The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is blurred, at least according to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM-IV lists both definitions together under the heading of Antisocial Personalities because they share common traits. However, some professionals maintain there is a difference beyond the similarities. For the sake of this article, I will use the terms psychopathy and psychopath.

Psychopathy consists of a group of personality traits and behaviors, which includes irresponsibility, impulsivity, hedonism, selfishness, egocentricity, low frustration tolerance, lack of guilt, remorse or shame. Psychopaths are selfish, callous, and exploitative in their use of others, and often become involved in socially deviant behaviors. These traits and behaviors appear in psychopaths without the signs of psychosis, neurosis, or mental deficiency found in most other mental illnesses. Psychopaths make up approximately 15 to 20 percent of criminal populations but are responsible for more crimes and violent acts.

In comparison addicts are also irresponsible, impulsive, hedonistic, selfish, egocentric, and have a low frustration tolerance. Unlike psychopaths, they're not without guilt, remorse or shame, which is the major difference between the two. Addicts are also selfish, sometimes callous, and often exploitative in their use of others, and depending on their drug of choice, will participate in socially deviant behaviors. Addicts make up approximately 70 percent of criminal populations and are responsible for more crimes and violent acts than even psychopaths.

The personality structure and life history of the psychopath are quite different from those whose antisocial or criminal behavior is related to an emotional disturbance, and from those of a person whose antisocial behavior results from living in a criminal subculture or in an environment in which such behavior is expected or rewarded, such as the criminal behavior resulting from chemical dependency. Unlike the psychopath, these individuals may be capable of forming strong affectionate relationships and of experiencing concern and guilt over their behavior.

Having been chemically dependent for more than 30 years, I was therefore engaged in criminal activity of various kinds. For example, for ten years I obtained controlled substances by writing and calling in my own medical prescriptions. To read about my exploits, go to my website @, and click on my article Prescription for addiction. I also employed for about 13 years defrauding the public in service stations by selling tires, shocks, fan clutches, and fuel pumps by highly unethical, not to mention illegal, sales practices. There's also an article on my website about that, of which can be found under ‘Ezine Articles' entitled Lube Bay Bandits. Of course, I indulged in other kinds of illegal activity because of my chemical needs, but that's not what this article is about.

The criminal [psychopath] approaches the world with a sense of ownership, says Samenow (1989), as though people and objects are mere pawns on his personal chessboard. He aims to control other people just to enhance his own sense of power. Human relationships are avenues through which he pursues conquests and triumphs. The criminal expects others to do whatever he wants without hesitation. He delights in arguing for the sake of arguing. He is intent on winning what he regards as a battle, no matter how trivial the issue. This type of individual is a master at ferreting out weaknesses in others and ruthlessly capitalizing on them. When people oppose him, he can be merciless. Nearly everything he does, he does to feel powerful (pp. 14, 15).

The ‘criminal' in the previous paragraph can be either psychopathic, or--like me, one of those whose criminal activity is exacerbated by the criminal use of drugs. Obviously, there's not a fine line that demarcates which behaviors are relegated to psychopathy, and which behaviors are relegated to addiction. There's overlap, and much of it depends on the individual. There are addicts who have elements of psychopathy, and of course there are a great many psychopaths who are chemically dependent.

Psychopaths are usually loners. Although they associate with people they ‘call' friends, no one ever really knows them. They are pathological liars; however, even the lies that are seemingly senseless makes sense when one understands their motives. When they believe they are getting over on someone, they feel that they have the edge. Every time they get away with something, they find it exciting. These attributes aren't as fixed in addicts as much as they are in psychopaths. So much depends on the duration of addiction, drug of choice, and personal history, not to mention socioeconomic and cultural background.

Psychopaths take from others, but rarely give anything without an ulterior motive. These people don't know what trust, love, or loyalty is. If they can gain something for themselves, they will betray their best buddy. These people are so focused on pursuing their immediate objectives that they don't care what others think, nor do they consider their feelings. Invariably, they hurt those who care about them most. In one way or another, the psychopath's mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, spouses, and children all become his victims with no feeling of remorse.

A majority of the chemically dependent who displays some of the above behaviors, if they do target their family, at least they will have remorse. This remorse usually ends up on a fourth step if they ever make into the recovery process in 12-step programs.

