Myths You Shouldn’t Believe About Psychopaths and Sociopaths

You’ve likely thrown around the words “psychopath” and “sociopath” once or twice — maybe to describe your crazy ex or that college roommate who stole your belongings on move-out day. Whether or not the less-than-desirable people in your life really fit the bill is up for debate, but Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer are certainly two memorable cases.

These mental disorders can be seriously blown out of proportion by the media, so it’s important to get the facts straight. First, knowing the distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy is a must.

Psychopath or sociopath?

Passenger Complaining To Staff At Airport

Know the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths. |

Psychopathy and sociopathy are closely related, but WebMD says there are some differences. They’re both personality disorders — that’s the important thing to remember. Those who are dealing with these disorders typically struggle with empathy and conscience. A psychopath, on one hand, might hurt or steal from you without thinking twice. A sociopath, on the other, might do the same but feel remorse. Not enough to stop them from stealing in the first place, unfortunately.

Next: No, they’re not psychotic.

1. Sociopaths and psychopaths are psychotic

Medical documents on a clipboard

Psychopathy isn’t the same thing. |

Having psychopathy or sociopathy isn’t the same as being psychotic. They’re related, but Medical Daily explains they’re separate disorders. The difference is hard to pin down, but essentially, people who are psychotic (dealing with psychosis) are more or less losing touch with reality. That can mean a number of things, including struggling with hallucinations and delusions. Psychopaths, on the other hand, lack empathy or are detached. But otherwise, they’re in touch with their reality. Both can be treated for their illnesses, but it’s up for debate as to whether psychopaths can truly change their ways.

Next: Do you know how many people actually qualify as sociopaths and psychopaths?

2. They are common disorders

Man looking at woman on phone

It’s not common to be a psychopath or sociopath. | Paolo81/iStock/Getty Images Plus

You may hear news reports or troubling statistics that make it seem like psychopaths are around every corner. You hear that prisons are full of them. But it’s not really true — these disorders don’t affect huge chunks of the population. Some studies have shown as low as 1% to 2% of the population may have the potential for psychopathy. As for sociopaths, a 2005 book by psychologist Martha Stout, highlighted by The Daily Beast, claims up to 4% of Americans fit the descriptor.

Next: People with these disorders can have relationships, too.

3. Psychopaths and sociopaths can’t fall in love

woman in red dress looking at her lover in suit and tie

Psychopaths and sociopaths can be in relationships — sometime they’re even successful. |

Psychopaths and sociopaths often have tumultuous relationships. But it’s not impossible for them to form romantic bonds — especially if the healthier partner of the two can influence the other to receive help. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., tells Psychology Today those who display psychopathic personality traits don’t usually form a typical intimate bond with another person. The bond may stem from more of a shared view of how things are in the world than romantic love. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t end well for the couple. But if the healthier partner can influence the other to be more trusting, sharing, and intimate, things can work out.

Next: Don’t call them crazy.

4. Psychopathy is the same as insanity

A man talks with a psychologist

Insanity is a whole other beast entirely. |

Psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t considered insane. The main difference is people who are deemed insane don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They don’t understand their actions. For this reason, the insanity defense typically doesn’t hold up for people diagnosed with these disorders.

Next: Movie depictions of violent psychopaths aren’t all that realistic.

5. They’re all violent or sadistic

Scared and frightened man

Many psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t violent. |

You might call someone who acts out violently a psycho, but psychopaths and sociopaths don’t always exhibit this behavior. Scientific American explains researchers have found that psychopathy is a risk factor for future violence of the physical and sexual nature, but most people with these mental disorders are totally nonviolent.

Next: It’s not just a male thing.

6. Men are the only ones who can have these disorders

young man sitting on park bench

Women can have them, too. |

It’s commonly believed men are more likely to be psychopaths or sociopaths, though it’s not necessarily true. Historically, research has always been male-focused when it comes to psychopathy. But now researchers are finding the disorder may appear in women just as much, though it may present itself a bit differently in females. Most of the findings still state there are more male psychopaths than women, but the gap isn’t as wide as once thought.

Next: There are fewer criminal psychopaths than you think.

