Diane for the clarification.

  10. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Facebook Friend Terrie Lee Brader writes:

    Excellent article, Diane. Thank you. Important read!

  11. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Facebook Friend Cheryl L Bullock writes:

    I love Robert Hare’s books…

  12. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Facebook Friend Sandi ChaykinTeller writes:

    Great article as usual ! I can’t help see similarities in the people now running our country !!

  13. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Facebook Friend Linda Taylor writes:

    I’m a good person….never been in any trouble…cause no problems for any one …never drank or done any kind of drugs ….but I can turn on you in a heart beat…what does that make me ?….I take and take until I’ve had enough …

    • Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

      Diane Dimond replies:

      Irish, like me, Linda Taylor? Push and push me but, ultimately, the Irish temper rears its ugly head….

  14. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Facebook Friend (and cousin) Jeffrey Warren Hughes writes:

    I’ve Been psycho-ed a few times…not sure why, but i get pissed off rather than scared of those…

  15. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Facebook Friend Skip Press writes:

    Easy to tell the difference – sociopaths are voters who act out, while psychopaths are senators. 😉

  16. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Facebook Friend Muriel Campbell writes:

    One can lose their license to practice as a psychiatrist, a social worker MSW, CSW , psychologist or psychoanalysis without diagnosing a person in their office…although it can be fun to play at being an arm chair shrink, or even a real one always add that this is just a feeling you get about someone but feelings aren’t always facts and since I never diagnosed said person in my office (if you have one) then I really can’t say what they are as they could be horsing around.

  17. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Facebook Friend Sue Savio writes:

    Thank you. Drew Peterson pos

  18. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Facebook Friend Ann Hilliard Ussery writes:

    I really enjoyed this….oh no should I?? Lol. As a nurse of many years having worked Psychiatry, I often analyze those around me and they are everywhere. It’s very true.

  19. Diane Dimond on July 11, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Note to readers: This FASCINATING comment came to me from nikinokcnicole lesperance@nikinokc via Twitter. I have edited it all together for easier reading :

    ‘I have a story that the FBI has used. This checks for psychopathic tendencies. You don’t want to get this question right // A woman is aT a funeral and sees a man across the room. She is in awe of his being. He is her love at 1st sight. As she makes her way over // he disappears. She cannot find him. So she goes home and kills her sister. Why does she kill her sister? If you answer correctly, you might be a psychopath….

    Diane Dimond asks: What would the psychopath’s answer be? Why would she kill her sister?

    nikinokcnicole lesperance@nikinokc writes:

    This gave me scary goosebumps…… So there would be another funeral and a chance he might be there!

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