From the workplace to your mommy playgroup to the dating world, when someone is difficult or selfish, it’s perhaps a little too easy to write them off as a narcissist, psychopath, and sociopath. While most of us have used the terms interchangeably at some point — and a narcissist might indeed share traits of a sociopath, and a sociopath can share characteristics of a psychopath — they are distinctive psychological disorders with differences that set them apart. But how can you really distinguish a psychopath vs. sociopath vs. narcissist and know when you genuinely come across one… not just an awful person at your next “Mommy and Me” class or, worse, that you’re in a relationship with?
You probably don’t come across these types as much in real life as you’ve used the terms. It’s become pretty commonplace to sling these words around as generic pejoratives when dealing with particularly toxic people in our lives. But we’ve probably also watched enough true crime documentaries to realize that these terms are associated with actual diagnoses that inform a person’s behavior in pretty significant ways. And as a mom, there’s also the possibility you could find yourself asking the thing no parent wants to admit thinking but sometimes does: Am I raising a narcissist? A sociopath? A psychopath??
To help you understand (and spot) these types, we asked experts to weigh in. Keep reading to learn more about their differences and similarities — plus, what to do if you do wind up in a relationship with one.
Psychopath Vs. Sociopath Vs. Narcissist
First, let’s all agree that the reason for so much confusion between these terms is because, well, it’s confusing. There are enough similarities to see why people tend to use them interchangeably. The differences between the three, though, are crucial to consider.
“Narcissism is a set of personality traits that includes a grandiose or inflated sense of self, diminished or non-existent empathy, a pattern of self-serving or self-interested behavior, a sense of entitlement, and an inability to accept or acknowledge criticism,” Sterlin Mosley tells Scary Mommy.
Mosley — Professor of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma, co-founder of Empathy Architects, and author of 27 Subtypes of Narcissism — explains that a narcissist, or someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is only diagnosed when they meet the diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) and experience “significant impairment” in their personal or professional lives. “It’s uncommon for those with medium to highly evident narcissistic traits to seek mental health treatment (of their own accord) due to their belief that they’re generally not the problem in reference to their difficulties with others. If they do present in therapy, it’s generally alongside a spouse, partner, friend, or family member who has complaints about the narcissist’s behavior,” Mosley says.
Still, narcissists are capable of feeling. “Narcissists generally think very highly of themselves but can at times experience guilt or shame if they are ‘called out’ for their selfish or inconsiderate behavior,” elaborates Mosley. “Some narcissists experience fleeting moments of remorse or guilt if they have transgressed people in their personal orbit. They may even be able to learn reparative techniques to mend broken relationships or resolve conflict. As a general rule, narcissists do not break laws or consciously commit acts of violence against others. Rather, they lack the empathy or self-awareness to consider or care about others in ways that are seen as compassionate or empathetic.”
Some examples of classic narcissist behavior might include:
- They are very conscious of their appearance, career, wealth, and external achievements.
- They enjoy talking only about themselves almost exclusively. They rarely ask about another’s feelings or interests.
- They have great fantasies about who they are. As a result, only seek to obtain what they consider the best of everything, specifically status-affirming things.
- They require constant praise and attention.
- They will belittle and disparage anyone who they feel threatened by.
- They are highly reactive to criticism.
- They have a high sense of entitlement.
- They take advantage of others to advance themselves.
- They lack empathy and cannot empathize or understand the experience and struggle of another.
- They are charming at first, but it soon becomes apparent they are actually arrogant and manipulative.
- They need to be in total control at all times.
Unlike narcissism, sociopathy is not a clinical diagnosis. However, it is typically accompanied by traits of antisocial personality disorder (which is a clinical diagnosis). “Antisocial personality disorder comprises a set of traits that include a pervasive tendency toward deception or deviance, impulsivity, irritability, aggression, recklessness, and a lack of empathy or callous treatment of others,” Mosley tells us.
So, how are narcissists and psychopaths different? “Sociopaths tends to exhibit more pervasive disregard for laws, rules, or norms and may flout those norms without regard or concern for others,” says Mosley, adding, “Sociopaths tend to be more calculated than narcissists in that they play a ‘long game’ in order to get their immediate needs or desires filled. They may enjoy toying with others and find deception and manipulation necessary and even exciting.”
Making the sociopath even more complex? While many are cruel or callous, some are “quite charming.” Their behavior “may go undetected” by others for a long period of time. And although some sociopaths have a higher incidence of psychopathy (more on that in a minute), not all psychopaths are violent — at least “not in obvious ways,” according to Mosley.
Other examples of sociopathic traits include:
- They feign emotions. They have ulterior motives when “acting” warm and friendly. They tend to use intelligence or charm to get others to do what they want.
- They are frequently deceitful and will lie to get what they want.
- They show a non-committal attitude to work and any type of authority.
- They have a severe inability to love and care for anyone or anything.