7. Prisons are full of psychopaths

prisoner hands in jail

Most prisoners aren’t psychopaths. |

Think the prison population is full of violent psychopaths? You thought wrong. Psychology Today reports Robert Hare, a psychopathy expert, has his own methods for determining whether someone can be diagnosed. He found most of the prison population — approximately 50% to 75% — could have antisocial personality disorder. But psychopathy is slightly more severe, and only about 15% to 25% of prisoners make the cut. Like we said before, it’s not a common disorder — even in prison populations.

Next: Making your own diagnosis is a mistake.

8. You can self-diagnose online

A man conducts a google search to see if he's a psychopath or sociopath

Don’t bother trying to self-diagnose. | Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images

You may run into a test on the internet allowing you to diagnose yourself. It may be fun, but the results aren’t going to tell you much. In fact, there are some one-question tests out there people use to gauge their level of psychopathy. They’re not accurate, and only a mental health professional can levy a real diagnosis.

Next: You shouldn’t assume your CEO is a sociopath.

9. Successful people are often sociopathic or psychopathic

Man posing in suit

Not everyone on Wall Street has a mental disorder. |

Another common myth is powerful people are commonly psychopaths or sociopaths. You’ve heard it before — politicians or CEOs got so high up because of their personality disorders. While some probably do, the actual numbers are much lower than people suspect. The Guardian says studies show roughly 1 in 25 business leaders meets the criteria.

Next: Parenting might play a role in a future diagnosis.

10. They’re born of the same conditions

Little child playing

Children can display these traits, but they can work on them, too. |

Because the disorders are closely linked, there are many overlapping variables at play. There are warning signs you can look out for in children, but their environment may differ in some key ways. Parenting plays a role, as do some actual physical structures in the brain, according to WebMD. Additionally, research shows traumatic experiences are also responsible for psychological changes.

Even if your kid displays some worrying behavior, don’t panic. Joseph Lee, M.D., tells Psychology Today he’s seen sociopathic children grow up to live great, meaningful lives.

Next: Like with many conditions, these exist on a spectrum.

11. When it comes to diagnosing, it’s all or nothing

Female gardener selling organic crops

You can be on the spectrum. |

You might think these two conditions would lead to extremely abnormal behavior, but they can actually exist on a spectrum. Joseph Lee, M.D., told Psychology Today, “Sociopathy is a pool with a deep and shallow end. Remorseless criminals might be on one extreme and teens who lie compulsively on another.” If you know someone who’s known for their reckless behavior but they also seem to show some true emotion from time to time, it’s totally possible they’re on the antisocial personality spectrum without the full-blown diagnosis.

Next: Therapy can be beneficial.

12. They’re untreatable conditions

A doctor discusses treatment options with a patient

Psychopathy and sociopathy can be treated. |

Both sociopathy and psychopathy are treatable. reports a combination of therapy and anti-psychotic medication can help many people live healthy lives. For sociopaths in particular, anger management therapy can help them connect to their emotional states. For those who are irritable, aggressive, or angry, this can be extremely beneficial.

Next: Even the scientific community is a little confused about sociopathy and psychopathy. 

13. There’s complete agreement on the definitions

a therapist talking to a patient

The definitions are still up for debate. |

Researchers know a lot about psychopaths and sociopaths, but there’s still a lot of debate surrounding the exact definitions for both. HuffPost notes the psychopathy checklist developed by expert Robert Hare is useful for confirming psychopathy in someone who is obviously callous and immoral, but there’s quite a bit of gray area that this tool doesn’t identify. Can you really put an unemotional and violent person in the same category as someone who may be cold-hearted, but also is unlikely to act out in a violent way?

Hare believes the criteria for psychopathy is very clear-cut, but because of the varying definitions, most researchers don’t agree with this. This is why many believe psychopaths and sociopaths need to be evaluated on a spectrum.

Next: Interacting with a sociopath doesn’t mean you’re putting yourself in harm’s way

14. Those with these disorders pose a clear and present danger

Couple arguing while driving

You might not be in any real danger. |

If you learn or somehow discern you’re sharing a house or office with a sociopath or psychopath, it can be worrisome. You may feel as though you’re in danger, but that’s not necessarily the case. As mentioned, these disorders don’t necessarily lead to violent behavior. You shouldn’t fear for your life, but be aware there are some psychological issues at play when dealing with certain individuals. And if your own mental health is being compromised because of your relationship to a psychopath or sociopath, it’s always within your right to do what’s best for you and walk away.

Additional reporting by Lauren Weiler