The Difference Between Narcissists, Sociopaths and Psychopaths

Updated: May 12

Originally published in The New Zealand Herald.


It’s common to call a person you don’t like a narcissist, psychopath or sociopath, but do you really know what those terms mean? I believe knowledge is power and if you can recognize these personality types, you are better equipped to deal with them. And know when to run away!


Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths all fall under the cluster B personality disorders:

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder: a pervasive disregard for the law and the rights of others. (Psychopaths and Sociopaths)

  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.


Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is personality disorder with a pattern of behaviour characterised by in which people have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, an extreme need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. People with NPD tend to spend an disproportionate amount of time fantasising about achieving power and success and excessively focus on their appearance. However, behind their façade of total confidence is an incredibly delicate self-worth that is easily wounded by criticism. The person with narcissistic personality disorder usually exhibits a fragile ego, intolerance of criticism, and a tendency to belittle others in order to validate their own superiority.


The Three Major Types of Narcissists


Classic Narcissists


Also known as a Grandiose Narcissists, this the type that most people think of when they hear the word “narcissist.” They need constant attention so they are always bragging about themselves, are always fishing for complements, and believe they are entitled to special treatment. They become noticeably bored when the topic of the conversation turns to anything but themselves, and don’t like sharing the spotlight with others. The irony is that while they see themselves as superior to most people, they are desperate to feel important.

Vulnerable Narcissists

Also known as Fragile, Compensatory or Closet Narcissists, they still feel as if they are superior to most people they meet, however, as introverts, they tend to shun the spotlight. They often seek to attach themselves to special people instead of seeking special treatment themselves. They may seek pity or manipulate others through excessive generosity to receive the attention and admiration they need to boost their sense of self-worth.


Malignant Narcissists


Also known as Toxic Narcissists, they are highly manipulative and exploitative. These narcissists have less empathy than the other two major types and are often compared with sociopaths and psychopaths. They often have a sadistic streak that makes them different from the other two major types. Their primary goal is to dominate and control, and they will use deceit and aggression to accomplish it and lack remorse for their actions. They may even enjoy the suffering of others.


Therapy is often difficult, as people with the disorder frequently do not consider themselves to have a problem. About one percent of people are believed to be affected at some point in their life. It appears to occur more often in males than females and affects young people more than older people.

Persons with NPD usually display some or all of the following symptoms, typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments:


  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people

  • Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.

  • Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions

  • Need for continual admiration from others

  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others

  • Exploitation of others to achieve personal gain

  • Unwillingness to empathise with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people

  • Intense envy of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them

  • Pompous and arrogant demeanour


Narcissistic personality disorder usually develops in adolescence or early adulthood. It is not uncommon for children and adolescents to display traits similar to those of NPD, but such occurrences are usually transient, and below the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD. True symptoms of NPD are pervasive, apparent in varied situations, and rigid, remaining consistent over time.

Antisocial Personality Disorder: (Psychopaths And Sociopaths)


What is a Sociopath?


A sociopath is actually a person with antisocial personality disorder. While sociopathy can only be diagnosed at the age of 18 or above, the following must be present before the age of 15 for the diagnosis:


  • Repeated violations of the law

  • Pervasive lying and deception

  • Physical aggressiveness

  • Reckless disregard for safety of self or others

  • Consistent irresponsibility in work and family environments

  • Lack of remorse


Sociopaths have a conscience, although it’s a weak one. While he or she may know that stealing your money, for example, is wrong, and even might feel some guilt or remorse, that ultimately won’t stop the behaviour. Sociopaths make up around 4 percent of the general population.


What is a Psychopath?


Psychopathy can be thought of as a more severe form of sociopathy with more symptoms. Therefore, all psychopaths are sociopaths but sociopaths are not necessarily psychopaths.


Psychopath traits include:


  • Lack of guilt/remorse

  • Lack of empathy

  • Lack of deep emotional attachments

  • Narcissism

  • Superficial charm

  • Dishonesty

  • Manipulativeness

  • Reckless risk-taking


Psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in prison. What’s disturbing is 21 percent of corporate executives are also found to have psychopathic traits.

The psychopath is unfeeling, but still can be charismatic and charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as "normal" to society. The psychopath is organised in their criminal thinking and behaviour, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.


A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. A psychopath can lie, cheat, steal, harm others, and even kill without feeling any moral repercussions — although he or she may pretend to. Psychopaths may observe others and try to act the way they do in order to avoid being found out. The brains of psychopaths aren’t like other people’s, and even basic bodily functions differ. For instance, seeing a bloody, violent scene in a movie causes most people to react with increased heart rates, quicker breathing, and maybe even sweaty palms. For psychopaths, however, it’s the opposite — he or she gets calmer and this is the quality that helps psychopaths engage in fearless behaviours. They don’t fear the consequences of their actions.[1]


Sociopath vs Psychopath


The sociopath is less organised in his or her demeanour; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have 'normal temperaments.

Both psychopaths and sociopaths are capable of committing horrific crimes, but a sociopath is less likely to commit them against those with whom there is a bond. Psychopaths, for example, are far more likely to get in trouble with the law while sociopaths are much more likely to blend in with society. And while sociopaths and psychopaths do share some traits, sociopathy is generally considered less severe than psychopathy.


What about empathy? Both psychopaths and sociopaths lack empathy, or the ability to put themselves in the position of others and understand how they feel. However, a psychopath has less regard for others than a sociopath. Psychopaths see others as mere objects to use for his or her own benefit.


Although popular movies and crime TV shows often depict psychopaths or sociopaths as the evil people who kill and torture others, this isn’t always the case in real life. While some psychopaths can be violent, it’s more likely for psychopaths and sociopaths to manipulate others to get what they want — especially in the workplace.


It’s much easier to spot a sociopath than a psychopath. Psychopaths can be charming, intelligent, and highly skilled at pretending to care about you or be interested in you. In reality, they don’t care. They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain.


On the contrary, sociopaths are pretty upfront about the fact that they don’t care about anyone but themselves. They often act on impulse without thinking how their actions will affect others, and then they’ll fabricate excuses for their behaviour or blame others.


While the terms psychopaths and sociopaths are often used in psychology, you won’t find them in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and doctors don’t diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. Instead, they’ll use the term antisocial personality disorder.[2]

[1] http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/explainer-what-s-difference-between-psychopath-and-sociopath

[2] https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/psychopath/psychopath-vs-sociopath-what-s-the-difference


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