What’s the Difference Between a Sociopath, a Narcissist & a Psychopath?

By Paula Holmes, LCSW

Mental health disorders often have overlapping symptoms, which can make it confusing to differentiate one condition from another. For instance, it can be easy for people to mix up personality disorders like narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy because they share certain symptoms. However, each condition is unique, and there are many differences between these three personality disorders. The following overview covers traits you may see in people with narcissism, sociopathy or psychopathy.

What Is a Narcissist?

A person diagnosed with narcissism often struggles in interpersonal relationships due to a need for excessive recognition and praise. Narcissism causes someone to focus primarily on their own self-worth and superiority, which disrupts their ability to connect meaningfully with others. It also leads to subconscious behaviors that are done in an effort to re-establish control and adoration from others. Sometimes, these attempts to feel better and gain recognition from others can lead to greater problems and feelings of isolation.

Signs of a Narcissist

There are two types of narcissism: covert and overt. Both types have common themes but are expressed differently. Common traits of overt narcissism include:

  • Lacking empathy for the feelings or experiences of others
  • Having an inflated or grandiose view of one’s own accomplishments
  • Attention seeking
  • Being charming
  • Exploiting others for personal benefit
  • Arrogance
  • Entitlement
  • Extreme self-obsession

People with covert narcissistic tendencies have the same deep need for admiration, but it’s accompanied by feelings of insecurity and distress. Also referred to as “vulnerable narcissists,” people with this condition often display the following traits:

  • Oversensitivity to criticism
  • Shyness
  • Appearing to have low self-esteem
  • Social isolation
  • Sense of superiority that is hidden from others

Either type of narcissism can cause limited genuine connections with others. A person with narcissism lacks interest in the lives and experiences of others, which results in one-sided, superficial relationships that lack substance. Additionally, both types cause a person to excessively rely on the praise and adoration of others for a maintained sense of self-worth.

Narcissism is an uncommon condition that can be complex to diagnose. As a result, projected narcissism rates vary from one study to another, ranging from 0.5% to 5% in the general population and from 1% to 15% in clinical settings. There are often co-occurring conditions present alongside narcissism, such as substance use disorder, depression or anxiety. These conditions are often what cause a person with narcissism to seek treatment in the first place.

What Is a Sociopath?

A sociopath is someone who meets criteria for antisocial personality disorder, or sociopathy. People with this disorder lack a moral compass, engage in manipulative behavior and deceive others for personal gain. Someone who is sociopathic has no concerns about exploiting people and experiences no guilt, remorse or empathy for others.

Signs of a Sociopath

About 1% of adults have antisocial personality disorder, and their traits may include:

  • Acting witty or charming
  • Continually violating the rights of others
  • Early challenges with conduct and behavioral problems
  • Aggressive, violent behaviors
  • Impulsiveness and irresponsible actions
  • Disregard for safety of others
  • Manipulating and deceiving others
  • Issues with substance abuse

Risks for people with sociopathic tendencies vary. Along with unhealthy, limited relationships, those with sociopathy may also experience:

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood dysregulation (extreme anger or irritability)

Sociopaths do have interpersonal relationships and can form attachments. However, these connections often contain abuse, manipulation and instability due to the sociopath’s emotional limitations and disregard for the needs and rights of others. The ability to form attachments is a significant difference between sociopathy and psychopathy, but it’s easy to miss at first glance.

What Is a Psychopath?

People who are psychopaths do not experience emotions like most humans, and there is no ability to emotionally connect with others. Relationships are seen as a means to an end — people with this condition cannot experience intimacy, attachment or love.

Signs of a Psychopath

Other traits that are common with psychopathy include:

  • Pathological lying
  • Grandiose self-worth
  • Superficial charm
  • Lack of empathy or remorse
  • Disregard of laws and rules
  • Early and ongoing behavioral problems
  • Using others for personal gain
  • Impulsivity

While only 1% of the population meets criteria for psychopathy, many people have traits of the condition. People often think of psychopaths as being murderers and hardened criminals, which is the case for about 20% to 30% of U.S. prisoners. However, others with psychopathy may stay under the radar and rise to positions of power due to their manipulation, charm and lack of empathy.

Over time, researchers have worked to discover the underlying cause of psychopathy. There is no simple explanation for this condition, but common themes from the research include:

  • Possible genetic factors
  • Abuse and neglect in childhood
  • Parents who abused substances
  • Disconnection from parents or uninvolved parents
  • Unhealthy or dysfunctional parenting

Sociopath vs. Narcissist

At first glance, it can be challenging to differentiate between a sociopath and a narcissist. Both conditions involve a lack of empathy for the needs and experiences of others. However, sociopaths are often more interested in increasing power and control over others, while narcissists are primarily interested in being admired and seen as superior. Sociopaths tend to hurt people with more intent than narcissists, who harm people inadvertently by being unaware of their needs and feelings.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath

People who have sociopathic tendencies or psychopathic traits tend to lack empathy for others, ignore laws and social expectations and have manipulative relationships based on personal gain. Unlike people who lean more toward sociopathy, psychopaths do not have a moral compass and are unable to form attachments and create bonds with others. Psychopathic people tend to maintain emotional control better than people with sociopathy, which can make it more challenging to detect criminal behavior in psychopaths if it occurs.

Sometimes, other conditions may lead to outward behaviors that seem emotionally detached or unempathetic. It is important for a trained professional to sort out the symptoms and assess for other conditions that can mimic sociopathic, psychopathic or narcissistic traits. These conditions may include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) due to major depressive disorder
  • Substance use disorder

There are many conditions with overlapping symptoms, so it is necessary for an experienced provider to assess and identify all potential diagnoses.

Treatment for Personality Disorders

Personality disorders can be treated successfully through a variety of methods. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy can help with understanding symptoms and finding healthier ways to deal with strong emotions.

Medications can help reduce some of the more difficult symptoms and reduce challenges with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation that can be caused by personality disorders. Often, a combination of treatment approaches offers the best relief from symptoms and can calm impulses related to personality disorders.

If you or someone you love is struggling with emotional health, there are many ways to access help and support that can improve your quality of life and relationships. Local health care providers, medications and therapists can provide acute treatment, while resources like the free-to-use Nobu app can supplement your ongoing care. Download the Nobu app today, and discover how it can help bolster your emotional health and improve your overall well-being each day.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Written by – Paula Holmes, LCSW

Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master’s degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. With over a decade of experience in the field of mental health, she is always amazed at the strength, beauty, and resilience of the human spirit… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.

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U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” MedlinePlus, October 8, 2021. Accessed October 21, 2021. 

Bonn, Scott A. “The Differences Between Psychopaths and Sociopaths.” Psychology Today, January 9, 2018. Accessed October 21, 2021.

Harms, William. “Psychopaths are not neurally equipped to have concern for others.” University of Chicago Office of Communications, April 24, 2013. Accessed October 22, 2021. National Institute of Mental Health. “Common Mental Health Disorders: National Institute of Mental Health.” Niagara University First Responders Disability Awareness Training. Accessed October 22, 2021.