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The Internet is of course full of memes from Sherlock Holmes show, based on one of the episodes having Sherlock self-diagnose:

I'm not a psychopath, I'm a highly functioning sociopath

But what exactly is the difference?

Wikipedia does not actually seem to offer any meaningful distinction between the two, including seemingly indicating that they are synonymous in DSM but not actually named there.

The DSM and International Classification of Diseases (ICD) subsequently introduced the diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and dissocial personality disorder, stating that these have been referred to (or include what is referred to) as psychopathy or sociopathy.

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4 Answers 4

Ironically enough, Wikipedia does offer as meaningful a distinction as any of the answers here so far:

The term sociopathy may have been first introduced in 1909 in Germany by biological psychiatrist Karl Birnbaum and in 1930 in the US by educational psychologist George E. Partridge, as an alternative to, or a subtype of, the concept of psychopathy.[137] It was used to indicate that the defining feature is violation of social norms, or antisocial behavior, and has often also been associated with postulating social as well as biological causation.[139][140][141][142]

There are various contemporary usages of the term. Robert Hare, who may believe that biological factors are predominant in causing psychopathy,[143] claimed in a 1999 popular science book that sociopathy and psychopathy are often used interchangeably, but in some cases the term sociopathy is preferred because it is less likely than is psychopathy to be confused with psychosis, whereas in other cases which term is used may "reflect the user's views on the origins and determinates of the disorder". Hare contended that the term sociopathy is preferred by those that see the causes as due to social factors and early environment, and the term psychopathy preferred by those who believe that there are psychological, biological, and genetic factors involved in addition to environmental factors.[78] Hare also suggests another possible distinction: he defines psychopathy as not having a sense of empathy or morality, but sociopathy as only differing in sense of right and wrong from the average person.[144][145][verification needed][bolding added for emphasis]

While this largely echoes the existing answers, it includes references to published books and articles, involves the idea's history, and gives the impression that the distinctions between psychopathy and sociopathy are largely in the mind of the authors. They vary somewhat from one author to the next, and don't seem to have much empirical support as distinct diagnoses.

One also ought to question the utility of the proposed distinctions. Secondary psychopathy is also meant to imply social etiology, but also lacks empirical support somewhat. Defining a disorder by violation of social norms is a particularly poor approach to abnormal and clinical psychology, because social norms are typically subjective and ill-defined themselves, and do not necessarily apply outside a contemporary cultural context. Such a definition must possess very limited reliability across time and space.

78. Hare, R. D. (1999). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: Guilford Press.
137. Rutter, S. (2007). The psychopath: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 37). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
139. Partridge, G. E. (1930). Current conceptions of psychopathic personality. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1(87), 53–99.
140. Felthous, A., & Sass, H. (2008). International handbook on psychopathic disorders and the law, Vol. 1. Wiley.
141. Hildebrand, M. (2005). Psychopathy in the treatment of forensic psychiatric patients: Assessment, prevalence, predictive validity, and clinical implications. Rozenberg Publishers.
142. Partridge, G. E., & Hamblin Smith, M. (1930). Epitome of current literature: Current conceptions of psychopathic disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 76, 838. Retrieved from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/76/315/838.1.extract.
143. Ronson, J. (2011). The psychopath test (pp. 225). Riverhead Books.
144. Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
145. Skilling, T.A., Harris, G. T., Rice, M. E., & Quinsey, V. L. (2002, March). Identifying persistently antisocial offenders using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and DSM antisocial personality disorder criteria. American Psychological Association.

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I agree with this answer. If I were to face the chopping block if I didn't provide an answer, I'd say that the difference is that psychopaths also exhibit psychosis - delusions, as did Son of Sam and others. But this is not hard and fast by any means. –  anongoodnurse Jul 10 '14 at 16:13
@anongoodnurse: good suggestion! I have never heard of psychosis being associated with antisocial personality (though they probably correlate anyway, especially given the capacity for misdiagnosis), and nominally, that clearly is the difference in the labels! –  Nick Stauner Jul 10 '14 at 21:11

Psychopathy is a diagnosis with high reliability and validity, which is based on research originally begun by psychologist Robert Hare and now continued by many others. It is often used in forensic settings, and its use requires specialized training.

