The criminal mind: sociopath vs. psychopath

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By Dr. Diane Daniels

In the past two decades, research has focused on what makes a criminal, a criminal. Many of the major crime shows bandy about terms like sociopath and psychopath. So, what do those terms actually mean? 


By definition, psychopaths are generally inclined to have disrespect for rules and social norms, are unable to feel empathy for another’s feelings and can mimic human emotions, but such displays are counterfeit. They use people for their own gain and can be violent when thwarted. They are often characterized as “having no conscience.” Still, psychopaths can have a steady job, sustained relationships and be quite successful. It’s not surprising that they rise to positions of power in politics and business. They can be enormously charming and intelligent and are capable of sustained effort to realize their goals. 

So, psychopaths, unlike those on the TV crime shows, are not all running around committing heinous crimes. They are our neighbors, family and colleagues. However, there is little doubt that they can be a dangerous menace if inwardly driven to criminal behavior. They see a potential victim as either an “object” or a supporter of their goals, or an impediment to those goals. Psychopaths can be deceitful and manipulative and have a history as children of bedwetting, preoccupation with fire, superficial friendships and cruelty to animals.

Researchers are using brain scans and other testing to discover what is happening with this kind of individual. A recent study by Dr. Ken Kiehl of the University of New Mexico asserted that psychopaths have some disruption in the “social-emotional” circuitry of the brain. Simply put, the frontal cortex of the brain, which controls reasoning, logic, decision making and impulse control, is not talking to the part of the brain that fosters emotions. The connection is weak and may account for the absence of empathy and compassion in psychopaths, allowing them to do deeds without any emotional reaction. 

In law enforcement, the psychopath is often characterized as “cold eyes” because their eyes often lack emotional responsiveness. Serial killer Ted Bundy once said, “I don’t feel guilty about anything. I feel sorry for people who feel guilty.”


Sociopaths, in many ways are different from psychopaths and in some ways they are similar. Research shows that unlike psychopaths, most sociopaths are environmentally created and not born with these tendencies. They are often victims of early childhood abuse, neglect and abandonment. Sociopaths tend to be impulsive, erratic and deceitful. 

Unlike psychopaths, they tend to be more frequently violent, but like their counterpart, are highly manipulative and self-centered. They tend to high-risk behavior such as drug and alcohol addiction, petit crime, irregular employment and a general indifference to the rights of others. However, they can experience remorse and guilt. They exhibit more adeptness at social relationships and can connect to people in a way that psychopaths don’t demonstrate. Our jails and prisons are often full of sociopaths, who, without help, are inclined to be repeat offenders.

So, what is the prognosis for treatment of these two conditions? Guarded at best. There are several therapies available to address their behaviors including behavior, cognitive and psychotherapy. 

Behavior therapy seeks to change antisocial responses to more pro-social behavior. Positive reinforcement, social skills training and changing antisocial reactions are marks of a more behavioral approach to this disorder. 

Cognitive therapy seeks to change inappropriate thinking and behavior patterns that lead to the antisocial behavior by stopping automatic thoughts in a given situation and replacing them with more socially acceptable ones. 

Psychotherapy takes a compassionate approach to treatment, relying on the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist to heal the damage due to history of abuse and neglect.

Medication can be helpful, such as neuroleptics like clozapine or the more recently approved aripiprazole. These drugs are generally used to treat disorders that may be present with the antisocial behavior such as depression or paranoia, etc. 

Perhaps the most effective approach is that of prevention. Educating parents and caregivers to the early signs of such behavior is one way to intervene when they are more amenable to change. 

Using techniques, then, from behavior and cognitive therapy can have positive results over time; however, there is no quick “fix.” Recovery is a sustained process and requires dedication and commitment by the parents, caregivers, therapist and the youth to produce significant improvement. Current research on the child’s developing brain in the future will likely open doors to more effective biological and psychological interventions.


Diane Daniels is a retired mental health professional. She is a volunteer working with the United Way of Citrus County and lives in the area. She can be reached at fjd267@bellsouth.net.