When someone wrongs you out of the blue or does something really hurtful, you might shake your head and silently comment to yourself, “what a psychopath” or “she’s a total sociopath.” Most of us use both labels interchangeably to refer to a person who behaves in a way that’s creepy and weird, or at least impossible to understand or sympathize with.
You’re probably familiar with some famous fictional psychopaths and sociopaths, such as psychopath Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs or sociopath King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. They both lack empathy, disregard laws and rules, don’t care about others’ rights, have violent tendencies, and never feel guilty.
So what’s the actual difference between the two terms? Neither is an official diagnosis on its own, but sociopathy falls under the mental health diagnosis antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), says Donald W. Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. People who have ASPD tend to be persistent liars, have no regard for what’s right and wrong, and an arrogant personality, among other traits.
Psychopaths have these characteristics as well, and they’re also superficial, egocentric, and emotionally shallow. But perhaps the most concerning difference between the two is that when someone is a psychopath, you’ll probably have no idea…which makes them all the more dangerous.
RELATED: 9 Ways to Spot a Sociopath
“Psychopaths are the smooth operator,” psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love ($15; amazon.com), tells Health. “It’s the guy who will compliment you, make you feel good, and just say all of the right things until you find out he’s been stealing money from you or he’s been plotting some kind of crime.” Or he, uh, kills someone.
It’s not unheard of for a person to marry a psychopath without having any idea their partner is one. This is what happened to Jen Waite, author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal ($11; amazon.com). This is because psychopaths are extremely manipulative and are pros at gaining others’ trust. In a previous article for Health, Waite wrote, “My prince charming was the most charming of them all. Until he wasn’t.”
Sociopaths, however, are easier to spot. “When a psychopath interacts with you, if they get upset, they can keep their cool, but a sociopath will lose it,” Lombardo says. “They’re really hot-headed. If things don’t go they way they want them to, they’ll get angry and could be aggressive. They can’t keep it together and have emotional outbursts.” Yep, sounds like King Joffrey.
Basically, when a psychopath is plotting behind your back, he’ll have a perfectly believable excuse for anything that you might think seems off, and you’ll never see it coming. But when you’re dealing with a sociopath, it’s more likely you’ll catch on because he won’t be smart enough to cover his tracks, and you probably won’t trust him as much.
If there’s a sociopath in your life, you might also notice other things that are off: maybe he doesn’t fit right in social settings, or he has difficulty holding a job. Psychopaths, though, are the opposite. They tend to be very successful and well liked. You could call them master con artists.
There are different levels of both psychopaths and sociopaths. Some might might be thieves or cheaters, while others could be actual killers. Regardless of the severity, people with these traits are dangerous, and if you suspect you know someone who fits either of these molds, it’s crucial you remove yourself and speak with a mental health professional.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter