The term sociopath is often used to describe someone with antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy. Traits may include impulsivity, deceit, and lack of empathy and remorse.
The term sociopath generally describes someone who uses charm, deceit, and other methods to get what they want.
Ree Langham, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Nashville, TN, says the term sociopathy refers to a range of antisocial behaviors and attitudes that encompasses:
- a disregard for the rights or feelings of others
“Most prominently, these behaviors are accompanied by an absence of remorse,” Langham notes.
But “sociopath” is not a diagnostic term and is not typically found in official diagnostic manuals like the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed (DSM-5-TR), says Langham.
Instead, it opts for the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.”
Sociopath vs. psychopath
A severe form of ASPD is considered psychopathy, and many people use the terms psychopath and sociopath interchangeably.
Psychologists used to differentiate psychopaths from sociopaths by stating that sociopaths were a product of their environment. Meanwhile, psychopaths were thought to be born.
While some psychologists and researchers still make these key distinctions, clinical research over the last few decades shows that psychopathy is developed within a biopsychosocial model, explains Lina Haji, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and mental health counselor in Miami, FL.
“This means there are biological, psychological, and social contributing factors. In other words, genetics, neurology, relationships, and social environment all play a role in psychopathy.”
The traits of sociopathy, or ASPD, are quite diverse, but there are some typical signs to look for:
1. Manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others
According to the DSM-5-TR, people with ASPD have a “pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” This can include:
- repeated lying
- use of aliases
- conning others for pleasure or personal profit
2. Lack of concern, guilt, or remorse for their actions
Langham notes that those who demonstrate sociopathic traits typically have a palpable lack of remorse after causing harm or discomfort to others. They may be indifferent to or rationalize their actions, such as stealing from or mistreating another person.
3. Irresponsible behavior
Sociopathy can also include irresponsible behaviors, such as:
- significantly and negatively impacting others by failing to plan
- suddenly changing jobs, homes, or relationships
- not honoring monetary obligations, such as paying bills or child support
4. Disregard for typical social behavior
Another typical behavior is failure to conform to social norms, including lawful behaviors. People with ASPD tend to have a reckless disregard for the safety of themselves or others.
5. Relationship difficulties
People with ASPD are more likely to have relationship problems as adults. Common problems include:
- physical fights
6. Repeatedly breaking the law
Criminal behavior is a key feature of antisocial personality disorder. People with ASPD have a high risk of committing crimes and being imprisoned at some point in their lives.
But not all people with ASPD commit crimes, which is a common misconception associated with this condition.
In movies and other forms of media, “sociopaths” are often depicted as dangerous or violent individuals or criminals who show little to no remorse for their actions.
It’s unfortunate but true that sociopaths often face certain stigmas, says Langham.
“Due to their behavioral tendencies, many associate them with danger or violence,” she explains.
It’s also a common belief that they might not be capable of forming genuine emotional bonds or relationships. This notion, coupled with their frequent manipulative tendencies, paints them as rather self-centered in the public eye. Moreover, their actions, which often diverge from societal norms, have led to a reputation of lacking in morality or ethics.”
Another common stigma tied to psychopaths is that they can’t change, says Haji.
“While their internal and affective states may have little room for growth, change is capable when it comes to behavioral functioning,” she says. “For example, a psychopath may never change how they feel, but they can change how they act.”
Children with sociopathic traits may present differently than adults because children are less developmentally mature.
“Their pathological lying and manipulation tactics may be less sophisticated than an adult,” explains Haji. “They may also have worse behavioral controls and impulsivity due to lack of brain development and immaturity.”
Adults with antisocial personality disorder often have a history of conduct disorder during childhood, with behaviors such as:
- truancy (not attending school)
- disruptive and aggressive behaviors
- substance misuse
- criminal activity
When observing children for signs of these traits, it’s crucial to tread lightly, adds Langham.
“Children might exhibit behaviors such as lying, cruelty to animals, or even bullying,” she notes. “However, it’s paramount to remember that children are still developing, and these behaviors might just be a phase or indicative of other underlying issues.”
Sociopathy, clinically referred to as “antisocial personality disorder,” refers to a range of antisocial behaviors and attitudes, including manipulation, deceit, and lack of empathy or remorse.
Psychopathy is considered a severe form of ASPD. Understanding the difference, and recognizing common signs and traits, can help you seek guidance from communities and professionals who can offer support.