The Symptoms of Being a Sociopath: What the DSM-5 Says

symptoms of a sociopath

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V), the newest edition of the handbook for psychotherapists, states that   “… [a] sociopath is differentiated from a psychopath, in that a sociopathy is rooted in environmental causes, while psychopathy is genetically based.” Both diagnoses, though, come under the Anti-Social Personality Disorder umbrella heading, as indicated at the link. That together blurs the distinctions between sociopathy and psychopathy for some people.

That non-specific definition of sociopathy underscores the reality that sociopaths can’t fathom someone else’s perspective. They refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they cause to anyone. Harming other people doesn’t matter to a sociopath. Laws, morals and interpersonal behavior are irrelevant throughout a sociopath’s life, though the DSM V specifies that sociopaths can’t be labeled as such until they’re 18 years old. Think back to any juvenile delinquents you know or learned of. If that 18-year qualification bothers you, know that you have plenty of company inside and outside the world of mental health professionals who want to address sociopathy in children. Distinguishing sociopathy from psychopathy matters to therapists and to wider society.

Personal relationships between a sociopath and other people, if any, are not about affection. They’re about personal gain. Sociopaths tend to be loners. If they’re highly intelligent, they fake the emotions that normal people experience but only in order to achieve goals.  If their intelligence is low, they’d tend to be unendingly cruel, never pretending to be cooperative, polite or thoughtful. No matter the IQ, though, sociopaths are aggressive, deceitful, cruel, manipulative, contradictory individuals with public and private selves that never merge. Sensation-seekers, perhaps they try to compensate for a lack of rewarding emotions and a sense of contentment.

Though sociopaths can feel rage and anger, they can’t fathom kindness, love or happiness. Moral imperatives are meaningless to them. Right and wrong are not issues to a sociopath. Getting what they want is their only priority. That’s the key to spotting sociopath symptoms.

Sociopaths are the other person in what seemed to have been a give and take relationship. Their emotionally, financially and/or physically wounded victims are left wondering how life fell apart so drastically, if they live to wonder about the situation. Some sociopaths murder people.

Mental health professionals mention problematic childhoods and malfunctioning brains (EEGs show that the brains of sociopaths don’t function as normal brains do) when they study or discuss sociopathy. It seems that life experiences might be part of the problem. If other family members are sociopaths, it’s not a certainty that children will grow into being dangerous people. However, negative circumstances can nurture a person along the path of cruelty and selfishness, facilitating the expression of sociopathic personality traits that would otherwise never have been developed.

Rikki Davies, MSW, responded to E-counseling’s questions about the DSM V’s confusing set of perspectives. Her comments appear below:

(E-C) Do you find the umbrella term APD helpful or not? If yes or no, why?

(RD) “No. I find it too broad and I base my response on my familiarity with the lives of people, less on the DSM’s details. Intuitively and also based on what I’ve seen, I know that there are different profiles and different etiology involved in people who can be put under the sociopathic label. Those differences are important both in regard to their own treatment and in regard to the level and nature of threat they pose to society.”

(E-C) Since sociopathy is not curable, what are the best ways for people to protect themselves from sociopaths?

(RD) “I have not yet bought into the notion that there is no cure. I would think that considering that prison is the predominant institution in which sociopaths are gathered, researched, and worked with, that there’s room to wonder if therapeutic rehabilitation is a possibility that has been under-explored.

“Having said that, and having seen first have the devastating effects of sociopaths on people’s lives, I believe it is critical for people to be taught how to identify the dynamics of the sociopath as they present in people’s lives. I’m talking about your ‘everyday’ sociopath, the people in our lives who lack empathy, regard for the feelings of others, a sense of responsibility or guilt, the people who wreak havoc but don’t go over the line enough to get in trouble with the law.

“So many of the people I’ve worked with could have saved themselves a lot of heartache had they just known that a lack of conscience is a real thing. We have a tendency to interpret other people’s behavior based on internal mechanisms that were familiar with. We can only identify and recognize that which we’re familiar with, that which we know exists. Most people with a working conscience cannot fathom the reality of lacking one, so they remain vulnerable to being blind to what they’re seeing or experiencing. Being familiar enough with this very different internal operating system, enough to identify it as real when encountering it, can enable people to walk away early and save themselves decades of pain.”