How to Identify a Psychopath or Sociopath

The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” often get used interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same.  Regardless of semantics, here’s how to spot the heartless, charming evil of a psychopath or sociopath.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
July 4, 2014
Episode #026

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Psychopath Trait #3: Low Autonomic Arousal

This means your physiology is different from non-psychopaths.  Your resting heart rate is lower, your skin conductance is lower, and the beat-to-beat alterations in your heart rate are different from the rest of those losers.

So, you’re cool as a cucumber, even when others react.  When your partner is freaking out, this is when you do your best work.  You may be part of the 20% of batterers for whom violence doesn’t involve rage at all.  Instead, your heart rate goes down when you’re arguing with and, often, beating up your partners.  The epitome was Hannibal Lechter: his heart rate never broke 85 even as he attacked a nurse and...well, you know what happened next.

Psychopaths vs. Sociopaths

Researchers sometimes make a distinction between primary psychopaths—confirmed, bona fide psychopaths—and secondary psychopaths, also called sociopaths.

Sociopaths are cut from the same cloth as psychopaths, with 3 key differences:

Unlike psychopathy, sociopathy can even be acquired: dementia or a head injury can do the trick. 

  • First, while true psychopaths are confident, social, and dominant, sociopaths are reserved and inhibited, sometimes loners.  And while psychopaths are exempt from negative emotion, sociopaths are often hostile and do experience anxiety and rejection.

  • Second, while psychopaths truly have no morals, sociopaths do have a sense of morality and a conscience, but their sense of right and wrong is skewed and doesn’t match society at large.  Sociopaths are often crusaders or martyrs for a perceived cause; they see their depraved acts as necessary.  So antagonistic, withdrawn Timothy McVeigh is a good example.

  • The third, oversimplified, difference is that psychopaths are born, while sociopaths are made, often through extreme childhood adversity and exposure to violence.  But it’s not as simple as just nature or nurture—the truth lies somewhere in a scramble of genetics, neurology, and environment. 

Unlike psychopathy, sociopathy can even be acquired: dementia or a head injury can do the trick.  For example, think of Phineas Gage from your Psych 101 class.  He was an easygoing construction foreman with lots of friends until, in 1848, a railroad explosion sent a 13-pound tamping rod into Gage’s eye and out the top of his head.  Miraculously, he survived, but even as he physically healed, he became "fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows." He was also "impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for future action."  Basically, this was the 1840s version of calling him a stubborn, foulmouthed, flaky a--hole with mood swings—if not true acquired sociopathy, at least a close cousin.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with the best example of psychopathy I’ve ever seen. He’s not a serial killer, evil CEO, or maniacal despot—he’s Eric Cartman from South Park.  Cartman is a genuine psychopath.  Indeed, making chili out of Scott Tenorman’s parents is the tip of his horrific iceberg. 

Here's a link to South Park clips that prove Cartman is a psychopath (plus more about Phineas Gage).  That’s all for this week.  Or maybe I should say that’s enough for this week. 

And finally, thanks to you, savvy listeners, for getting the Savvy Psychologist to the 6-month mark.  This show wouldn’t happen without you! Please keep listening and sending me questions and ideas for future episodes via Facebook or email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com.


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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Pemment, J.  (2013).  Psychopathy versus sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 458-461.

Thompson, D. F., Ramos, C. L. and Willett, J. K. (2014), Psychopathy: clinical features, developmental basis and therapeutic challenges. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics. doi: 10.1111/jcpt.12182

Gottman, J.M., Jacobson, N.S., Rushe, R.H. Shortt, J.W., Babcock, J.B., La Taillade, J.J., et al. (1995).  The Relationship Between Heart Rate Reactivity, Emotionally Aggressive Behavior, and General Violence in Batterers, 9, 227-248.

Yang, Y., Raine, A., Narr, K.L, Colletti, P., & Toga, A.W. (2009).  Localization of deformations within the amygdala in individuals with psychopathy.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 66, 986-994.

Babiak, P. & Hare, R.D. (2006).  Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins Publishing Inc.

Stout, M. (2005).  The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless vs. the Rest of Us.  New York: Broadway Books.

Evil girl and evil man images courtesy of Shutterstock. Anthony Hopkins image courtesy of Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com