Understanding the Difference Between a Narcissist, Sociopath, and Psychopath

Understanding the Difference Between a Narcissist, Sociopath, and Psychopath
Photo Credit: Matheus Ferrero

When someone does wrong by us, it can be easy to jump to labeling that person. This is understandable as our human need to make sense and order of wrongdoing can really drive our motives. Increasingly, the words narcissist, sociopath, and psychopath are thrown around in relationships and at the workplace when our significant other or boss seems to be self-motivated, egotistical, and lacking in empathy for others. But how accurate are those labels and what’s the difference between them?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is overly concerned with their own self-esteem and self-image. They need to be the most important person in the room and be showered with praise to maintain that sense of grandiosity. Their motivations are largely influenced by the need for personal gain, and their inflated sense of self-esteem relies excessively on the validation and admiration of others which can lead to extreme attention-seeking.

People with NPD also lack empathy and concern for other people’s feelings and needs. Their relationships tend to be superficial and largely exist to serve their own emotional regulation. Some people with NPD can be overly attuned to the needs of others but only if perceived to be relevant to themselves. They can also largely under- or overestimate their effect on others.

Sociopath vs. Psychopath

According to Robert D. Hare, PhD in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of The Psychopaths Among Us, “many researchers, clinicians, and writers use the terms psychopath and sociopath interchangeably.”

Let’s look at the resource that is widely used as the ‘diagnostic bible’ for mental illness: the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Interestingly enough, you won’t find either term listed. Instead, you will find a definition for Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and a rather long list of characteristics and qualifications that must be met in order for someone to be diagnosed with ASPD.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

“While sociopaths qualify as narcissists, not all narcissists are sociopaths.”

ASPD is characterized by many similar traits as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, such as extreme ego-ism and self-centeredness, goal setting driven by personal gain, and a lack of concern or empathy for others’ feelings and needs.

However, people with ASPD can exhibit more hostile, deceitful, and manipulative tactics simply for the thrill of it and a lack of remorse. Their disinhibition is often characterized by irresponsibility and impulsivity which can lead to extreme risk-taking and a complete lack of regard for encounters with the law or hurting others.

How NPD and ASPD are Similar