When you think of a sociopath, you probably picture Christian Bale in American Psycho, or Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. But like most mental health conditions, sociopathy—or antisocial personality disorder (ASP)—exists on a spectrum,
and not all sociopath are serial killers. One study estimated that as many as 3.8% of Americans would meet the condition’s diagnostic criteria. So odds are, you know someone who has ASP.
What is sociopathy, or ASP? “It’s a syndrome characterized by lifelong misbehavior,” says Donald W. Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
“People with an antisocial personality disorder tend to be deceitful, impulsive. They ignore responsibilities and, in the worst cases, they have no conscience.”
The disorder can be relatively mild, he adds: “Maybe they lie, maybe they get into trouble with their spouses, and that’s about it.”
At the other end of the spectrum are thieves and murderers, says Dr. Black, who is the author of Bad Boys, Bad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopathy). “Most people are in the middle.”
One thing to note: While we tend to use the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangeably, they mean different things. When comparing sociopaths vs. psychopaths,
Dr. Black says most sociopaths are prone to impulsive behavior and often seen as disturbed or unhinged, while a psychopath is cold and calculating, sometimes even charming.
“I view [psychopathy] as the extreme end of the antisocial spectrum,” he says, “because virtually all psychopaths are antisocial, but not all antisocials have psychopathy.”
To be diagnosed with ASP, a person must be at least 18 years old and have a history of aggression, rule-breaking, and deceit that dates back to their childhood.
Here are some of the other red flags to watch out for, based on criteria listed in the DSM-V.
Therapy can help manage some of the symptoms and side effects, particularly in milder cases. But it’s unusual for a sociopath to seek professional help.
“One of the curious things about this disorder is a general lack of insight,” explains Dr. Black. “They may recognize that they have problems. They notice that they get into trouble.
They may know that their spouses are not happy with them. They know that they get into trouble on the job. But they tend to blame other people, other circumstances.”
The good news is that symptoms of ASP seem to recede with age, says Dr. Black, especially among milder sociopaths and those that don’t do drugs or drink to excess.
But if you know someone with ASP, the best thing to do is steer clear, he warns: “Avoid them. Avoid them as best as you can because they are going to complicate your life.”
You may have heard people call someone else a “psychopath” or a “sociopath.” But what do those words really mean?
You won’t find the definitions in mental health’s official handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths. They use a different term instead: antisocial personality disorder.
Most experts believe psychopaths and sociopaths share a similar set of traits. People like this have a poor inner sense of right and wrong.
They also can’t seem to understand or share another person’s feelings. But there are some differences, too.
A key difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is whether he has a conscience, the little voice inside that lets us know when we’re doing something wrong, says L. Michael Tompkins, EdD. He’s a psychologist at the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center.
A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to.
He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.
A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. They may know that taking your money is wrong, and they might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop their behavior.
Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis,
PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.
Recent research suggests a psychopath’s brain is not like other people’s. It may have physical differences that make it hard for the person to identify with someone else’s distress.
The differences can even change basic body functions. For example, when most people see blood or violence in a movie, their hearts beat faster, their breathing quickens, and their palms get sweaty.
A psychopath has the opposite reaction. He gets calmer. Kipnis says that quality helps psychopaths be fearless and engage in risky behavior.
“They don’t fear the consequences of their actions,” he says.
Psychology researchers generally believe that psychopaths tends to be born — it’s likely a genetic predisposition — while sociopaths tend to be made by their environment.
(Which is not to say that psychopaths may not also suffer from some sort of childhood trauma.) Psychopathy might be related to physiological brain differences.
Research has shown psychopaths have underdeveloped components of the brain commonly thought to be responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control.
Psychopaths, in general, have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath.
People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals.
Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.
But psychopaths can often be seen by others as being charming and trustworthy, holding steady, normal jobs. Some even have families and seemingly-loving relationships with a partner.
While they tend to be well-educated, they may also have learned a great deal on their own.
When a psychopath engages in criminal behavior, they tend to do so in a way that minimizes risk to themselves.
They will carefully plan criminal activity to ensure they don’t get caught, having contingency plans in place for every possibility.
Perhaps one of the most well-known signs of ASP is a lack of empathy, particularly an inability to feel remorse for one’s actions.
“Many people with ASP do seem to lack a conscience, but not all of them,” he explains. Psychopaths always have this symptom, however, which is what makes them especially dangerous.
“When you don’t experience remorse, you’re kind of freed up to do anything—anything bad that comes to mind,” says Dr. Black.
