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Sociopaths and psychopaths are individuals who possess certain common personality traits and characteristics (such as the absence of empathy towards others), which make them dangerous. However, these two types of people also have some differences, and it is paramount to understand these if one is to be able to distinguish between the two and behave accordingly. In this paper, the similarities and differences between the sociopath and the psychopath will be explained; the levels of threat that they pose will be compared; distinguishing between such people will be discussed, and recommendations pertaining to conducting subject interviews with such people will be supplied.
The Mental States of the Sociopath and the Psychopath
The sociopath and the psychopath are individuals characterized by several dangerous personality traits; they share some of these traits, whereas other characteristics are different (Pescosolido, Martin, McLeod, & Rogers, 2011). Generally speaking, the sociopath and the psychopath are both predisposed towards violence, lack remorse, are indifferent towards others, and do not care about laws or ethics (Siciliano, 2014). However, there are important differences. More specifically, sociopaths are inclined towards worrying and anxiety and lose their temper easily; they are often poorly educated, have bad employment, and are viewed by others as disturbed (Siciliano, 2014). However, they are able to form emotional bonds with others, although this is rather difficult for them and does not often happen (Pescosolido et al., 2011; Siciliano, 2014).
It is assumed that the roots of sociopathy are in the social environment in which the person develops (e.g., childhood abuse can considerably contribute to sociopathy) (Pemment, 2013). On the other hand, psychopaths are persons who have not developed conscience and empathy towards others (Pescosolido et al., 2011, p. 143), probably due to genetic causes (Yildirim & Derksen, 2013). However, they are capable of achieving a high level of intelligence and usually behave in a manner that people without such disorders would (Siciliano, 2014). Therefore, it is possible for them to manipulate others into having an impression that they are common people with no psychological/psychiatric disorders (Leedom, Geislin, & Hartoonian Almas, 2012). In fact, psychopaths may have spouses and children who do not suspect anything (Leedom et al., 2012; Siciliano, 2014). The crimes of an intelligent psychopath are often well-planned and hard to solve.
The Threats Posed by the Sociopath and the Psychopath
Both the sociopath and the psychopath are extremely dangerous types of people who are capable of committing serious crimes resulting in the suffering and deaths of a large number of people (Pemment, 2013). In particular, psychopaths usually pose a considerable danger to society due to the fact that they are often intelligent and capable of carefully planning and thoroughly calculating the details of their crimes; their lack of empathy permits them to do so even better (Siciliano, 2014). As a result, it is usually very difficult to solve the crimes of these people (Siciliano, 2014). On the other hand, it is argued that the sociopath usually poses a greater amount of danger to the society due to the fact that they are much greater in numbers, are capable of “metastasizing” rapidly, and are responsible for a large proportion of violent crimes (Pescosolido et al., 2011, p. 143).
Therefore, it might be possible to conclude that sociopaths present a greater danger to Homeland Security due to their inclination towards violent behaviors, lack of self-control, and poor ability to be reasoned with (Pescosolido et al., 2011). Sociopaths are apparently greatly inclined towards large-scale crime such as a terrorist act, whereas psychopaths will tend to practice caution, consequently harming a smaller number of people.
Distinguishing Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath
Generally, it should not be very difficult to distinguish between a sociopathic and a psychopathic individual. It is stated that there exist four major aspects of psychopathy (Mokros et al., 2015). These dimensions are a) interpersonal (superficial charm, glibness, tendency to engage in manipulations, and grandiose behavior); b) affective (the dearth of empathy, feeling of guilt or remorse; general callousness); c) lifestyle (orientation towards the parasitic way of life, impulsivity, and behaviors aimed at attaining stimulation); d) anti-social (behavioral issues such as delinquent behaviors, criminality) (Mokros et al., 2015; Pescosolido et al., 2011). On the contrary, sociopaths will tend to demonstrate somewhat different tendencies in their behavior; they will not usually engage in manipulative behaviors and will rarely be oriented towards a parasitic manner of life (Pescosolido et al., 2011).
In addition, it is stressed that psychopaths are often characterized by reduced responsivity to threats (that is, they react to threats in a more reserved manner); the low incidence of internalizing disorders (such as depression or anxiety); and reduced levels of behavioral inhibition combined with normal or high levels of behavioral activation (Yildirim & Derksen, 2013, p. 1257). Simultaneously, sociopaths tend to have normal or higher than average emotional responsivity to threats; normal or higher than average incidence of internalizing disorders (such as depression or anxiety); high levels of behavioral activation; and normal or high levels of behavioral inhibition (Yildirim & Derksen, 2013, p. 1257).
Therefore, it should be easy to distinguish between sociopaths and psychopaths on the basis of their behaviors and social life (charming, manipulative, grandiose behaviors, and parasitic lifestyles of psychopaths versus disturbed, anxious, unpredictable behaviors of sociopaths), and on the basis of personal communication (reserved responses to threats in psychopaths versus high responsiveness to threats in sociopaths; low frequency of internalizing disorders in psychopaths versus high frequency of that among sociopaths).
Approaches to Sociopaths and Psychopaths in a Subject Interview
When conducting a subject interview with sociopaths and psychopaths, it is of paramount importance to take into account the different traits that these types of people possess. More specifically, during a subject interview with a sociopath, it might be advised to make sure that the interviewed person does not feel that they are being threatened; it is essential to take into account that the sociopath often has internalized disorders such as depression or anxiety (Yildirim & Derksen, 2013), so using methods which may lead to an aggravation of these is not recommended if the interviewed sociopath is to remain calm. On the other hand, while interviewing a psychopath, the risk to trigger a highly emotional response is lower (Yildirim & Derksen, 2013), so it is possible for an interviewer to behave in a somewhat more straightforward manner in this situation. In addition, it should be stressed that, because both sociopaths and psychopaths do not feel empathy or remorse (Pescosolido et al., 2011), it ought not to be expected that they admit having done something wrong simply because they start feeling guilty during the interview.
On the whole, it should be stressed that both sociopaths and psychopaths lack empathic feelings towards others and have an inclination towards violence, which makes them dangerous to society. Whereas psychopaths are often capable of making and maintaining the impression of a normal person and plan and commit their crimes carefully, sociopaths are often distressed individuals who may engage in mass violence. It is pivotal to be able to identify these people so as to prevent the harm that they might cause to others; for civilians, it is recommended to behave cautiously with such persons.
Leedom, L. J., Geislin, E., & Hartoonian Almas, L. (2012). “Did he ever love me?” A qualitative study of life with a psychopathic husband. Family and Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly, 5(2), 103-135.
Mokros, A., Hare, R. D., Neumann, C. S., Santtila, P., Habermeyer, E., & Nitschke, J. (2015). Variants of psychopathy in adult male offenders: A latent profile analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 124(2), 372.
Pemment, J. (2013). Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(5), 458-461.
Pescosolido, B. A., Martin, J. K., McLeod, J. D., & Rogers, A. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of the sociology of health, illness, and healing: A blueprint for the 21st century. New York, NY: Springer.
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Siciliano, R. (2014). Psychopath vs. sociopath: What’s the difference? The Huffington Post. Web.
Yildirim, B. O., & Derksen, J. J. (2013). Systematic review, structural analysis, and new theoretical perspectives on the role of serotonin and associated genes in the etiology of psychopathy and sociopathy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(7), 1254-1296.