Sociopath Definition

December 15, 2019
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Sociopath is a term that refers to an individual with antisocial personality disorder. A sociopath definition describes a person who possesses the ability to form attachments and relationships with others, but ignores societal norms, has no conscience, and shows no regret or remorse for their actions.

Personality disorders are characterized by long-term, unchanging, and extreme patterns of thoughts and behaviors that go against societal norms and expectations. Personality disorders tend to have considerable impact on a person’s relationships along with their occupational, academic, and everyday functioning. Personality disorders consist of cognitive distortions, inappropriate emotional reactions, uncontrolled impulses, and significant impairment in social settings.

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 is a personality disorder that falls in Cluster B, defined by unpredictability, theatrical, and highly emotional behaviors.

A person with antisocial personality disorder displays a persistent and long-term pattern of manipulating, controlling, and infringing on the rights of others, usually with little guilt or remorse.  A person with antisocial personality disorder lacks ethics, ignores the difference between right and wrong, and lacks consideration for the rights of others.

Sociopath is a term that refers to an individual with antisocial personality disorder. A sociopath definition describes a person who possesses the ability to form attachments and relationships with others, but ignores societal norms, has no conscience, and shows no regret or remorse for their actions. The term sociopath is a layman’s term and is never utilized in formal diagnosis by a psychiatric or mental health provider. Sociopath is a descriptive term that is most often equated to murderers, convicts, and serial killers, thanks to media portrayal and pop culture. Movies and television have historically portrayed sociopaths as gangsters and felons that torture and eradicate innocent life.

Although some sociopaths do have the propensity to be deadly, most are not fated to become convicted criminals. If a sociopath does engage in criminal activity, their crimes are unpredictable, careless, and uncalculated. By and large, most sociopaths present with average personality traits and common demeanors, although they do tend to possess superior intelligence and show higher levels of agitation. It is safe to say that sociopaths lie on a continuum with different levels of severity.

Another related term to antisocial personality disorder is that of a psychopath. In contrast to a sociopath, a psychopath engages in harmful actions to others that are calculated and shrewd. A psychopath usually does not experience emotion, but does well at imitating and pretending that they have emotion and empathy for others.  Psychopaths are less impulsive, more patient, and more deliberate than sociopaths.

A diagnosis for antisocial personality disorder is only rendered when symptoms are consistent and pervasive for long periods of time. Some individuals may go their entire lives without formal diagnosis, as most sociopaths are resistant to treatment because they do not feel as if they have a problem. Some sociopaths may end up in treatment after seeking help from a physician for other co-occurring mental health or substance abuse issues.

The diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder is usually rendered from medical history, psychological evaluation, and DSM-5 criteria. The DSM-5 has four diagnostic criteria that are used to assess for antisocial personality disorder. The first criteria has to do with the disregard and violation of the rights of others beginning at age 15. This criterion is further broken down into 7 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 criteria states that a person needs to be 18 years of age or older to receive a formal diagnosis. Thirdly, 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 towards people or animals, destruction and disrespect to property, duplicity, stealing, and serious rule violations. The final criterion states that antisocial behaviors cannot be the result of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Sociopaths may not be forthcoming or provide truthful information with regards to their symptoms and behaviors during 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.

Some common symptoms of antisocial personality disorder may include acting recklessly, violent and destructive behaviors, lying and manipulation, and lacking empathy when harm comes to another human being. Other symptoms may include assault, breaking the law, abusing substances, and inability to meet financial, occupational, or social responsibilities. 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.

Sociopaths possess little to no conscience, lack empathy for others, and are completely self-serving. They do not care about the general welfare of others and tend to use others as their own personal pawns. They choose themselves and continually focus on their own well-being above all others. Sociopaths enjoy hurting, harassing, and manipulating others to suit their own agendas and gain pleasure from lying for fun and from making others cry. A sociopath will purposely steal from close friends and takes pleasure in fabricating tales to garner the attention and sympathy from others.

Sociopaths refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, are extremely manipulative, and are highly adept at turning things around on others. They will instantly drop their captivating facades if something does not go their way and truly enjoys playing the victim role. A sociopath cannot be reasoned with and will continuously lament that the world is always against them.

Sociopaths feel that rules should not apply to them, show no respect for authority figures, and often break the law.  Sociopaths enjoy playing with fire and take pleasure in being cruel to animals.  They are aware of the differences between right and wrong but ignore them as insignificant nuances or technicalities. On occasion, they will haphazardly apologize to others, but their apologies are always in genuine, as sociopaths are incapable of a true apology.

Sociopaths are highly impulsive and engage in action without thinking or considering potential consequences.  If a sociopath does receive a consequence, it results in little, if any remorse.  They infrequently feel guilt and never learn from consequences that are bestowed upon them.

Sociopaths like to make friendships fast and build trust quickly, so as to place themselves in the position of getting their new friends to do 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 a sociopath to manipulate, rule, and dominate other people for their own benefit.  A sociopath 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 distance and cut off contact shortly thereafter. Few people can tolerate them and genuinely dislike being in their presence.  It is rare that anybody is afforded the opportunity to get too close to know the “true them”. For these reasons, sociopaths have few long-term friends and have difficulty retaining friendships.

Sociopaths have trouble maintaining romantic relationships, as their relationships are solely based on fabrication. Their relationships are built on a foundation of deceit, which allows a sociopath to manipulate and play upon the emotions of their partner. A sociopath cannot be loyal, and breaks trust easily, resulting in short and meaningless romantic relationships. Sociopaths also have a propensity to cheat and to be unfaithful to their partners, further deteriorating their relationships.

It is often challenging for one to realize that they are in a romantic relationship with a sociopath, especially due to the sociopath’s charm and wit. A sociopath is usually adept at maintaining control of their partner’s thoughts, actions, and feelings through their manipulative ploys and seeks to retain complete domination. Even when an individual can get out of a toxic relationship with a sociopath, they often find themselves still thinking about them months or years thereafter.

Sociopaths commonly have a history of behavioral problems as children along with problematic relationships with their parents. As adults, sociopaths tend to have trouble maintaining consistent employment and are susceptible to alcohol or drug addiction.  They usually have poor structure and organization and fail to formulate any short- or long-term goals. Other complications of antisocial personality disorder may include spousal or child abuse and neglect, gang affiliations, convictions, financial difficulties, and homelessness. A sociopath 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.

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.  It is believed that those who experience early trauma, or who are raised in abusive environments, are at higher risk of developing into a sociopath. 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. Being diagnosed with a conduct disorder in childhood is a risk factor, along with a family history of personality disorders and mental illness. Exposure to abuse and neglect during childhood in addition to living in unstable and chaotic circumstances may also pose as other important risk factors.

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 to 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.

A sociopath cannot be cured and is difficult to treat, as problems lie inherently in their personality and in who they are. Despite this, treatment and professional intervention can assist a person to reduce and manage destructive behaviors in order to enhance the stability of their personal and professional relationships.

Psychotherapy is the standard treatment for antisocial personality disorder and attempts to provide a person with coping skills and anger management techniques.  Psychotherapy can also help a sociopath if they are struggling with other co-occurring mental health or substance abuse disorders. Psychotherapy can either be delivered in an individual or in a group modality.

At 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 simultaneous symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, mood stabilizers or atypical antipsychotics may be prescribed to treat reckless aggression. But, due to a sociopath’s impulsivity and high-risk potential, medications should be 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 who 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 behaviors.  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 detrimental 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 that 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 to those around them.  They do know the difference between right and wrong, but consistently choose wrong due to their lack of conscience.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.