Social Question

Aethelflaed's avatar

What constitutes a psychopath/sociopath?

Asked by Aethelflaed (13742points) July 31st, 2012

When you say “so-and-so’s a psychopath/sociopath”, what does that mean? Is there a set definition you’re using? Specific diagnostic criteria? Does it simply mean “someone I think isn’t empathetic enough”, or “someone I think is a monster”?

Is a psychopath the same as a sociopath? If not, what’s the difference between the two? Is psychopath and/or sociopath synonymous with any other terms?

Are there famous (real or fictional) psychopaths/sociopaths you model your judgments off of?

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34 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

There are clinical definitions but with some confusion still.


Mr_Paradox's avatar

A sociopath is someone like Einstien. He was socialy inept. He could barely take care of himself and couldn’t connect with other people easily. A psychopath is someone like the Joker in The Dark Knight, of someone like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. No sense of morality or human decency. They have no rhyme or reason to their actions. They are, for lack of a better term, insane.

gailcalled's avatar

^^^. These are not clinical definitions.

Who labeled Einstein as a sociopath? Being shy, socially inept, high-functioning Aspeger’s or awkward is a far cry from a sociopath.

Ron_C's avatar

A good example of a sociopath is the CEO of a huge corporation that can fire 1500 people and sleep well that night.

A psychopath would kill or torture those people and not understand why other’s were upset.

YARNLADY's avatar

There is a clinical definition that psychiatrists use. When lay people use these words, they are simply expressing opinions.

TexasDude's avatar

Anyone who doesn’t agree with me. Duh.~

Trillian's avatar

Wow.Comparison.. How difficult is it to google a definition before throwing out one’s own garbled, soft focus, non-existent understanding of something?
Einstein? Really? FM

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Trillian But I’m asking each person how they use the terms. Not how uses them, how you use them.

JLeslie's avatar

@Mr_Paradox No. Sociopath is someone who feels no guilt. They have no conscience. Einstein was not a sociopath.

@Aethelflaed So that is how I define sociopath.

Psychopath I almost never use, because I think it is too broad. For me it covers sociopaths and other disorders also. I do sometimes use psychotic break to describe someone suddenly having an extreme mental break from reality or suddenly doing harmful behaviors that they typically would not do that society dissapproves of, or that is not copacetic with society.

JLeslie's avatar

Just thought I would add that people use schizophrenic incorrectly also. Maybe there is a clincal definiton and a lay definition? I hear people use it to mean someone who is moody or behaving bipolar or manic, rather than to describe someone having halucinations.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@JLeslie I’ve heard it more in lay conversation to mean someone or something that is of two minds, that sends mixed messages. Sometimes, I hear it as synonymous with “really severe mental health issues that don’t quite get to Evil”.

JLeslie's avatar

Two minds yes, kind of like multiple personality is the implication I think?

Aethelflaed's avatar

Yeah, schizophrenia is often mistaken for multiple personality disorder. My favorite is when people tell you they’ve been diagnosed with schizo, and then proceed to describe their symptoms as mpd.

zensky's avatar

A Sociopath would rather eat alone. A psychopath would rather eat with others.

wilma's avatar

I don’t normally use either of those terms, because I’m not a mental health specialist. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t use the words properly, and I don’t want to pretend that I do.
I might say crazy or psycho but I use those more as slang words, to say that I think that a person might have some mental issues.

Buttonstc's avatar

As much as the term sociopath or psycopath are thrown around by people way too frequently, true sociopaths (as properly diagnosed by a mental health professional) comprise a very very small percentage of the population. I read the statistic a while ago and it’s like 1–2%, so it’s not as if you’ll see them popping out from under every bush and tree.

Someone like Ted Bundy would definitely be in this category. He was absolutely self centered, highly manipulative and was totally devoid of a conscience.

Obviously not every sociopath ends up being a serial killer. But all serial killers are sociopaths.

Another example would be Bernie Madoff. He particularly targeted charities and members of his own community (he was Jewish and mercilessly ripped off Jewish organizations and individuals).

Obviously he swindled plenty of others also, but he used his affinity with other Jewish folks to get them to trust him.

That is a coldhearted person. A true sociopath. He even manipulated his own kids, making them part of his schemes. No small wonder that one of his adult sons committed suicide once all the details came out. Realizing fully how little your own parent gave a damn about you is pretty devastating to process.

But since people like this comprise such a small percentage of the population, we would be well advised to not throw that term around as carelessly as is the current tendency.

Just because you fervently disagree with someone political views doesn’t automatically qualify him for sociopath status. Get a grip. And leave the diagnosing to the professionals best qualified to do it.

Trillian's avatar

@Aethelflaed and I was pointing out that people use terminology when they are not qualified and don’t know the meaning of the words. I try to be careful and couch my phrases with disclaimers and phrases like; “seems to fit some of the defining characteristics”.
This prevents one from sounding like an uneducated name caller.

