From a bird’s-eye view, sociopathy and narcissism might seem closely related.
Some people use the terms “sociopath” and “narcissist” interchangeably to generally describe people who seem arrogant or haughty, put their own needs first, and care very little about how others feel.
But despite some potential overlap in behaviors, sociopathy and narcissism are two distinct concepts:
- Sociopathy is an unofficial term for antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a mental health condition that involves a long-standing pattern of disregard for social norms and the rights of other people.
- Narcissism refers to narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a mental health condition that involves grandiose attitudes and behaviors, feelings of superiority and self-importance, and an extreme need for admiration.
Below, we’ll explore these conditions in more depth, including the main points of intersection between the two.
Again, sociopathy doesn’t represent an official diagnosis. It refers to antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
Has someone ever said, “Stop being so antisocial,” when you didn’t feel like hanging out in a crowd? This usage is pretty common, but it’s not quite accurate. Antisocial doesn’t mean “avoiding socializing” — a better definition would be “being against society.”
In a nutshell, people living with ASPD tend to take little social responsibility and show a lack of consideration for other people’s rights, belongings, and safety.
- disregard laws or rules
- take a cynical, contemptuous attitude toward other people and the world in general
- manipulate and exploit other people — by lying, cheating, or stealing, for example
- rationalize their actions and show little guilt or remorse after hurting others
- behave impulsively
- quickly become irritable or aggressive, which might lead to physical conflict or property damage
These patterns don’t just show up suddenly, either. Mental health professionals won’t diagnose this condition in anyone younger than 18.
What’s more, a diagnosis of ASPD also requires a history of conduct disorder, and at least a few signs of this condition need to show up by the age of 15.
Narcissism generally refers to narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). This condition involves a self-centered, entitled, and haughty attitude that masks deep-seated feelings of inferiority and an incomplete sense of self.
Someone living with NPD may:
- show arrogance, haughtiness, and entitlement in their actions and attitudes
- believe that they’re superior to others and expect special treatment and the “best” of everything
- spend a lot of time wrapped up in fantasies about their intelligence, power, or attractiveness
- need a lot of praise and admiration from others
- have outbursts of rage when challenged
- easily manipulate or take advantage of other people to get what they want
- have trouble recognizing other people’s needs and feelings
- hold grudges and attempt to “get even” in sly or passive-aggressive ways
Early signs of NPD may begin to appear during the teenage years. All the same, plenty of adolescents show these traits without going on to develop NPD. In most cases, mental health professionals will likely avoid diagnosing this condition until the age of 18.
As with all personality disorder diagnoses, a diagnosis of NPD requires a fixed and stable pattern of behavior, and it may take more time to recognize these traits in teens and young adults.
Know, too, that it’s possible to have a few traits of narcissism — or any personality disorder, for that matter — without meeting full diagnostic criteria for the condition.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) groups both NPD and ASPD under Cluster B personality disorders.
Experts describe conditions in this cluster as ones that involve unpredictable, highly emotional, and dramatic or volatile interactions with other people.
How they’re similar
People with either NPD or ASPD often:
- lack empathy
- show superficial charm and charisma
- behave in shallow or insincere ways
- exploit or manipulate others for personal gain
- have trouble maintaining relationships and consistent employment
It’s also worth noting that traits of both conditions often become less severe with age.
Both of these conditions can also improve with professional support from an experienced therapist if the person is interested in working toward change.
Complicating this overlap in symptoms is the fact that these conditions can occur together. Research suggests that a co-occurring diagnosis is fairly common.
Yet digging below the surface of each condition reveals plenty of differences, too.
People with narcissistic traits:
- generally don’t show the same disregard for laws and rules as people with ASPD
- may show some degree of empathy for others, like their children or pets
- aren’t necessarily impulsive or dismissive of their own safety
People with antisocial traits:
- don’t typically need admiration and praise from others
- may more often use violence or aggression to resolve conflict
- typically don’t express the same envy of others as people with NPD
Comparing the causes
While experts don’t know the exact causes of either personality disorder, they do share a few of the same risk factors, including:
- adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, rejection, and neglect
- unhealthy family dynamics
- a family history of the condition
As for differences, evidence suggests a few additional risk factors for ASPD, including:
smokingand substance useor high stress during pregnancy
- exposure to violence in the community or among peer groups
- lower family income or socioeconomic status
- irregularities in brain structure and brain chemistry
NPD, on the other hand, may relate in part to extreme parental admiration and praise.
Psychopathy, like sociopathy, refers to ASPD.
You won’t find psychopathy in the DSM-5, as it’s not an actual mental health diagnosis. That said, some experts consider this a more extreme subtype of ASPD.
It can help to think of ASPD as something of a spectrum, with psychopathy at one end. According to psychologist Robert Hare, who created the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), people with psychopathy — or the most extreme form of ASPD — completely lack empathy for others and a sense of morality, or right and wrong.
People with sociopathy (or less severe ASPD) might, on the other hand, show a little empathy for other people’s needs and feelings, as well as some recognition of the difference between right and wrong. They might also rationalize their behavior when their actions don’t align with typical social norms.
Some have also suggested that sociopathy involves more impulsivity and less of a tendency to plan. But again, these distinctions aren’t officially recognized.
There’s also malignant narcissism to consider. Some experts use this unofficial term to describe a severe presentation of NPD that involves a combination of narcissistic and antisocial traits, along with aggression, sadism, and paranoia.
That said, not everyone with both NPD and ASPD will have this exact combination of traits.
What about the ‘Dark Triad’?
- Machiavellianism, or cold, cunning, and manipulative behavior
While the Dark Triad isn’t exactly the same thing as malignant narcissism, behavior associated with malignant narcissism could certainly align with these traits.
People living with personality disorders like NPD or ASPD often don’t recognize how their behavior affects others, and they may not understand why it’s problematic, either.
Keep in mind that personality disorders tend to involve a range of complex symptoms, ones that aren’t always easy to make sense of. At the end of the day, only trained, experienced mental health professionals can make an accurate distinction between narcissism and sociopathy.
If you think a friend or loved one has some antisocial or narcissistic traits, the best way to offer support involves encouraging them to connect with a mental health professional.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.