Thanks to media portrayal and pop culture, the term sociopath conjures up the image of a murderer, convict, or serial killer. But what does it actually mean to be a sociopath? Surprisingly, sociopath is a layman’s term that is never utilized in a formal psychiatric or mental health diagnosis, though it is connected to a personality disorder recognized by psychologists. The term sociopath refers to someone with antisocial personality disorder (APD); typically one who can form relationships with others but ignores societal norms, possesses little to no conscience, lacks empathy for others, and is completely self-serving.
Personality disorders are separated into three clusters in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Cluster A personality disorders are referred to as “odd and eccentric”; Cluster B personality disorders as “dramatic and erratic”; and Cluster C personality disorders as “anxious and fearful.” Antisocial personality disorder falls into Cluster B, defined by unpredictability and highly theatrical and impulsive behavior.
Characteristics of a Sociopath
It can be difficult to clearly identify someone that might be classified as a sociopath. Below are some of their common behaviors:
They Are Manipulative
Sociopaths like to make friendships fast and build trust quickly so they can manipulate their new friends into doing what they want. Due to their keen insight and ability to read other people, sociopaths can quickly gauge the flaws, wishes, and needs of other people. Their ability to assess others allows them to manipulate and dominate for their own benefit. Sociopaths will often play the role of a perfect friend or partner by acting as if they understand and can provide anything and everything that the other person needs.
Most often, sociopaths initially present as charismatic, funny, and charming individuals, causing people to instantaneously like them. However, when people get to know them, they often cut off contact shortly thereafter. Few people can tolerate them and most genuinely dislike being in their presence. It is rare that anybody is afforded the opportunity to get too close to know their “true selves.” For these reasons, sociopaths have few long-term friends and have difficulty retaining friendships.
The Have a Victim Mentality
If something does not go their way, sociopaths will instantly drop their captivating facade and take pleasure in playing the victim role. A sociopath cannot be reasoned with and will continuously lament that the world is always against them.
They Have No Respect for Rules or Authority
Sociopaths are aware of the difference between right and wrong but don’t believe that the rules should apply to them. That being said, while some sociopaths do have the propensity to be violent, not all are fated to become convicted criminals. If sociopaths do engage in criminal activity, their crimes are unpredictable, careless, and uncalculated. On occasion, they will haphazardly apologize to others, but their apologies are rarely genuine. They enjoy playing with fire and take pleasure in being cruel to animals.
They Are Impulsive
Impulsivity is a classic behavior displayed by sociopaths who act without thinking of the consequences. If there is no consequence, there is no remorse, and sociopaths rarely experience guilt.
They Can Be Unfaithful
Sociopaths have trouble maintaining romantic relationships as their relationships are solely based on deceit. They don’t know what it means to be loyal, and break trust easily, resulting in short and meaningless romantic relationships. Sociopaths also have a propensity to cheat and to be unfaithful to their partners, further damaging their relationships.
It is often challenging for someone who is in a relationship with a sociopath to accept that they have been manipulated and fooled due to the sociopath’s charm and wit. Even when an individual succeeds in getting out of the toxic relationship, they often find themselves still thinking about them for months or years thereafter.
They Have Difficulty Functioning
As adults, sociopaths tend to have trouble maintaining consistent employment and are susceptible to alcohol or drug addiction. They usually lack structure in their lives and do not have short or long-term goals.
Antisocial personality disorder may result in spousal or child abuse and neglect, gang affiliations, convictions, financial difficulties, and homelessness. Sociopaths may have co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression; may possess homicidal or suicidal thoughts and behaviors; and can be at risk for early death due to aggression and violence.
Sociopath vs. Psychopath: What’s the Difference?
“Sociopath” and “psychopath” are often used interchangeably since they are both forms of antisocial personality disorder. However, the key differences between a sociopath and a psychopath are that a psychopath lacks a conscience altogether, tends to be more manipulative, and engages in calculated and shrewd behavior designed to hurt others. A psychopath usually does not experience emotion although they are able to mask this lack of empathy. Psychopaths are less impulsive and more patient and deliberate than sociopaths.
How Is Sociopathy Diagnosed?
It can be difficult to diagnose a personality disorder since the symptoms need to be consistent and pervasive for long periods of time. A sociopath could go through their entire life without a formal diagnosis because they are not aware that they have a problem to begin with and therefore do not seek help or treatment. Sociopaths commonly have a history of childhood behavioral problems along with problematic relationships with their parents.
The diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder is usually rendered from a person’s medical history, psychological evaluation, and DSM-5 criteria. The DSM-5 has four diagnostic criteria that are used to assess antisocial personality disorder:
- The first criterion has to do with the disregard and violation of the rights of others beginning at age 15. This criterion is further broken down into seven sub-features including an inability to comply with laws, lying and deception for personal pleasure, impulsivity, aggression, indifference to the safety of others, patterns of irresponsibility, and a lack of remorse.
- The second criterion states that a person needs to be 18 years of age or older to receive a formal diagnosis.
- A conduct disorder must have been present in a person prior to the age of 15. Indications of a conduct disorder may include violent behavior toward people or animals, destruction and disrespect to property, duplicity, stealing, and serious rule violations.
- The fourth and final criterion states that antisocial behaviors cannot be the result of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Sociopaths may not be forthcoming or provide truthful information about their symptoms and behaviors during a diagnostic interview. Their skewed perception may hamper diagnosis, especially since a key diagnostic criterion pertains to their interactions with others. Collateral information from family, friends, and loved ones may help with the formulation of an accurate diagnosis.
Symptoms tend to be at their worst during the latter part of the teenage years and early twenties but can potentially improve as one grows older. It is unclear whether the decrease in symptoms is linked to maturation and aging or rather is due to increased insight regarding the consequences of their antisocial behaviors.
At the present time, the exact cause of antisocial personality disorder remains unknown. However, heredity, genetics, and biological factors are believed to play an important role in the development of the disorder. Environmental factors are also believed to have a triggering impact, especially if a predisposition is already in place. Brain injuries and alterations in brain functioning during the important and formidable developmental years of childhood are also believed to heighten the risk of developing the disorder.
Some risk factors have been identified that can make people more susceptible to developing antisocial personality disorder. It is believed that those who experience early trauma, or who are raised in abusive or neglectful environments, are at higher risk of developing into sociopaths. Being diagnosed with a conduct disorder in childhood is also a risk factor, along with a family history of personality disorders and mental illness.
A sociopath cannot be cured and is difficult to treat, as problems lie inherently in their personality and in who they are. As the development of antisocial personality disorder is believed to stem from childhood, it would be beneficial for early childhood educators, pediatricians, parents, and other childcare providers to be vigilant in spotting early warning signs. If children displaying conduct issues can be identified when they are young, early intervention can be put into place. The implementation of structure, discipline, parenting interventions, and behavioral modification may help to reduce the risk of a child developing into a sociopath.
In adulthood, treatment and professional intervention can assist a person to reduce and manage destructive behaviors in order to stabilize their personal and professional relationships.
Psychotherapy is the standard treatment for antisocial personality disorder together with providing coping skills and anger management techniques. Psychotherapy can also help sociopaths if they are struggling with other co-occurring mental health or substance abuse disorders and it can either be given to an individual or to a group of people.
At the present time, there are no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration to specifically treat antisocial personality disorder. However, psychiatrists and other practitioners may prescribe medications to treat symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, mood stabilizers or atypical antipsychotics may be prescribed to treat reckless aggression. However, due to a sociopath’s impulsivity and high-risk potential, medications are prescribed with caution in order to avoid addiction and substance abuse problems.
The success of a sociopath’s treatment largely depends on the severity of a person’s symptoms along with their openness to treatment. Individuals who are willing to participate in treatment, who follow protocol, and that are monitored closely tend to have better long-term outcomes. In contrast, sociopaths with severe symptoms and an aversion to treatment will likely be destined for poorer outcomes.
Due to the inherent and ingrained nature of a personality disorder, one should never expect a sociopath to completely change their behavior. It is important for family members and loved ones to seek support to acquire coping skills to learn how to set effective limits and restrictions.
It is safe to say that the definition of a sociopath is actually on a continuum. On one end, the continuum can include sociopaths who are those convicts, serial killers, and murderers that the media loves to portray. In the middle of the continuum may be the sociopath who is not an actual murderer but one who engages in illegal and socially deviant activities that may or may not land them in jail for their crimes. Finally, on the other end of the continuum is the charming and charismatic sociopath who is difficult to recognize. This type of sociopath can integrate into society and adeptly form attachments and relationships to manipulate others into getting what they want.
Regardless of where a sociopath lies on the continuum, the common theme is that they seek control and experience joy by inflicting pain and suffering on those around them.
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