Differentiating between the Psychopath and the Sociopath

Sociopathy and psychopathy are two commonly utilized terms within the science of criminology that are often viewed as interchangeable labels for the same types of criminal behavior. Yet, sociopathy and psychopathy are actually intrinsically different concepts. In basic terms, the sociopath’s deviant behavior is attributed to external explanations, generally social and environmental, while the psycopath’s deviant behavior is commonly attributed to both biological/neurological and environmental explanations.


Dr. Tietjen reviewing the characteristics of sociopathy and psychopathy

Mass media and courts randomly assign the labels of sociopath and psychopath to those convicted of heinous crimes.   This research project will examine and attempt to establish substantial differences between the commonly used concepts of sociopathy and psychopathy through a qualitative multiple-case study of mass shooters, terrorists, and serial killers (those who perpetrate genocide included). Students have some latitude in the cases focused on people convicted of crimes/perpetrators of crime that they choose to examine. The outcome of this qualitative research will be to determine if a typology of sociopathic and psychopathic explanations for heinous criminal behavior can be established by student researchers.


Dana, Sarah, Savannah and Elizabeth are finding their research really interesting!

Four St. Ambrose University Undergraduate Summer Research Institute (USRI) Scholars are working with Dr. Grant Tietjen from the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice on this collaborative research project. Their efforts will result in individual research papers for each student, and a collaborative formal presentation at the end of the Research Institute, to be presented to fellow USRI students, family of students, respected visitors, and faculty.

Individual Student Projects:
Student researcher Elizabeth Finerty is examining sociopaths and psychopaths on a spectrum. She is determining if individuals are just a sociopath/psychopath or if a person can be both. Looking at the factors from the individuals life, she has found that some individuals do fall under both categories. She is also looking at some individuals who are not first thought of when the terms sociopath or psychopath are used such as white collar criminals or cult leaders.

The project focus for Dana Hall is the history of serial killers with a military background.  She currently is looking at multiple case studies looking into their childhood up bringing and adult lifestyles and seeing if there are any commonalities between them.  She is also researching what it means to be living in a “militarized” society and looking into Object Relations Theorists to try and figure out what factors might play a role in the behaviors of these serial killers.

Sarah Johanson is researching the different traits and backgrounds of individuals that hold some of the careers listed as the top ten for psychopaths. The article, “10 Careers with the most psychopaths per capita” provides titles such as CEO, Journalist, Chef, etc. Sarah will also be looking at some sports professionals that she believes may have chosen their profession because of their possibility of being a psychopath made it a good fit for them, for example, boxing. Sarah believes that some psychopaths may have certain careers they can enter and be successful.

Savannah Hill is researching the biological attributes and triggers of psychopaths.  The three individuals she is focusing on are James Fallon, Brian Dugan, and Jeffrey Dahmer.  By looking at the brain scans available to the public, she will compare the scans with typically developed brain scans in order to identify pathological brains.  The second part of her project will be to identify how the psychopathic genes, if activated, were triggered.  Her prediction is that the activation will occur due to a childhood trauma and that the low areas of activity in the brain will be in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Stay tuned for results!

Dr. Grant Tietjen

Dana Hall

Savanah Hill

Sarah Johanson

Elizabeth Finerty


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