Narcissists Are Different from Psychopaths In These 7 Powerful Ways

One of the most common questions I get asked as a researcher specializing in narcissism and psychopathy is what the difference between a narcissist and a psychopath is. While each person is different and some people may have traits of both narcissism and psychopathy, here are some general distinctions that can help you better identify whether you may be dealing with someone who has more narcissistic or psychopathic traits. Keep in mind that “psychopathy” and “sociopathy” are terms mentioned under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the DSM-5 and do not have their own separate diagnosis. However, the term “psychopath” is used by researchers and clinicians frequently across correctional and legal contexts. It is diagnosed using Dr. Robert Hare’s 20-item Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a checklist that includes more of the callous-unemotional features of psychopathy. In contrast, the DSM-5 diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder emphasizes more law-breaking behavior which may not apply to every psychopath. Not all those who meet the criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder will be full-fledged psychopaths.

Here are the major differences you may notice between narcissists and psychopaths: 

Narcissists crave and need adoration, external validation, and praise. Psychopaths can do without it. 

The heart of narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic traits is a need and sense of entitlement to external validation. Narcissists crave attention, praise, adoration, and a sense of importance. They need others to affirm their importance. Psychopaths on the other hand exhibit more callous-unemotional traits and impoverished emotions. They are not as concerned as a narcissist is with the opinions of others unless it is important to their agenda, whatever that may be.

Narcissists lack empathy. Psychopaths lack both remorse and empathy, which is why they can commit sadistic violence without as many limits. Both can harm others with their aggression.

Perhaps what makes the psychopath so conscienceless is their lack of remorse as well as empathy. Research shows that psychopaths also have differences in the brain that affect their moral sensitivity and fear they also lack guilt. This means psychopaths often have nothing holding them back from committing even the most sadistic of crimes. Both narcissists and psychopaths have cognitive empathy and intellectually know the difference between right and wrong, but they simply do not care and lack affective empathy. Both can engage in aggression against others, and psychopaths are very prone to instrumental aggression to achieve a specific purpose (such as conning others for pleasure or profit). It’s true that more “malignant” narcissists can lack remorse as well, but lack of remorse and guilt is a defining characteristic of psychopathy whereas there tends to be more variation among narcissists when it comes to remorse and guilt. For example, some vulnerable narcissists may experience shame especially if they are held accountable and exposed to the public, but grandiose narcissists are more like psychopaths in their lack of shame. 

Narcissists and psychopaths – depending on the subtype – can lash out for different reasons, but both engage in aggressive rage and have malicious envy. 

Both narcissists and psychopaths can escalate into violence and both can engage in unprovoked and reactive aggression. Both can also experience malicious envy and target others out of envy according to research. However, there may be differences in why and how they lash out based on the subtype of narcissism or psychopathy involved. Grandiose narcissism is more similar to psychopathy in that both grandiose narcissists and psychopaths are convinced of their superioritythey genuinely believe in it. Psychopaths can manufacture a cold rage to intimidate others, a rage that isn’t truly a “hair-trigger” hot-blooded impulsive rage but one that is exhibited for the purpose of controlling their victims. Research indicates that for narcissists, the traits of grandiose narcissism can protect them against stress or depression. They may be more likely to lash out or use rage as a control tactic when their sense of superiority and excessive sense of entitlement are challenged; studies show they show more physiological stress responses when presented with an “ego threat. However, more vulnerable narcissists and the secondary subtype of psychopathy (known colloquially as the criminally inclined “sociopath”) may struggle more with self-esteem issues. Vulnerable narcissists who are more anxious and defensive and secondary psychopaths also lash out in rage, but they may be more likely than grandiose narcissists and primary psychopaths to be battling a sense of inferiority when doing so. Either way, such rage and aggression can cause great harm to others around them and is inexcusable. 

Narcissism can be influenced by parental overvaluation and be partly hereditary as well. Primary psychopaths can be biologically predisposed to psychopathy, but secondary psychopaths are more influenced by their childhood environment.