Herrnstein and Wilson (1985) emphasize that to a criminal [psychopath], life consists of a series of essentially unrelated events in which he seeks immediate gain and a buildup. He plots and connives, but rarely plans. With a winning personality, the criminal gains the trust and confidence of others and then preys upon them. Even the most cold-blooded criminal regards himself as a decent person. A man who had killed two police officers commented with complete sincerity that just because he murdered a couple of people, he was not a bad person (p. 218, 219).

"Conventional wisdom," McGuire (1993) reminds us, "claims that if a youngster has serious problems, the parents must be the source. This point of view was prevalent for decades. Some children at a preschool age have characteristics that predict later crime " (p.12).

Preschool aged children also have characteristics that predict chemical dependency, but they aren't as easy to identify because those same characteristics also predict crime and other types of antisocial behavior. It's also well established that if a child is raised by alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, then those parents are the source of their youngster's problems with addictive substances later in life. If the parents aren't substance abusers, and the youngster turns to drugs and/or alcohol later in life, then the source for that dependency, and the characteristics that predict it, isn't as easy to identify.

Wilson (1992) talks about conventional wisdom when he stated that "we thought we knew all the answers: Children are wholly the products of their parents. We now know that the child brings a great deal to the parent-child relationship. Many aspects of personality have genetic origins, and some infants experience insults and traumas--ranging from lead poisoning to brain injuries--that makes rearing them a challenge to even the most competent parents. Two children in the same family often turn out differently. This casts great doubt on the notion that the shared environment of the children is the principle--or even an important factor in their development (p. A 40).

Another form of infantile trauma that isn't discussed much is birth trauma. For example, when I was borne, the attending physician used forceps to pull me out of the womb. Upon entering the world, my mother and I were both dead for over a minute--at least our hearts stopped beating for that long. The team managed to resuscitate us. I was left with part of my head being crushed in from the use of the forceps. Could the trauma I experienced at birth have predisposed me to chemical dependency later in life? Who can say? My mother was a periodic alcoholic, and I had a couple of visiting uncles who were alcoholics too, so causes, especially when it comes to addiction, are wide and varied and almost impossible to determine on an individual basis.

The daily experiences, as Samenow (1989) points out, of millions of parents, as well as a body of psychological research, suggest that the child is not a passive receptacle. Rather than haplessly being shaped by his surroundings, he himself shapes the behavior of others. Two researchers in the field of child development have pointed out that any credible model of child development must consider the child as an active agent in social transactions. Any parent of more than one child knows that children differ in temperament from birth. One infant may be fussy, irritable, and restless; another may be placid and contented. Isn't it natural for a parent to respond differently to a cranky, colicky baby than to a cooing, quiet one? Whereas most parents ‘try' to raise their children with love and to provide them equally with opportunities, they invariably treat each differently. It could not be otherwise for, from birth, children have different temperaments, personalities, and needs (p. 29, 30).

What does this have to do with crime? Much, as far as identifying the source of the problem. If one were a fly on the wall in the office of a psychologist, one would hear juvenile offenders blame their parents, and parents blame themselves for their youngsters' misconduct. As many of these boys and girls that realize just how vulnerable their parents are to feelings of guilt, they will level increasingly serious accusations against them. And so mothers and fathers who already doubt themselves as parents become even more guilt-ridden, depressed, and often angry with each other.

Take early school experiences. Poor performance in school is one of the strongest correlates of misconduct; however, what explains school performance? One possibility is that teachers label some children as troublemakers and slow learners and treat them in ways that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they internalize what they're being told. Another is children with low IQS find school work boring and frustrating and turn to physical activity, such as acting out in the classroom. This also can apply to those with considerably high IQS.

The DSM, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, is the standard reference for establishing diagnostic criteria for mental disorders. It flatly states that the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) must not be applied to anyone under the age of eighteen; furthermore, the DSM will only categorize an adult over 18 as an antisocial personality. Instead, the term "conduct disorder" applies to children. It takes time for personalities to gel, and it is important not to mislabel a juvenile in a manner that might be harmful. The DSM doesn't state anything about age concerning substance-related disorders. Nowadays children are drinking and using drugs younger and younger, and it is not uncommon for parents to turn their kids on to both alcohol and/or drugs.

There are pros and cons concerning psychiatric labels, but their use often conceals far more than they reveal and are open to misinterpretation. However, what is important is how a child is functioning--how he or she behaves and perceives themselves and the world.

