Psychopath or sociopath next door?

While passing two people on the street the other day, I heard one say: “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s a psychopath or a sociopath — or both!”

I’m no expert, but from what I’ve learned studying crime and personality disorders, I don’t think one person can have both of those qualities. How can you tell if a certain someone in your life is just annoying or has a diagnosable condition? Here’s a quick primer.

Both psychopathic and sociopathic behavior traits are categorized under antisocial personality disorder, or APD, by the American Psychiatric Association. But when you dig deep, there are some profound differences.

Psychopaths can be diagnosed with a brain scan. The portion of their brain that determines impulse control and emotions is underdeveloped. The condition has been shown in studies to be both genetic and caused by nature. Sociopaths have a normal brain, but studies show because of childhood trauma, like physical, emotional or sexual abuse, their behavior stems from the way they were nurtured.

A Vancouver doctor named Robert Hare devised a widely accepted checklist test to determine whether a person is a true psychopath. The test was designed to be given to criminals or those suspected of a crime and is administered by qualified experts. What do they look for?

Psychopaths are charming and glib and experts at faking emotions. Symptoms include lacking emotional attachment to others or empathy. Psychopaths are cunning and devious, but because they are usually so charismatic, they are often able to hide their manipulative ways. They are known to feel no guilt for their actions, be sexually promiscuous and not be able to accept responsibility for their actions, as well as thinking very highly of themselves and having short-term marriages. They likely got in trouble with the law at a young age and have trouble controlling negative behaviors. All this said, they are usually well-educated, hold steady jobs and often appear entirely normal.

Sound like that problematic person in your life? If not, maybe that person is a sociopath.

A sociopath shares some of the psychopath’s behaviors described above, especially the manipulative, emotionless behavior, as well as lying, lack of shame and inflated ego. But sociopaths are known to be driven by spontaneous outbursts of violence. They are often nervous and easily agitated. Children who torture animals or defenseless people are often considered sociopathic. They tend to have a huge sense of entitlement and believe others should provide them with what they want. They are not capable of caring about others and only motivated by getting what they want. When confronted with their bad deeds, they frequently respond with a cold blank stare.

“The thing with sociopaths is that we are largely unaffected by fear,” one unidentified person diagnosed with APD wrote in a Psychology Today article titled “Confessions of a Sociopath.”

“I have never killed anyone, but I have certainly wanted to,” she wrote as she revealed details of her troubled childhood and her grown-up thoughts of homicide.

“I am not motivated or constrained by the same things that most good people are,” she confesses. But she also says, “I may have a disorder but I am not crazy.” This woman described as an accomplished attorney and an active member of her church.

The truth is, psychopaths and sociopaths are all around us. It’s a safe bet that you work with one, live close to one or are related to one. They cannot be cured, but they can reign in their behaviors. Many appear to live a normal life.

There is disagreement among mental health experts over which has a higher likelihood to commit a violent crime. Some of the most infamous serial killers have displayed the characteristics of a classic psychopath. Three examples: Ted Bundy (at least 36 victims); the “Killer Clown,” John Wayne Gacy (at least 33 victims); and the man who called himself “the BTK Killer,” Dennis Rader (10 victims). One could study thousands of serial killer cases and find many more with psychopathic tendencies.

But some in the medical field say volatile and angry sociopaths are more dangerous, since they often act out in unpredictable and impulsive ways and give in to instantaneous gratification more easily. However, those very behaviors can also mean they are more likely to be caught after committing a crime, because their actions can be sloppy and spontaneous. This leaves the impression that they are the most prone to crime.

But realize this: When a psychopath commits a crime, it is likely to have been well-thought out and executed in an organized and careful fashion, so as to elude arrest. For my money, the crafty psychopath’s ability to conceive and carry out heinous crimes — like serial murders — without a shred of remorse wins the title of most frightening.

* Diane Dimond is an investigative journalist and syndicated columnist.