The short answer is, generally speaking, psychopathy is thought to be genetic (nature, rather than nurture). The psychopath’s brain is underdeveloped in the areas that regulate impulse control and emotions and this deficiency seems to be present from birth. A sociopath, on the other hand, is thought to be the result of an abusive childhood and/or childhood trauma and poor family circumstances (nurture, rather than nature). Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are quite different: they have different causes, different effects and different implications for treatment and for society. Most interesting, however, is no matter how commonly these terms are used in society, there is no official diagnosis of “Psychopath” or “Sociopath” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V). Both terms fall under a broader description that include symptoms of both disorders called “Antisocial Personality Disorder” Although not formally recognized as a disorder in the DSM V, various diagnostic tools have developed over the years to measure Psychopathy, the most well known and probably the most well used is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist developed by Canadian researcher Robert D. Hare. All of that being said, however, there are commonly understood differences between Psychopaths and Sociopaths:
Traits of a Psychopath
They psychopaths among us are often well spoken and charismatic. They lack emotions, but are able to fake them to fit in. They are cool headed, manipulative and calculating with a higher than average intelligence; which makes them quite terrifying. They are able to project the appearance of “normalcy” by mimicking regular, emotional human interaction. They have no regard for traditional morality and don’t feel empathy, remorse or guilt. From outside appearances, Psychopaths are regular, functioning members of society. They have jobs – often high paying, families and hobbies. It is likely that we all know or have met a psychopath in our travels. Not all psychopaths are criminals and yet Psychopathy is considered the most dangerous of all the Antisocial Personality Disorders.
Traits of a Sociopath
Sociopaths, in contrast can be highly emotional and have great difficulty fitting into society; making it difficult for them to hold down jobs or relationships. They have exhibit volatile tempers and act recklessly in the heat of the moment prone to unpredictable, violent outbursts. Sociopaths are capable of forming attachments with others; albeit with difficulty, and likely with only one or two people. They, like Psychopaths disregard laws or social norms, but unlike Psychopaths, their crimes are most often not planned out, and occur in the heat of the moment.
Both Psychopaths and Sociopaths can be dangerous, but it is probably way easier to spot a Sociopath. Most high profile serial murderers, rapists, and child molesters are thought to have Antisocial Personality Disorder. Some have been officially diagnosed. Some have not and some live among us as seemingly functioning members of society.