As often happens with many personality disorders, says Carson and Butcher (1992), the causal factors in antisocial personality are still not fully understood. The perspective is complicated by the fact that the causal factors involved appear to differ from case to case, also from one socioeconomic level to another. Contemporary research in this area has variously stressed the causal roles of constitutional deficiencies, the early learning of antisocial behavior as a coping style, and the influence of particular family and community patterns (pp. 286-289).

The causal factors in substance-related disorders are not fully understood either, and the reasons are consistent with those in the preceding paragraph. Also, the problem with chemical dependency is further complicated by so many conflicting theories such as the nature/nurture controversy.

Biological factors:

Because a psychopath's impulsiveness, acting out, and intolerance of discipline tends to appear early in life, several investigators have focused on the role of biological factors as causative agents. Research evidence indicates that a primary reaction tendency typically found in psychopaths is a deficient emotional arousal; this condition presumably renders them less prone to fear and anxiety in stressful situations and less prone to normal conscience development and socialization.

Behaviors that lead to the taking of drugs are gradually strengthened through operant and classical conditioning processes and by biochemical changes in the brain. What do we do when we do something we like? We do it again. We like the way drugs make us feel, so we want to do it again.

Stimulation seeking:

In a study of psychopaths, it was reported that they operate at low levels of arousal and are deficient in autonomic variability. These characteristics suggest a "relative immunity' to stimulation, which would likely prompt them to seek stimulations and thrill as ends in themselves.

There are those who contend that altering consciousness is innate. Chemical substances certainly alter consciousness. However, perhaps the internal need to release inhibitions, be devious, act crazy, fight, gamble, chase women, lie, cheat, and steal is also an innate need to alter consciousness. Endorphins, a biological substance produced by the brain, alters consciousness, hence the runners high.

Genetic influence:

This sociobiological theory assumes a genetic influence on predispositions for particular behaviors. The validity of this view point is not conclusive; however, it provides some interesting leads for researchers to follow in further studies. Perhaps the most popular generalization about the development of psychopathy is the assumption of some form of early disturbance in family relationships.

The nature side of the nature/nurture controversy contends that alcoholism is genetic, or that addiction is genetic. Whereas I don't support that theory, it's more likely that a predisposition to an addictive personality is genetic, rather than an addictive predisposition to a specific substance such as alcohol. Therefore, the controversial gene is more likely to manifest in any number of addictive behaviors, such as sex addiction, overeating, gambling, shopping, etc.

Parental rejection and inconsistency:

Two types of parental behavior foster psychopathy. In the first, parents are cold and distant toward a child and do not allow a warm or close relationship to develop. A child who imitates this parental model will become cold and distant in later relationships. The second type involves inconsistency, in which parents are capricious in supplying affection, rewards, and punishments. Usually they are inconsistent in their own role enactments as well, so that a child lacks stable models to imitate and fails to develop a clear-cut sense of self-identity. When parents are both arbitrary and inconsistent in punishing a child, avoiding punishment becomes more important than receiving rewards. Instead of learning to see behavior in terms or right and wrong, the child learns how to avoid blame and punishment by lying or other manipulative means.

If parental rejection and inconsistency is so prevalent with psychopaths, then how could it not be so with the chemically dependent, at least to some degree? Perhaps the severity of this neglect is a determining factor.

Sociocultural factors:

Psychopathy is thought to be more common in lower socioeconomic groups. Although constitutional and family factors have been emphasized, it appears that social conditions such as those found in our urban ghettos also produce their share of psychopaths.

This is also consistent in drug and alcohol studies over the years, but there's considerably more addicts--especially alcoholics, in the higher socioeconomic groups--at least more so than with psychopaths.

What I've presented here is far from comprehensive. It's just a brief overview. Furthermore, the human condition and overall knowledge of the brain and how it works is in its infancy. Perhaps some people are destined to live by principles that we are unaware of. Perhaps there is far more than we would like to admit that we simply don't know. Perhaps many of our present theories are wrong.


Carson, Robert C., and Butcher, James N. (1992). Abnormal psychology and modern life. New York: Harper Collins.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Wilson, James Q. (1985). Crime and human nature. New York: Simon and Schuster.
McGuire, Jacqueline. (July/August 1993). Primed for crime. Psychology Today.

Samenow, Stanton E. (1989). Before it's too late. New York: Times Books.

Wilson, James Q. (June 10, 1992). Scholars must expand our understanding of criminal behavior. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Author's Bio: 

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website www.ScumbagSewerRats.comor directly to my email account