JLeslie's avatar

@Buttonstc I never thought of Maddoff as a sociopath. I can see the argument for it, but I do get the impression he has regret over his actions. I don’t mean just being caught and being in jail, but regret for his actions. I could be wrong. He mostly had Jewish clients because that was his circles I think. I know what you mean though, I hate to see someone rip off their own group. I hate to see anyone ripped off, but when they do it to their own so to speak it seems more upsetting. I said this about the Hispanic mortgage brokers who sold ridiculous mortgages to other Hispanics, but actually the brokers themselves bought thos mortgages, they had convinced themseves it was a good thing. The difference with Maddoff is most of his clients were well educated, and had a shot at knowing better maybe? Still, there was a level of trust for sure, because of his position, and he was in the same social scene, friends or at least acquaintences with many of his clients. His real brilliance was only giving reasonable gains, and not promising the moon.

@zensky Actually, the way I learned it, sociopaths are usually the life of the party, good at attracting people.

gailcalled's avatar

@Trillian: Inventing bogus definitions for words that already are clearly defined is similar to inventing words because you are too lazy to verify.

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled @Trillian I think @Aethelflaed is asking the question is to see how people use the words. I am pretty sure she has taken a psychology class or too, not sure, and her answers here and on other questions seem to show she is pretty literal when it comes to psych definitions, so you two seem to be missing the point of the Q. People who are educated in the field of psychology get thrown by the misuse of the labels I think. It used to happen to me. Someone would say someone was acting schizophrenic, an example I brought up earlier, and the person was not schizophrenic at all. Then I quickly realized most people have no idea what the symptoms of schizophrenia really are. They use the word differently. So, in order to understand what people mean I realized I need to specifically ask what they intended. An assumption based on how a nonpsych person uses psychological terms is not a good assumption. It’s speaking two different languages it seems.

Paradox25's avatar

I’m aware of the clinical definitions of each term, but I’ll give my own stereotypical answer here. I’ve always associated sociopaths with the ability to fit in with the crowd, or at least the ability to fool others. The psychopath on the other hand is usually too unstable to fool anyone, or they usually withdraw from most people. I find the sociopath to be a bit more sinister than the psychopath, regardless of the end results. It also seems to me that most serial killers fit the description of a typical sociopath, while many mass murderers usually fit the description of a psychopath. Of course not all sinister people are psychopaths and sociopaths.

gailcalled's avatar

My stereotypical answers may well be different from yours or theirs. Why add even more confusion to the discussion?

JLeslie's avatar

@gailcalled Are you talking to me? I am beng confusing by trying to explain the actual question the OP is asking?

Paradox25's avatar

@gailcalled Excuse me, but the question did allow for flexibility on the topic. If you didn’t like the response you could have passed over it instead of trying to be smart. Would you appreciate it if I did that to you? Probably not.

ucme's avatar

I see nothing wrong with a cycle-path, make way for pedestrians!

Buttonstc's avatar


I’m really curious what it is that causes you to think that he has remorse for anything other than being caught?

I watched interviews with both his wife and adult children and their spouses and they certainly don’t think so. And they know him far better than any of us.

JLeslie's avatar

@Buttonstc I didn’t get the impression his wife felt he had no remorse when I saw an interview with her. He might be a sociopath; I don’t really know. I feel like we have a lot of sociopaths in big business then. I know a ponzi scheme is different than just being a greedy businessman, but there is such extremes now I am not sure it is much different.

gailcalled's avatar

If I want to direct my answer specifically to one person, I will use the @ convention.

@Paradox25: Is being smart a mistake now? I have been answering the question in the best and most intelligent way I can. if I ask something, I would expect no less from you. I would be very appreciative if you put as much thought into your answers as I do.

Trillian's avatar

@Paradox25 A better thing to do than blindly defending your incorrect use of a word would probably be to; 1 educate yourself, or, 2 not use terminology incorrectly. Again you are proving a point that I made in another thread. Incorrect use of a word impedes the flow of information and hinders communication.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] The question is asking how you use the words, not what the correct definitions are. Let’s cool off and get back to answering the question, please.

Ron_C's avatar

@ucme “I see nothing wrong with a cycle-path,” well I thought it was funny…even if no-one else gave you credit. GA from me!

ucme's avatar

@Ron_C Well it did come late in the day so to speak, glad you liked it anyway.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Cool, thanks everyone! It’s been enlightening.

momster's avatar

Psychopath and sociopath are interchangeable terms. A psychopath is someone who literally has no conscience because he or she is unable to form bonds with other people. I would call anyone without a conscience a psychopath or sociopath. It doesn’t mean the person is violent. Some are just happy to be parasites and live off other people and some are manipulative. How a person’s psychopathy manifests itself depends on things like intelligence and motivation. And actually about 1 in 25 people is a sociopath.

There are two really good books I read on the subject. One is The Sociopath Next Door which is a more clinical look at psychopathy and looks into the source of our conscience as well as gives many examples of people who are sociopaths but behave in different ways. The other books is The Psychopath Test which is written by a journalist who interviews not only the guy who created a test for psychopathy but also several actual psychopaths from murderers to CEOs to a guy who claims he faked mental illness but now can’t get out of a hospital for the criminally insane. Both are really eye-opening and show just how little the average person knows about sociopaths and gets into why we are actually very bad at identifying them when we meet them.

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