People with ASP find it hard to form emotional bonds, so their relationships are often unstable and chaotic, says Dr. Black. Rather than forge connections with the people in their lives, they might try to exploit them for their own benefit through deceit, coercion, and intimidation.
Sociopaths tend to try to seduce and ingratiate themselves with the people around them for their own gain, or for entertainment. But this doesn’t mean they’re all exceptionally charismatic.
“It may be true of some, and it is often said of the psychopath that they’re superficially charming,” says Dr. Black.
“But I see plenty of antisocial men in my hospital and in our outpatient clinic and I would not use the term charming to describe them.”
Sociopaths have a reputation for being dishonest and deceitful. They often feel comfortable lying to get their own way, or to get themselves out of trouble.
They also have a tendency to embellish the truth when it suits them.
Some might be openly violent and aggressive. Others will cut you down verbally.
Either way, people with ASP tend to show a cruel disregard for other people’s feelings.
Sociopaths are not only hostile themselves, but they’re more likely to interpret others’ behavior as hostile, which drives them to seek revenge.
Another sign that someone might have ASP is a disregard for financial and social obligations. Ignoring responsibilities is extremely common, says Dr. Black.
Think, for example, not paying child support when it’s due, allowing bills to pile up, and regularly taking time off work.
We all have our impulsive moments: a last minute road trip, a drastic new hairstyle, or a new pair of shoes you just have to have.
But for someone with ASP, making spur of the moment decisions with no thought for the consequences is part of everyday life, says Dr. Black. They find it extremely difficult to make a plan and stick to it.
Combine irresponsibility, impulsivity, and a need for instant gratification, and it’s not surprising that sociopaths get involved in risky behavior.
They tend to have little concern for the safety of others or for themselves. This means that excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, unsafe sex, and dangerous hobbies (including criminal activities) are common.
In movies and TV shows, psychopaths and sociopaths are usually the villains who kill or torture innocent people.
In real life, some people with antisocial personality disorder can be violent, but most are not. Instead they use manipulation and reckless behavior to get what they want.
“At worst, they’re cold, calculating killers,” Kipnis says. Others, he says, are skilled at climbing their way up the corporate ladder, even if they have to hurt someone to get there.
If you recognize some of these traits in a family member or coworker, you may be tempted to think you’re living or working with a psychopath or sociopath. But just because a person is mean or selfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a disorder.
It’s not easy to spot a psychopath. They can be intelligent, charming, and good at mimicking emotions.
They may pretend to be interested in you, but in reality, they probably don’t care.
“They’re skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain,” Tompkins says.
Sociopaths are less able to play along. They make it plain that they’re not interested in anyone but themselves. They often blame others and have excuses for their behavior.
Some experts see sociopaths as “hot-headed.” They act without thinking how others will be affected.
Psychopaths are more “cold-hearted” and calculating. They carefully plot their moves, and use aggression in a planned-out way to get what they want.
If they’re after more money or status in the office, for example, they’ll make a plan to take out any barriers that stand in the way, even if it’s another person’s job or reputation.
Both psychopaths and sociopaths present risks to society, because they will often try and live a normal life while coping with their disorder. But psychopathy is likely the more dangerous disorder, because they experience a lot less guilt connected to their actions.
A psychopath also has a greater ability to dissociate from their actions. Without emotional involvement, any pain that others suffer is meaningless to a psychopath.
Many famous serial killers have been psychopaths.
Not all people we’d call a psychopath or sociopath are violent.
Violence is not a necessary ingredient (nor is it for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) — but it is often present.
Clues to psychopathy and sociopathy are usually available in childhood.
Most people who can later be diagnosed with sociopathy or psychopathy have had a pattern of behavior where they violate the basic rights or safety of others.
They often break the rules (or even laws) and societal norms as a child, too.
Psychologists call these kinds of childhood behaviors a conduct disorder. Conduct disorders involve four categories of problem behavior:
If you recognize these symptoms (and the specific symptoms of conduct disorder) in a child or young teen, they’re at greater risk for antisocial personality disorder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy are different cultural labels applied to the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.
Up to 3 percent of the population may qualify for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.
This disorder is more common among males and mostly seen in people with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, or in forensic settings such as prisons.
Psychopaths tend to be more manipulative, can be seen by others as more charming, lead a semblance of a normal life, and minimize risk in criminal activities.
Sociopaths tend to be more erratic, rage-prone, and unable to lead as much of a normal life.
When sociopaths engage in criminal activity, they tend to do so in a reckless manner without regard to consequences.