Longitudinal research suggests that parental overvaluation (spoiling and coddling a child), moreso than lack of parental warmth or parental maltreatment predicts narcissistic traits. The secondary subtype of psychopathy is also more associated with childhood trauma, while the primary psychopath (“born rather than made”) is less likely to report childhood trauma or post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Both narcissists and psychopaths can manufacture chaos on purpose. However, people with a higher level of psychopathic traits may find it especially rewarding because they need constant stimulation and are prone to boredom.

According to expert Dr. Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist, psychopaths are prone to boredom and require constant stimulation. Some neuroscience studies implicate their hyperactive dopamine system and subsequent need to obtain a reward at all costs to explain the psychopath’s harmful, impulsive, and reckless behavior. Other research contrasts this and reveals reduced dopaminergic receptor sensitivity, suggesting that psychopaths may actually be less responsive to dopamine and therefore require more of an intense thrill to get a sense of reward. While more neuroscience research is needed on psychopathy, it’s clear that psychopaths have a dysfunctional relationship with gaining rewards if they need constant stimulation to obtain a sense of reward fully. Psychopaths are high-sensation seekers and often go too far in their search for a thrill, engaging in reckless or impulsive behavior that harms themselves or others. Paired with their deficiencies in fear, this makes for a dangerous combination. Narcissists may engage in less risk and have more limits and constraints on what they’re willing to do to meet their needs because they are focused on maintaining their status and reputation.  They tend to have more fear than the more “fearless” psychopath. Not only are narcissists more worried about incurring harm to their own well-being, they are concerned with “looking” good and propping up their self-image. It should be noted that both narcissists and psychopaths can be superficially charming.  For narcissists, charm can be used to facilitate relationships that give the narcissist valuable “narcissistic supply” in terms of attention, praise, and validation. For psychopaths, this superficial and glib charm is one of the most potent ways they are able to con and exploit others – for example, many duped by the psychopath may find themselves giving them resources like loans or savings because they “seemed so sincere.”

Psychopaths (especially the secondary subtype) frequently engage in reckless and impulsive behavior, violating laws and human rights.

Psychopaths, especially more impulsive “criminal” secondary psychopaths or “unsuccessful” psychopaths tend to have criminal versatility and juvenile records. These are the types who may have murder, strangulation, fraud, and robbery on their records. The more “successful” low-anxious primary psychopath can also engage in criminal activity but may never be caught, or they may evade legal consequences by conning and leeching off others in a way that technically isn’t “illegal” although it is deceptive. They may romance a partner for a place to live or exploit the monetary resources of their friends. They may engage in fraudulent behaviors in their businesses but fly under the radar. Narcissists may or may not have engaged in criminal activity and tend to engage in more emotional and psychological forms of con artistry. They may be more cautious about taking too many risks that might expose them. However, both narcissists and psychopaths can live double lives. Remember: narcissists tend to engage in impression management and wear a convincing false mask so they look like a good person to others. They may be restrained by their self-image whereas psychopaths don’t care as much about their reputation or status although they may attempt to maintain their reputation if they feel they can gain something from it.

Both narcissists and psychopaths do not fare well in therapy. Research indicates that psychopaths can actually sharpen their manipulation tools in therapy and have a high recidivism rate if they are criminals.

It’s often advised to never take a narcissist to couple’s therapy as this is a primary site for the narcissist to further gaslight and traumatize their victims. For adult psychopaths, therapy can actually heighten the risk of a psychopath’s harm to society: research actually shows that psychopathic individuals tend to get even more manipulative in therapy by learning how to mimic empathy and better understand how to tap into the vulnerabilities of others. This exacerbating effect of treatment is important to consider as studies reveal that psychopaths tend to have a high recidivism rate and are five times more likely than nonpsychopathic offenders to re-offend violently.

The Big Picture: Whether the person you know was more narcissistic or psychopathic, you likely experienced some trauma during your relationship with them due to their manipulative behaviors. It’s important to seek professional support and process your experiences in a safe space. You deserve healing and freedom.  

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.