antisocial personality disorder vs. psychopath vs. sociopath?
December 3, 2011 5:24 AM   Subscribe

I need help explaining the differences among antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy. Any explanations or resources that will help clarify the differences are welcome.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There is an good discussion of this in Barlow and Durand's Abnormal Psych textbook in the chapter on ASPD.
posted by OmieWise at 6:30 AM on December 3, 2011

The following is taken (paraphrased) from Without Conscience by Dr Robert Hare, who is a psychologist and widely recognized as the world's leading expert on psychopathy:

Many clinicians use the terms psychopath and sociopath interchangeably. Sometimes sociopath is used because it is less likely to be confused with psychosis than psychopath. Sometimes sociopath is chosen because someone is making a statement about the origins of the disorder: "sociopath" suggest that it was caused by social factors and is preferred by some clinicians, and most criminologists and sociologists. Robert Hare, on the other hand, believes that psychological, biological and genetic factors, as well as social forces, are involved.

"Antisocial personality disorder" is a diagnostic term that was supposed to have much the same meaning. It appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is the great describing and diagnostic tool of psychology. Hare does not like the description because it only lists behaviors, and does not include the personality traits, such as egocentrism, lack of empathy or guilt, etc, that he considers to be core features of the psychopathic syndrome. He developed the Psychopathy Checklist as a tool instead. According to Hare, the constructs do not overlap fully. For example, a teenage boy who falls in with a rough crowd, or grows up in an antisocial environment, could be diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder on the basis of having met a number of observed behaviors, but this doesn't mean that he has the characteristic lack of empathy that hallmarks a psychopath.

If you are interested in this topic I strongly recommend the works of Hare. His website is pretty scant, though.
posted by Ladysin at 6:31 AM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

If wikipedia is to be believed, they are the same thing. Psychopath and sociopath just being older terms for ASPD.

As a layperson, I always got the impression that psychopaths were more violent, and sort of enjoyed the violence, where sociopaths were more neutral. If a sociopath has to kill someone who is in their way, they do it with no more enjoyment than eating a bowl of soup. Whereas a psychopath would view the killing as the goal. Hitman = sociopath, axe murderer = psychopath.

But I've also always had trouble with the "monster with no capacity for empathy or guilt" framework. How do they know whether someone actually lacks it, or is doing what is pretty universal among troublemakers, and just *saying* they don't care? I think that's why the DSM shifted to the behavioral model.
posted by gjc at 6:49 AM on December 3, 2011

The ASPD designation came out of the DSM's efforts to come up with behavioral criteria for each disorder, in a way that multiple clinicians would come up with the same diagnosis. Things like lack of empathy can be very difficult to assess objectively. The problem comes when you have "high functioning psychopaths" who have all the Psychopathy Check List (PCL) criteria hit but don't get in legal trouble. So you have two different groups of people who can be diagnosed ASPD, career criminals without psychopathy, career criminals with psychopathy, and then a third group who has psychopathy but isn't diagnosable as ASPD because they act in socially acceptable ways (banker, CEO, salesman etc.) If you are willing to act in unethical ways, you can get far in the world if you do it in ways that society reinforces rather than punishes.

I think the differences between sociopathy and psychopathy are less distinct. they both involve more criteria related to personality variables such as lack of empathy, manipulative etc. It is my un-verified recollection that sociopathy is an older term and due to the popularity of the Hare Checklist, psychopathy is discussed more, at least in my clinical training and work. However, wikpedia says "Hare writes that the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy may "reflect the user's views on the origins and determinates of the disorder." The term sociopathy may be preferred by sociologists that see the causes as due to social factors. The term psychopathy may be preferred by psychologists who see the causes as due to a combination of psychological, genetic, and environmental factors"

Some links:
Also less related, but a very interesting theory of how genetics influence psychopathy and a very interesting lecture
posted by gilsonal at 6:52 AM on December 3, 2011

According to a psychiatrist I asked about this, sociopathy and psychopathy are the same thing, and the term psychopath has fallen out of use and is not favored.

As I understand it, sociopathy/psychopathy is a subset of antisocial personality disorder.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:52 AM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a graduate student who assesses people on parole for APD and psychopathy (along with mood disorders and substance abuse) in order to get them connected with treatment that will help them thrive in life out of prison. My supervisor is a researcher/practitioner who studies psychopathy and violence. IANAPE (psychopathy expert); IANYPE.

To explain the distinction, my supervisor uses a Venn diagram- one relatively small circle represents psychopathy, and one relatively large circle represents APD, and the psychopathy circle is mostly contained within the APD circle. That is to say, they are highly overlapping constructs, but APD is more prevalent, and most psychopaths have APD (although some--usually thought of as "successful psychopaths" because they have not gotten in legal trouble as a result of their psychopathy--do not have APD). I have never heard her use the term "sociopath."

We assess psychopathy dimensionally using the Psychopathy Checklist-Screening Version (i.e., everyone is low, medium, or high on psychopathy- unlike the PCL-R, which they used in the This American Life episode, almost no one warrants a score of 0 on the PCL-SV), whereas we assess APD categorically (i.e., you either have APD or you don't). To get a diagnosis of APD, you HAVE to have fairly serious adolescent conduct problems, whereas you don't have to have adolescent conduct problems to be high in psychopathy. Like others have said, APD is more behaviorally based, whereas psychopathy is more about personality traits. It might be helpful to check out the diagnostic criteria for APD and compare it to the traits that make up the factors that are used to score the PCL (these are not exactly the traits in the PCL-SV but they are very close).
posted by quiet coyote at 9:53 AM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

As far as I know there is no difference between psychopath and sociopath--different words as a result of time and place but no real distinction. For practical/clinical use I have always considered a psychopath/sociopath to be asocial (essentially with out values/conscience) while the APD may have internalized values/conscience/morality but acts in an antisocial way. It maybe important to understand why you want to know as the real distinction may have more to do with your use of the terms (literature/conversation/clinical/etc) than the terms themselves .
posted by rmhsinc at 12:11 PM on December 3, 2011

When i was doing a criminology degree (bs 2001), i actually took a class on sociopathy and psychopathy. Recently, though, ive learned that they are used interchangeably.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:19 AM on December 4, 2011

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