- They constantly need to live on the edge for stimulation, which might cause them to participate in high-risk activities (consistent impulsive behavior).
- They have a severe lack of empathy.
- They constantly blame others and take little to no responsibility for their actions.
- They try to control people with aggression or manipulate others by threatening suicide.
- They do not learn from their mistakes or through discipline or punishment.
- They get into a lot of fights or exhibit frequent violent behavior.
- They have very superficial and shallow relationships with others.
Then there’s psychopathy. Explains Mosley, “Psychopathy is a neurological and psychological disorder whereby a person displays poor impulse or behavior control and a propensity toward callous or unsympathetic behavior, which results in tendencies toward social deviance and criminal behavior. Psychopaths are more readily violent than sociopaths but may be equally as calculated. They tend to lack the charm of sociopaths but can at times enjoy toying with or manipulating others as a form of entertainment.”
Are all psychopaths extreme offenders, then? “Contrary to popular belief, not all psychopaths are serial killers, rapists, or murderers. However, it is easier for psychopaths to commit such crimes because they lack the impulse control, empathy, or respect for boundaries, laws, or norms which prevent most people from committing such crimes,” says Mosley.
There is, therefore, some overlap between a sociopath and a psychopath. A critical difference between the two? Sociopathy is due to environmental factors (traumatic upbringing, poverty, etc.), while psychopathy is regarded as innate.
Examples of psychotic traits may include:
- They have zero empathy for others.
- They have no regard for what’s right or wrong and, therefore, can easily violate the law and others.
- They don’t process punishment as most people do. So, they’re not likely to respond to punitive behavior, and doesn’t discourage them from doing unlawful or immoral things.
- They lack anxiety, which means they can easily do things that cause nervousness in others.
- They don’t feel guilty about their actions.
- They sometimes exhibit excessive cruelty toward others. Meanness is a trait that exists in everyone to certain degrees, but a psychopath has an unusually aggressive spirit, and the pain or embarrassment they cause, they often find it to be a joyful experience or entertaining.
- They have no fear of consequences and are unphased by punishment. They rarely have anxiety about being caught for their actions and lack a sense of fear in many situations.
Narcissism in Children
Doctors can’t diagnose narcissism until a child turns 18 years old. Even then, some researchers feel as though it isn’t until 25 that a person’s personality is concretized. “Children are not diagnosed with narcissism but rather often receive diagnoses of conduct disorder, ADHD, or other more age-appropriate designations,” says Mosley. “While conduct behavior can be a precursor to narcissistic traits, this is not always the case. Seeking the counsel of a knowledgeable pediatric mental health professional is vital before labeling a child narcissistic. Some narcissistic traits, if recognized early, can be managed and, through behavioral interventions, sometimes eliminated in children.”
Sociopathy and Psychopathy in Children
There is currently no standard test for psychopathy or sociopathy in children. However, a growing number of psychologists view these as distinct neurological conditions that can be identified in children. To do so, they use a combination of psychological exams and rating scales, like the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Trails and the Child Psychopathy Scale. But many psychologists believe psychopathy and sociopathy, much like narcissism, cannot be diagnosed in children for both ethical reasons (a misdiagnosis here could be devastating) and their changing behavior as they grow up. A child’s more likely diagnosis would be conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.
Still, as a parent, it’s vital to trust your gut regarding your kid’s behavior. “In the case of a child, it’s paramount to act quickly when you notice strange signs (e.g., a child who at an early age shows unusual violence towards inanimate objects, and later live animals, might show early signs of antisocial behavior),” says Dr. Raffaello Antonino — a counseling psychologist, senior lecturer at the Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at London Metropolitan University, and clinical director/founder of Therapy Central. “If caught early and with the right professional help, children [exhibiting certain antisocial personality traits] can develop into fully functioning adults who are able to relate healthily towards the world, despite their difficulty.”
Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, or Psychopaths
“Being in a relationship with someone who suffers from any of these disorders can be extremely unpleasant, dangerous, and even life-threatening,” advises Dr. Antonino. “First, if you’re suffering physical or emotional violence, you should immediately end the relationship and move away from the abusive partner, even if it feels incredibly difficult. If things are going well but [you feel] that something simply isn’t right, you should get a second opinion. What do the other people think about your partner? Do they notice the same problems?”
Dr. Antonino also notes that you may need to intervene in a loved one’s relationship (and sooner rather than later). “The same goes if you suspect someone from your family dates a sociopath, psychopath, or narcissist. Victims of abuse sometimes feel ashamed and don’t want to talk about their problems. Therefore, it’s even more important to act immediately, especially if you notice there’s foul play involved — empathizing with your family member while searching for the best way to separate them from the abuser.”
Sterlin Mosley, Professor of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma and co-founder of Empathy Architects
Dr. Raffaello Antonino, senior lecturer at the Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at London Metropolitan University and clinical director/founder of Therapy Central
American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, VA.
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