Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths

Call me paranoid, but my mind is constantly telling me that people are not what they seem and that they are secretly plotting to kill me (my roommate thinks it’s funny). So how pleasantly surprised was I to read that on average, 1 in 25 people that we come across are sociopaths without us having even the slightest idea. And that is what makes them so lethal. A sociopath generally has deceptive qualities that make us believe they are charming and intelligent, although they are often aggressive and unreliable. I’m curious to know if sociopath’s develop these behaviors from their environment or if it could be hereditary.


While I intended to research only sociopathy, the internet led me to thousands of articles debating the relationship of sociopathy and psychopathy. What I learned was although they share most of the same qualities, sociopathy has recently been attributed to environmental factors while psychopathy might have a genetic background. Neurologist James Fallon of the University of California-Irvine decided to look into the idea that psychopathy could be hereditary after learning of his murderous family tree. To test this theory that criminals can have a similar biological deficiency, he took brain scans of himself and 10 of his close family members to look for similarities in the orbital cortex, which controls behaviors such as rage and violence. With these brain scans, he compared them to the brain of a psychopath and found that only one of the 11 family members showed a similar deficiency in this area: it was himself.

It is hard to decide whether this experiment supports or refutes his hypothesis that psychopathy is caused by a deficiency in the orbital cortex. For one, the sample size was far too small to draw conclusions, even if the results were supportive. Second, we don’t know if Jim Fallon has other qualities of psychopathy or is one for that matter without testing him properly (he seemed genuinely shocked at the results). Finally, this evidencpsycho-illustratione isn’t enough to establish causation. Although they’re brains may look similar, that does not mean that both of them are dangerous killers. However, I believe reverse causation probably is not a factor in this experiment because certain qualities a human has is usually determined by their genes and does not determine them.

Another study done on psychopathy in 1991 uses a group of prisoner’s to decipher psychopathic tendencies. The group of prisoners was random, so it was unknown if any of them were sociopaths to begin with. During the experiment, the researchers showed each prisoner a series of words and they were asked to press a button when they noticed a real word. It was suggested that while normal people would respond quickly to words such as “blood” and “violence,” it would have no exaggerated affect on psychopaths. While I believe that this experiment was creative, it was not the type of experiment that could produce concrete results. Some could have reacted quicker or slower because they did not notice them in a timely mannor. It could have had to do with confounding variables, like attentiveness or intelligence.

Now, to address the other perspective; sociopath’s, like I said, are more often connected with environmental factors. In an article written by PhD Scott A. Bonn,  he claims that these individuals fail to learn when they grow up how to empathize or connect with people. It’s also believed that sociopath’s have often faced tragedy or abuse as a child that could result in this behavior. I believe the only way to really decide if the environment affects their behavior would be to complete an observational study, in which they asked sociopath’s about their past history of abuse and then looked at the statistics. Either way, no one is completely sure of what causes this disorder.

This is not to say that sociopaths and psychopaths are always murderous individuals. Most of what we know on the subjects relies on theories, which need to be tested thousands upon thousands of times to be generally accepted in the science world. Now, at least you have been warned that maybe it’s not actually the quiet ones to be afraid of.


  • Susanina, Vladislava. “Psychopathy Is the Result of “Nature” (Genetics) While Sociopathy Is the Result of “Nurture” (Environment) – Psych2go.”Psych2go. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014. <>.
  • Hagerty, Barbara B. “A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret.” NPR. NPR, 29 June 2010. Web. 23 Oct. 2014. <>.
  • Thomas, M. E. “How to Spot a Sociopath.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. Sussex Directories, Inc., 7 May 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <>.


1 thought on “Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths

  1. Heather Elise Wagner

    Wow what a wonderfully written article, I like how you quoted multiple studies and were able to see the fallacies in them. Thats employing some of the things we have learned in class regarding the legitimacy of a study. I believe you are correct in saying that not every sociopath is a mudererous individual, especially considering the fact that you stated that 1 in 25 people may be one. If it were true we would have millions of jack the rippers running around the streets. Its interesting that environment contributes to sociopaths violent development, this article sure is tied into the whole nature vs nurture argument on human psychosis. This article may interest you

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