Word Confusion: Psychopath versus Sociopath

Posted March 24, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 4 October 2017

Okay, I’m fed up. In fact, I just may go psychopathic on yo’ ass. Or maybe, I’m more sociopathic? Hmmm…what is the difference?

Getting serious, I really am fed up with authors who casually label various characters as psychopaths or sociopaths. Two that most quickly come to mind are Laurell K. Hamilton in her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series in which Anita questions whether she’s becoming a sociopath. A fair question, and if she were to actually Google for a definition, she’d find that she’s doing quite well. Edward may have some issues, but his belief system is changing with his engagement to Donna and his involvement with Anita. Now Curran in the Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series is definitely NOT a psychopath. AND I wish the authors would stop referring to him in that way!

Writers, authors, scribblers…you have a responsibility to use words well. Know their meanings. Apply them properly. Okay, I shouldn’t have said that…I don’t want to stunt someone’s muse. However, please stop confusing your readers — and annoying me — by misusing these two terms.

Psychology Today Says…

While the general dictionary provides a reasonable definition for both terms, I found an article in Psychology Today under Mindmelding by William Hirstein, Ph.D., asking “What Is a Psychopath?: The Neuroscience of Psychopathy Reports Some Intriguing Findings“, which was published on January 30, 2013. In this article, Hirstein explains that various lists have been compiled to describe such a person with “the most commonly used … [being] … the Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R), developed by Robert Hare and his colleagues. There are other books, lists, and organizations which Hirstein notes, and for the sake of this Word Confusion, it doesn’t really matter, and I intend to compile the various definitions into the relevant columns below for PSYCHOPATH or SOCIOPATH. Well, I suppose it does matter if you’re in the psychology business…*grins*…

Then there’s Jack Pemment’s article on “Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial” which goes deeper into the neurology involved.

You may want to read both articles, as both have some very interesting points to make about biological issues within the brain that may create this problem — and could create some interesting plot issues. Including this comment: “Psychopaths do not show a differential brain response to emotional terms over neutral terms that normal people do (Williamson et al., 1991). They also have trouble understanding metaphors and abstract words.”

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Psychopath Sociopath
Credit to: Dr. William Hirstein; Jack Pemment; Apple Dictionary.com

Ted Bundy, FBI 10 Most Wanted“, 1978, is courtesy of the FBI Archives and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ted Bundy was a psychopath.

“Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun” is courtesy of the Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F051673-0059 under the CC-BY-SA and CC BY-SA 3.0 de licenses, via Wikimedia Commons

Shockingly, Hitler was capable of, and did, love, which makes him a sociopath, and not a psychopath.

Part of Grammar:
Plural for the noun: psychopaths
Plural for the noun: sociopaths
A person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior

[Informal] An unstable and aggressive person

A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience
Current belief is that psychopathy is biological, a developmental disorder that is associated with specific kinds of behavior

Can be diagnosed in the form of extreme antisocial personality disorder at age 18

Don’t give a shit what you think; we aren’t real to them

Current belief is that sociopathy is due to environment, beliefs of a subculture [that] provide a morality and a worldview that could permit the individual to indulge in heinous acts such as mass killing, or brain injury

Extremely unlikely to be prevalent in young offenders

Can form emotional bonds, although those bonds aren’t usually healthy ones


No empathy


Callous unconcern for the feelings of others

Inability to feel emotions deeply

Not good at detecting fear in the faces of other people

Has extremely high thresholds for disgust

A lack of emotion, especially the social emotions, such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment

Lack of fear on the part of the psychopath

They blame others for events that are actually their fault, although they may admit blame when forced into a corner, but these admissions are not accompanied by a sense of shame or remorse, and they have no power to change the psychopath’s future behavior.

Con others for personal profit or pleasure



Grandiose sense of self-worth, egocentric


Very difficult to distract them from their chosen path

Incapable of love

Impersonal sex life

Incredibly selfish

Parasitic lifestyle

Inability to plan for the future, lack of realistic long-term goals

Low tolerance for frustration

Irritable and aggressive with a tendency to fight a lot

Genuinely unable to appreciate their own body sensations … [or] their own emotional experiences

Has a sense of morality and a well-developed conscience, but the sense of right and wrong is not that of the parent culture

A lack of emotion, especially the social emotions, such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment

Emotionally shallow


Very little sense guilt

Being caught has no power to change their future behavior


Con others for personal profit or pleasure

Shallow sense of word meaning

Grandiose sense of self-worth, egocentric

Ted Bundy was a psychopath.

Actually, almost all serial killers are psychopaths.

According to the current research, psychopathy is biological and present from birth.

Politicians could be considered sociopaths.

According to the current research, sociopathy can be a learned behavior whether it’s learned as a defense mechanism or part of the child’s learning environment.

Pemment mentioned acquired sociopathy, meaning that an injury to the brain caused behavioral changes.

Sherlock Holmes, contrary to the television program, is not a high-functioning sociopath when his behaviors in the show are considered. No, he’s not a psychopath either.

History of the Word:
Dr. Hirstein starts with some history behind the evolution of the term psychopath, starting with the early 1800s when doctors singled out patients who seemed normal but behaved with a moral depravity with “no sense of ethics or of the rights of other people”, finally applying psychopath to “these people around 1900”. In the 1930s, “the term was changed to sociopath … to emphasize the damage they do to society.”

Today, we’ve reverted back to psychopath, but with “some … us[ing] that term to refer to a more serious disorder, linked to genetic traits, producing more dangerous individuals, while continuing to use sociopath to refer to less dangerous people who are seen more as products of their environment, including their upbringing.”

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Return to top

Pinterest Photo Credits

Scary Child is in Brianna Taylor Rifkin’s post, ” Can We Call Children Psychopaths?“, 25 October 2015, via Scholarblogs at Emory Libraries and Information Technology. Donald Trump and Wife Melania by Boss Tweed (Flickr) is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.