Can Someone Be Born A Sociopath? Exploring Antisocial Personality Disorder

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Many people have heard sensational stories about “sociopaths.” If you believe popular media accounts, these individuals may be natural predators with no conscience to restrain their behavior. But you may be wondering if these dangerous personality traits really are innate and unchangeable. Are sociopaths born or made? The answer can be complicated and understanding it may require unlearning some widespread misconceptions about what it means to have a sociopathic personality. The word “sociopath” generally originated as a psychological term for a condition now referred to as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This condition can involve an impaired understanding of appropriate behavior and difficulty empathizing with other people. These traits may appear alongside lesser-known symptoms, such as impulse control challenges and difficulty sustaining long-term relationships. The most up-to-date research suggests that ASPD likely emerges from a combination of genetic factors, life experiences, and personal circumstances. For additional professional insight and guidance, consider scheduling a session with an online or in-person therapist.

Therapy Can Help You Process Antisocial Behavior

What is a sociopath?

Books, movies, and television have generally created a widely held idea of the “sociopathic personality.” As many people understand it, a sociopath can be seen as a calm, unemotional, calculating individual who exploits and abuses others without remorse. Sociopaths may be portrayed as highly intelligent and charming, capable of easily manipulating others to get what they want. 

However, the psychological condition that gave rise to the term “sociopath” tends to differ from this widespread portrayal. It can be true that individuals with ASPD may have a limited sense of empathy that leads them to disregard other people’s feelings. Moreover, people living with this disorder do seem to be overrepresented among those convicted of criminal behavior. 

Still, there may be some important differences between the media image of the sociopath and the reality of ASPD:

  • People with ASPD can be highly emotional. Some of these individuals may have shallow or limited feelings, but others may be prone to intense and shifting emotions, especially bouts of anger.
  • Sociopathic behavior may not be calculated. In contrast to the common view of sociopaths as highly rational schemers and planners, some may have trouble with impulse control. This could lead to erratic, short-sighted actions. Thus, people with ASPD may find it challenging to plan ahead and pursue long-term goals.
  • Antisocial personality disorder is not necessarily correlated with intelligence. Media consumers may enjoy stories about pitiless criminal masterminds, but researchers have observed a slight negative correlation between IQ and ASPD. 
  • A sociopathic personality may get in the way of success. It may be common to read articles about how many business leaders and politicians are sociopaths. However, studies on the subject suggest that many traits of ASPD can hold a person back. The life histories of people with this condition often include repeated incarceration, failure to hold steady jobs, and few long-lasting personal relationships.

Genetics and ASPD: Are sociopaths born or made?

Some people may be frightened by the idea that sociopaths could simply be “wired differently” from birth. You may wonder whether antisocial personality disorder is really part of a person’s basic psychological makeup.

Many of the identifying markers of ASPD tend to be present in childhood and adolescence. Individuals with this condition frequently show signs of behavioral disorders, and the usual diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder normally include a pattern of antagonistic behavior dating back to age 15 or younger. 

This type of behavior early in life may be influenced by an individual’s genetic makeup. Studies on the behavior of twins suggest that genetic differences can explain about half of the variation in ASPD.

Some researchers still disagree about which genetic factors are relevant, though. Some studies point to a collection of genes involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. These molecules tend to be important for systems in the brain responsible for functions like mood regulation, social thinking, and behavior control. Disruptions to these systems might explain certain ASPD traits, such as:

  • Aggression
  • Decreased fear response
  • Reduced impact of negative consequences on behavior
  • Diminished impulse control

Causes of ASPD in the childhood environment

Genetic factors appear to tell only part of the story of antisocial personality disorder. While certain genes may carry an increased risk of “sociopathic” behavior, they might lead to the development of ASPD only when certain negative influences are also present during the individual’s early development. 

Childhood trauma appears to be an especially important predictor of antisocial behavior. Researchers found that physical abuse from adults could be a particularly strong precursor of ASPD, though sexual and emotional abuse may also increase the risk of this condition. 

Being harmed and belittled by caregivers may interfere with a child’s ability to develop appropriate models of mutual trust, respect, and empathy. The callous, self-centered attitude common in ASPD could be a coping mechanism resulting in part from the inability to rely on parents for security. 

A lack of prosocial and empathetic role models might also play a significant part in predisposing children to ASPD. Antisocial behavior from parents seems to increase the incidence of similar actions in children, even when those children are adopted and do not share a genetic background with their caregivers. Though inherited characteristics may strengthen this association, it does seem likely that callous, manipulative, and antagonistic attitudes may be learned in childhood.

Childhood poverty may also increase the risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. It may be possible that the stressors associated with living in an impoverished environment, such as more frequent exposure to crime and violence, could substantially raise the odds of children showing symptoms of ASPD. Still, researchers suggest that this effect could be reversible through parental warmth, supervision, and support.

How does neurology influence sociopathic behavior?

Untangling the root causes of antisocial personality disorder may require examining how this condition manifests in the brain. Studies have identified a few key brain areas that appear to be smaller in people with ASPD, including the following:

  • Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC): This region seems to be related to decision-making and assessing the consequences of behavior. Its reduction could contribute to the lack of responsiveness to punishment or other negative outcomes typically associated with ASPD. 
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC): Closely linked to the OFC, this area seems to relate to emotional regulation, behavioral regulation, and interpersonal relationships. Dysfunction in this area could partly explain why people with ASPD frequently struggle with empathy and impulse control.
  • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC): This may be one of the areas of the brain responsible for moral decision-making, along with capacities like planning, risk assessment, threat-based anxiety, and understanding the perspectives of other people.
  • Cingulate cortex: The functions of this region of the brain may not be fully understood, but they likely include learning, motivation, and self-reflection.

More research may be required to identify the exact mechanisms by which these neurological differences influence antisocial behavior. Still, studies of the brain regions listed above may one day prove to be key to understanding ASPD.

Can a sociopath ever change?

As a personality disorder, ASPD may persist throughout an individual’s life. A reduced response to punishments and negative consequences tends to be a common feature of ASPD, so people with this type of condition may not see any reason to change their behavior. This can make them unlikely to seek help and more likely to drop out of treatment when they do seek it.

Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no chance for a person with antisocial personality disorder to change. For one thing, multiple studies have found that many of these individuals naturally display less aggressive and criminal behavior as they get older.

Perhaps more importantly, some research findings suggest that those with ASPD might benefit from therapy despite their difficulties. With treatment, it may be possible for “sociopaths” to control their impulses, avoid harmful behavior, and relate to other people.
Therapy Can Help You Process Antisocial Behavior

Benefits of online therapy

If you think you or someone you know may have antisocial tendencies, discussing it with a therapist may be helpful. The behaviors characteristic of ASPD can result in tumultuous interpersonal relationships and serious emotional strain. Thus, you might feel more comfortable discussing these sensitive topics with an online therapist rather than in person. Many people find that remote counseling offers a greater sense of control and comfort that can enhance the therapeutic process.

Effectiveness of online therapy

While more research is likely needed regarding the efficacy of online therapy for ASPD, existing evidence suggests that online and in-person therapy tend to produce the same client outcomes. Working with an online therapist may be an efficient and convenient way to address antisocial personality disorder and related mental health challenges.


It may be common to think of a sociopathic personality as an innate, unchangeable dysfunction. Still, there’s considerable evidence that an antisocial personality can be significantly affected by environmental and social factors. Though ASPD does seem to have a genetic component, both nature and nurture may contribute to its development. To learn more about personality disorders or to receive professional support, it can be helpful to work with a therapist online or in person.
Explore antisocial personality disorder in therapy
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