The Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath

Josh Clark

Chemical Ali was hanged yesterday in Iraq. He was the cousin of Saddam Hussein. Under his cousin's regime, Ali Hassan al-Majid ordered and orchestrated, among other things, the 1988 chemical weapons drops that killed 5,000 of his own Kurdish countrymen. A year before that, he was the official in charge of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds in Iraq with poison gas. He ordered the survivors be killed. Ali liked the chemical weapons, which is how he got his nickname, and, not coincidentally, why he was hanged.

On PRI's The World today, Barim Hasali, the Prime Minister of Kurdistan, is introduced as a person who opposes the death penalty. He made a special exception for Ali. "I am against the death penalty," Hasali said. "But I have to admit: In the case of people like Ali Hassan al-Majid, I cannot be true to my feelings about the death penalty."

On the same day Chemical Ali's life was snuffed out for genocide, a 14-year-old boy named John Caudle was arrested by police in Colorado, CBS reports. According to police, late last October, Caudle committed a comparatively smaller atrocity, when he murdered his mother and, shortly after, his stepfather. He admitted to police that he'd carried out this act of parricide because he no longer wanted to be responsible for his chores around the house. He spent that night watching movies and playing on the computer while his mother and stepfather festered in the house with him. His friends told police he'd seemed happy the next day at school.

Not very long ago, the crimes committed by al-Majid and Caudle would have been described as evil. Indeed, they still may be. Both transcend our social limitations on ordinary crime and violence by scope. Genocide and parricide have their own words; they are more than murder. Yet, the word evil describes everything but tells us nothing. It is a generally biblical word; and connotes a loose understanding on human behavior. Its use has come back into fashion in some parts of the psychological realm lately, and it's rightly been applied to mental illness that destroy the lives of sufferers and the people around them.

More often, however, evil goes unused and is replaced by either sociopath or psychopath. Are Chemical Ali and John Caudle psychopaths? Sociopaths? Neither? That answer, and the distinction between sociopathy and psychopathy, depends on who you ask.

Under psychology's bible, the DSM-IV, both fall into the broader category of antisocial personality disorder. APD is characterized by repeated arrests or the repeated demonstration of arrestable behavior. People with APD are impulsive, irresponsible, irritable and reckless toward themselves and others. Most notably, they're without remorse.

Thanks to 80s slasher flicks, psychopaths are generally associated with murder. Sociopaths on the other hand are con artists. Psychologists have increasingly come to refer to psychopaths as people with a particularly untreatable form of APD. Sociopaths would fall somewhere below them on the spectrum of the disorder. The field of psychology has also posited that there are physically measurable differences in the brains of psychopaths, such as the size of the amygdala or the concentration of neurotransmitters; perhaps the distinction between psychopath and sociopath is the degree of these physical differences. But the distinction between sociopath and psychopath doesn't exist exclusively within the realm of psychology.

I've written before about sociology's utter disdain for psychology's failure to make any real headway toward a better understanding of crime. The former discipline is attempting to wrestle control of criminal disorders away from the latter. Sociopathy isn't any different.

Where psychology sees mental and physiological defect, sociology sees the construct of negative surroundings. A sociopath is a product of his environment: poor parenting, opportunity to commit crime, poorly socialized. A sociopath is a simply a person who isn't properly indoctrinated into society. Under sociology, there really isn't any such thing as a psychopath. That's just psychobabble. What's disconcerting is that the sociological view implies that all of us were once potential sociopaths; those of us who aren't happened to be properly socialized.

So the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy may be degrees of antisocial personality if one subscribes to the psychological school of thought. It may be the difference between a small amygdala and absent parents, if one wants to take sides between psychology and sociology.

Interestingly, one of the classic characteristics of psychopaths is that they often claim to be educated in both psychology and sociology. While the two disciplines struggle over which one has the correct approach to understanding the behavior, those who suffer from it embrace both.

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