Sociopath and psychopath are two psychology terms made popular in today's society through Hollywood films. The field classifies both as antisocial personality disorders. There is a lot of confusion in the public sphere about the differences between the diagnoses, in part because the literature does not clearly differentiate between the two. Though sociopaths and psychopaths share a type of personality disorder, there are differences between them -- their relationships patterns, potential criminal behavior, and upbringings.
Psychopaths and sociopaths share a disregard for the rights of others. This disregard can surface through various behaviors, including failing to obey laws or social norms, engaging in impulsive behavior, blatantly ignoring one's own or others' safety, lying or manipulating, being irresponsible, frequently fighting or assaulting others, and a lack of remorse for one's behavior. To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, an individual must display disregard or violation of others' rights since the age of 15, though professionals do not issue such diagnoses in people under 18 years. Conduct disorder must have been present before the age of 15. A diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder is made when antisocial behavior is not better accounted for by conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
While sociopaths and psychopaths are both diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, many people believe that psychopaths display more severe symptoms than sociopaths. For instance, a psychopath is more likely to engage in physical violence than a sociopath. Additionally, sociopaths may be able to form emotional bonds with a few people while psychopaths cannot. As a result, a sociopath may feel some remorse over hurting someone she cares about whereas a psychopath will experience no remorse. Some antisocial behavior may lessen in sociopaths over time, whereas it doesn't appear to in psychopaths.
Sociopathy appears to be the product of one's environment, such as childhood trauma or childhood emotional or physical abuse, rather than genetics. Because a sociopath's behavior is a product of his environment rather than his genes, he can form emotional attachments to others in certain circumstances.
Experts believe psychopathy is genetic. More specifically, research suggests psychopathy relates to a physiological defect that prevents a part of the brain responsible for emotions and impulse control to develop fully. Additionally, research shows psychopaths have decreased connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The former is the part of the brain responsible for guilt and empathy, and the latter is responsible for fear and anxiety. These two areas of the brain not communicating properly may contribute to psychopathy.
Sociopaths tend to be agitated easily and are prone to emotional outbursts. They may have difficulty holding steady jobs or staying in one place for long. Forming attachments to others is very challenging, but not impossible, for them. Though sociopaths have no regard for society and its rules, they are usually able to develop an attachment to another individual or group. As mentioned earlier, while a sociopath may not experience any remorse over hurting a stranger, they may feel guilt over hurting someone with whom they have created a bond.
Other people often see psychopaths as trustworthy and charming. They are often educated and can hold down a steady job. They may even have families and appear to have a loving relationship with a partner. However, psychopaths have a difficult time forming any real emotional bonds. Rather, they form shallow relationships they can manipulate to benefit themselves. Psychopaths rarely feel remorse over hurting other people, no matter the closeness of the relationship.
Sociopaths tend to be more erratic and impulsive than psychopaths. If they commit crimes, sociopaths may be impulsive and lack contingency plans. They have little regard for possible risks or consequences to themselves. As mentioned earlier, sociopaths tend to become angry or agitated easily, which may lead to violent emotional outbursts. This fact often makes them easier for law enforcement to apprehend.
Psychopathic criminals are calm and meticulous. They plan out every detail of a crime ahead of time and have contingency plans for every situation they might face. Psychopaths engage in criminal activity in ways that minimize risk to themselves. Their cold-blooded nature makes them more challenging to identify than sociopathic criminals.
Unfortunately, due to the differences in brain chemistry in psychopaths, most experts believe the condition cannot be cured. No amount of talk therapy or medication can teach empathy if the neural connections are lacking. Because sociopathy is generally a product of one's environment, an individual with sociopathy may be able to learn more socially-appropriate behaviors. However, sociopaths often do not recognize that anything is wrong with them. Therefore, they typically do not seek help for their behavior. Medication is minimally beneficial to sociopaths. It is often used to treat co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Psychotherapy and anger management may help a sociopath identify her emotions and socially-appropriate behavior.
Some examples of sociopaths in pop culture include JD in Heathers, the Joker in The Dark Knight, and Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange. Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Anton Chigurh in Old Country for Old Men, Dexter, and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho are all examples of Hollywood psychopaths.
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