Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy

Psycho SocioI was happy to land my second review paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. Quibbling over terminology is not uncommon in any field, but I make the case that these two terms have to be treated separately. Robert Hare, the designer of the the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), and Paul Babiak, state in their book Snakes in Suits that sociopaths differ from psychopaths in that they do have a sense of morality, although it’s a sense derived from a subculture (rather than the over-arching parent culture). The presence of a sense of morality means that the brain of the sociopath is likely to be different from the brain of the psychopath, or the characteristics that define both represent different brain systems – perhaps with some overlap.

Pemment, J. (2013) Psychopathy versus Sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial, Aggression and Violent Behavior (In press)


The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but there appears to be some hesitance by researchers in the many disciplines comprising criminology to continue this trend. The problem seems to be that as research has advanced in studies of psychopathy, which is the more common of the two terms, psychopathy now commands a much more specific definition, and this is what alienates it from its estranged cousin, sociopathy. As language can serve to hinder or confound research, it is crucial that these terms take their proper place in brain science. Here, I present how the two terms are currently used in neuroscience and psychology, and suggest how research in sociopathy should progress.

4 thoughts on “Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy

  1. Lee Markowitz

    I’d like to cover this material in my classes but I want to understand it better. Is the current use of these two terms related to their etymology? It seems to me like “psychopath” would mean the disturbance is psychological in nature and “sociopath” would mean that it’s social in nature. But it doesn’t look that simple based on your description here. Thanks for the clarification.


    1. Jack Pemment Post author


      It would be nice if these terms followed their etymology, but they don’t, really. Academics who want to study this topic are coming in from a number of different fields, armed with their own language and understanding. While the different fields can bring useful and different perspectives, sometimes it just confounds the use of the key terms, in this case psychopathy and sociopathy. Psychopathy, traditionally, has focused on the different physiology, neurology, and biology of these individuals when compared to the non psychopathic. The only trouble is that social factors, such as bad relations with parents and siblings, can impact the development of the ‘biology’ (serious stress will prevent the brain from developing normally and healthily). So there’s an overlap.

      Personally, I think it would be useful to use the term ‘sociopathy’ when discussing how ideas can influence the brain and shape a person’s morality. Robert Hare makes this clear in his book ‘Snakes in Suits’ – a key difference between the psychopath and the sociopath is that psychopaths have no (or a limited) conscience, whereas a sociopath has a sense of morality, but one where he can comfortable devalue the life of certain individuals, such as women, Jews, or those of different skin color. It’s like the ideas or ideology have over time shaped him moral outlook on the world – such as white supremacy or religiously motivated prejudice. I’m willing to bet, though, that there is something in the development of the brain (could be genetic or due to a lack or different development) that makes people susceptible to different ideologies. This hasn’t really been shown yet, but there have been some key studies on a person’s worldview could impact a person’s moral ‘circuitry’.

      This does get very complicated very quickly, and unless there’s a tremendously useful and profound paradigm shift I don’t see there ever being a consensus on the matter. I’ll try and send the review paper I wrote on it to your e-mail address. If you have any further questions, I’ll try and help.


  2. galemolinari

    Reblogged this on galesmind and commented:
    There are now studies that suggest the Sociopath, Narcissist and Psychopaths to different degrees have malformations of the amygdala. This explains why they think differently than “normal people”. It is also much more prevalent than people know.



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