The term psychopath is used often, but many people don’t know its true meaning. So what does it mean, and how can you recognize the signs of psychopathy?

Many people think a psychopath is someone who’s inherently violent, but this isn’t always the case. Psychopathy is also often confused with being a “sociopath,” or having sociopathy.

In reality, neither psychopathy nor sociopathy is a true mental health diagnosis. In the world of psychiatry, both fall under the umbrella of a condition called antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Eric Patterson, a licensed professional counselor based in Cabot, Pennsylvania, explains that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about psychopathy: “Calling someone a ‘psycho’ comes with a very negative connotation.”

“Shifting to a diagnosis like antisocial personality disorder allows experts to use a set of diagnostic criteria to make a diagnosis,” says Patterson.

With so much confusion about the term psychopathy and psychopath, how can you tell if someone has antisocial personality disorder? Here are some signs and symptoms:

A disregard for others is one of the most prominent signs of ASPD, says Patterson. This behavior involves violating other people’s rights and the laws set in place by society.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), people with ASPD show a pattern of disregard for the rights of others. When diagnosing ASPD, experts look for a pattern of behavior starting around age 15.

But the onset of symptoms for this personality disorder often occur earlier.

A person with ASPD may not follow societal norms, and they might do things that other people consider unlawful. In some cases, they may be arrested for their behavior.

People with ASPD are unaffected by how their actions impact others.

Research from 2018 suggests that people with psychopathy have the capacity to see things from another person’s perspective — but they’re not skilled at this, which contributes to their disregard for those around them.

People with ASPD are also likely to participate in deceitful behavior that involves frequent lying. They may even lie about their name and use aliases or other identities.

Typically, the lies represent an effort to get something out of someone else, such as sex or financial gain.

They may manipulate people by turning on charm and using flattery. The manipulation may also involve emotional abuse or blackmail.

It’s important to note that not all psychopaths are physically aggressive. But a common trait among people with ASPD is that they act in aggressive or very irritable ways.

Although this aggression can involve physical fights, the aggressiveness doesn’t have to be physical. It can also involve verbal abuse.

People with ASPD may act impulsively. This means they do things without considering the consequences.

When behaving in “risky” ways, they might not think about their own safety or the safety of others.

Partly because of this impulsiveness, people with ASPD are more likely than others to have substance use disorders.

People with ASPD also have a higher chance of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) due to impulsive sexual behaviors, and may have earlier mortality than people without the disorder — due to accidents, injuries, and suicide.

Whether a person with ASPD manipulates, lies, or does something illegal, the overarching theme is that they lack remorse for their actions. In other words, they don’t feel guilt about what they’ve done.

People with ASPD may also try to rationalize the harm they’ve caused.

Patterson points out that not all people have all the symptoms of ASPD. “One person may aggressively confront and harm people physically, while another could covertly manipulate others,” he says.

So psychopathic traits may vary from person to person.

And although violence may be a symptom of a person’s aggression, not all psychopaths are physically violent.

Ultimately, people with ASPD use others to get what they want. For people with ASPD, the end justifies the means to the extreme.

Psychopathy is not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5. Instead, experts diagnose people who have the above symptoms with antisocial personality disorder.

“Some think that since antisocial personality disorder affects loved ones and others in the community more than the person with the actual condition, that the condition is not a mental health condition,” says Patterson.

But this is a poor way to categorize a mental health condition, he adds, citing that other conditions like oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also affect those around the person more than the person with the condition.

Patterson explains that professionals who assess for antisocial personality disorder include:

  • professional counselors
  • psychologists
  • psychiatrists

An assessment typically involves a semi-structured interview.

Patterson adds that because people with ASPD are likely to blame others for their behaviors and decisions, a mental health professional may also talk with family members or other people in the person’s life.

This type of history-taking may provide a better understanding of the person than just the interview itself. That’s because a person with ASPD is likely to lie and manipulate during this type of interview.

Another diagnostic tool is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). It’s extremely important for those using this assessment tool to use it correctly. Researchers initially devised this checklist to diagnose specific male adult populations, such as males in correctional institutions.

Evidence suggests that qualified mental health professionals may also use it with female and teen offenders, as well as sex offenders.

The DSM-5 outlines that to receive a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, a person must display a pattern of at least three outlined behaviors since the age of 15. However, professionals only diagnose the disorder in people over age 18.

According to the DSM-5, to receive a diagnosis of ASPD, a person’s antisocial traits must not happen only during schizophrenia or bipolar disorder episodes.

ASPD, or psychopathy, is a lifelong disorder.

Experts have found that ASPD is a difficult mental health condition to treat. But some treatments, such as antipsychotic medication, may help with certain symptoms such as aggressiveness.

That said, because people with ASPD often rationalize and blame others for their behaviors and problems, it’s unlikely they will go looking for treatment on their own.

If you’ve been affected by someone with ASPD, you may not be able to help that person. But resources are available to help you heal.

The nonprofit organization Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Foundation offers resources for people who have been victimized by someone with psychopathy.

Resources include:

Another helpful resource is PsychopathyIs, another nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about psychopathy and its interventions. They also offer resources for parents and a useful list of professionals with experience treating personality disorders.

You may also find it helpful to reach out to a mental health professional for help in the aftermath of abuse.

And remember that just because someone with psychopathy has harmed you, it does not mean there’s something wrong with you. You aren’t at fault.