Sociopathy isn't a diagnosis and has no generally accepted clinical definition (unless it's in the ICD, which I don't use); but it's often associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder in the DSM-5. APD has less research behind it, and lower reliability and validity. It is more likely to be used in clinical settings.

As someone else noted here, there is some overlap between the two, but they are distinctly different diagnoses.

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In other words, the two diagnoses aren't just about different kinds of people, they are also different in how they were developed and how and where they are used. This makes direct comparisons difficult –  user6166 Jun 12 '14 at 12:50
These are constructs, ways of categorizing people, and they overlap. Regarding their characteristics, there's a considerable amount of research on psychopathy, which you can look up on the internet. The last time I looked no one knew how they got that way. But impulsivity is one of the criteria for psychopathy, so they have that by definition. –  user6166 Jun 13 '14 at 3:42
Do you have any sources to back up these claims? –  anongoodnurse Jun 15 '14 at 7:39
I wasn't inquiring about your personal qualifications; I was looking for links to sourses: articles in peer-reviewed journals, etc. –  anongoodnurse Jun 15 '14 at 21:03
Funny you should suggest starting with Wikipedia...It indicates that Hare was at least 50 years too late to be the original researcher. If you feel like suggesting any other references, I'd be particularly interested in support for the claim that antisocial personality disorder is less valid than psychopathy... –  Nick Stauner Jun 16 '14 at 17:21

Here is very nice article about difference: http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/11/03/the-difference-between-psychopaths-and-sociopaths/

Here is some history of psychopathy diagnosis: http://law.jrank.org/pages/1884/Psychopathy-What-psychopathy.html

In short APA made fusion of sociopathy and psychopathy diagnosis in DSM, but lot of researches was conducted in prisons. So they omited "snakes in the suits" whicha are very inteligent and charming and often climb very sucsesfully on corporate ladder.

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The KnowledgeNuts article suffers from the same flaws as Diffen's due to sharing a common, inconclusive reference that is mostly an internal definition for one Psy.D.'s blog. –  Nick Stauner Jun 6 '14 at 20:10
I have no doubt that they suffer. ;) But between clinical psychologist there are clean difference between sociopath and psychopath. I cant find now the Veinn diagram of intersection of criminal, sociopath and psychopath but I will post it if I manage to find it. –  ICanFeelIt Jun 6 '14 at 20:32
It's really the opinion of a small handful of clinical psychologists who try to draw clean differences and disagree with one another. They even acknowledge that the rest of the community is pretty confused/divided about this. I don't see much justification for differentiating between the two terms personally...but I'd want actual empirical evidence of discriminant validity, whereas others are sometimes to accept a much lower standard of evidence for two differential diagnoses...My opinion may not reflect that of the majority, for better or worse. –  Nick Stauner Jun 6 '14 at 20:36
here are some views from neuroscience perspective: bjp.rcpsych.org/content/182/1/5.full –  ICanFeelIt Jun 6 '14 at 21:10
Interesting...but there is only a very brief mention of "'acquired sociopathy'" in reference to another study. That study doesn't seem to have convinced the authors that acquired sociopathy is a useful or generally understood term, as they present it in quotes... –  Nick Stauner Jun 6 '14 at 21:15

My understanding of the distinction is that psychopaths are the way they are from birth, while sociopaths become antisocial due to upbringing or other environmental factors. As well, psychopaths have a high tendency towards violence but generally low impulsiveness, while sociopaths may not be as violent but have high impulsiveness. Diffen has a nice and fairly comprehensive comparison of the two terms.

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I wish it were this easy, but I don't think it is. The ICD 10 lists them both under antisocial personality disorders and makes no distinction between them. If I'm correct, neither does the DSM V, but I don't have access to that online. –  anongoodnurse Jun 6 '14 at 18:56
Diffen doesn't seem to agree very closely with its own references. Those references also don't strike me as very conclusive or authoritative. If anything, they're trying to establish differential meaning where it is lacking, and they acknowledge this confusion. Others would have to acknowledge them to give their opinions much weight in general theoretical discourse, and I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon... –  Nick Stauner Jun 6 '14 at 19:48

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