Narcissist or Sociopath: Can You Tell the Difference?

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Imagine waking up in the morning and going into the kitchen before work. You pour yourself a mug of coffee, open a drawer and grab a spoon to stir in some sugar. After dropping the spoon into the sink, you head out to your car, kissing your wife or husband goodbye before you leave.

Most of us regard objects differently than we do people. In fact, it seems almost ridiculous to have to point that out. We regard human life differently than we do material things.  If you dropped the spoon on the floor, you open up the drawer again and get a clean one without a second thought.  If you had an accident on the way to work and your car was damaged, you would probably be distraught by the event, but as long as no one was hurt, it would likely not be a traumatic incident in your life.

We especially come to regard the feelings, safety and lives of those with whom we form attachments and emotional bonds as some of the most important and sacred things in our own lives and become willing to self-sacrifice on behalf of those others with whom we have formed relationships.

But imagine if you didn’t see the world that way– if the potential loss of or damage to a spoon, a car, or your spouse all elicited the same lack of general emotional response from you.

Welcome to the world of a sociopath.

Sociopaths are unable to feel genuine emotional attachments to others, so they see people as replaceable. A spoon, a car, and a person are all viewed as utilitarian, as resources from which to extract value. Sociopaths objectify people in the true sense of the word.

Narcissists also objectify others, however, unlike sociopaths, some are able to form emotional attachments– so they objectify for different reasons than sociopaths.  This example is a perfect illustration of why it is so hard to tell or even talk about the differences between the two.

This article will seek to clear up the major similarities and differences between narcissists and sociopaths, but first, let’s talk about the term “narcissist.”

What Kind of Narcissist Are We Talking About?

The term “narcissist” gets used generally to refer to all forms of narcissism, but there are actually many different types of narcissists and some are more harmful than others.  Each has its own set of behaviors that present outwardly very differently, and each may have a different set of motivations behind those behaviors.

When people seek to know the difference between narcissists and sociopaths, what they really want to know is– what is the difference between a malignant narcissist and a sociopath?  A malignant narcissist is one that has enough of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder criteria to be diagnosed as a narcissist, but who also has some of the traits of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD).  ASPD is the personality disorder under which sociopathy is categorized. Because some of the same traits and behaviors can be found in both malignant narcissists and sociopaths, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

There are some very important distinctions, but there is also some very interesting overlap.

Differences Between Malignant Narcissists and Sociopaths

Malignant Narcissists Sociopaths
Conversations focus mostly on themselves Conversations focus mostly on you
Enter relationships for validation and supply Enter relationships to gain something tangible or dominate others
Can feel emotions/love
(or what feels like love to them)*
Cannot form emotional attachments
Need people for validation Don’t need others or care what others think of them
Not calculating; believe their own lies
NOTE: Some malignant narcissists use calculated lies on others in addition to the lies they tell themselves.
Calculating; knowingly lies to gain something
Motivation for causing harm can be to gain supply or for vengeance
NOTE: Some may also be motivated to dominate or for enjoyment.
Motivation for causing harm is to dominate or for enjoyment
Perceives breakups to be your fault for not providing them with supply, regardless of who initiates
NOTE: They may also break up when they can no longer dominate or when no enjoyment or benefit is gained.
Breakups occur when sociopath no longer receives benefit or enjoyment, or when you start to figure them out
Fades in and out during discard phase
NOTE: Some may also cruelly discard you.
Cruel discard on his or her terms


The primary differences between narcissists and sociopaths as represented in this table can be summarized by explaining that narcissists are motivated in their interactions with others by a deep insecurity and sense of worthlessness. They are unable to view others as anything other than a means of validation of the inflated persona they have created to protect themselves from having to face the emptiness inside of themselves.

The brains of some narcissists allow for a wider range of emotions than do sociopaths, and they may feel a deep love– but the catch is that that love is for their own reflection. They love how much you are in love with them, and if they ever sense that that admiration is coming to an end, they will not only replace you quickly, they may even retaliate if they feel they were slighted in any way. They need to believe the lies that they tell in order to sustain the world that spins around both them and the people who surround them. What narcissists fear most is their own annihilation.

Sociopaths, in contrast, don’t fear anything–except for perhaps exposure–and they don’t care about what other people think about them. They care only insofar as their true selves will be revealed because then they will lose control. Furthermore, whereas narcissists may be baffled by or oblivious to the chaos their actions cause because they think everything bad that happens is the fault of others, a sociopath knows full well what he or she is doing and doesn’t care. The sociopath’s only purpose for interacting with people is because others have something very concrete that he or she wants to get their hands on– money, sex, a place to live, a job, status,  you name it.

Sociopaths focus conversations on other people for the primary purposes of learning how to exploit them. “When I talk to people, the only thing I really care about is getting what I want… What I find most useful is collecting a mental dossier about everyone I know. Knowledge is power and if I know even something like where your grandmother is buried, I might be able to use that in the future,” M.E. Thomas, self-aware sociopath, writes in her memoir.  Then when the benefit they receive comes to an end or it’s no longer fun anymore, well, for the sociopath, it’s time to move on. Sociopaths focus on blending into the crowd so they won’t be detected and want to take attention off of themselves, unlike narcissists.

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