Sociopath Definition And Symptoms

Updated September 04, 2018



The term sociopath is often used interchangeably with a psychopath, and the two have similar traits. Understanding sociopathy requires more than just a basic definition; there are many behaviors that can be viewed as sociopathic behaviors. Today, the term sociopath has been abandoned in favor of antisocial personality disorder in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition). Although antisocial personality disorder is the term used in the DSM 5, this term covers sociopath; sociopath is no longer an individual disorder, but it is understood as part of the definition used by the DSM 5.

In many areas, psychopath and sociopath are used interchangeably, but many researchers consider them to be distinctly unique. Sociopathy has its roots in the genetic, biological, and environmental makeup of an individual. Both nurture and nature play a significant part in producing a sociopath.

Nature vs. Nurture And The Sociopath

The phrase nature vs. nurture was conceived and theorized in modern psychology by Francis Galton, in the late 1800's. From the time of Galton forward, psychology has used this debate as one of the ways to formulate theories as to why mental disorders occur and how they progress. Nature includes all triggers/causes that stem from genetics and biological makeup such as hormonal and chemical imbalances. Nurture includes all environmental factors such as upbringing, family dynamics, economic, social, and traumatic experiences.


The nature of sociopathy is shown in EEG's and in the fact that it can run in families. The genetic trigger for becoming a sociopath is not completely understood, but there is a strong correlation between a parent who is a sociopath passing it on to their children. Nature plays a big role in creating a sociopath, but it also needs a nudge from nurture.

If there is a predisposition for sociopathy in a family, nurture can trigger it. Both nature and nurture work together to create a sociopath. If the genetics are there, nurture will take up where nature left off. Predisposition for an antisocial personality disorder is further exacerbated by the environment in which a child is raised; abuse, trauma, and neglect all play a big role in triggering sociopathy.

Definition Of A Sociopath

A sociopath has specific and significant deficits when it comes to social norms. Sociopathic behavior does not always lead to criminal behavior, but there is a link between the two. Sociopaths lack conscience and empathy, exhibit a high degree of antisocial behavior and attitudes with little to no remorse.

To define sociopath as lack of conscience and empathy, or to exhibit antisocial behavior and attitudes is only half the definition. To fully understand what it means to be a sociopath the definition needs to go a little deeper. A sociopath experiences are feeling such as rage and anger, but they have a tremendous deficit when it comes to other emotions. A sociopath does not experience emotions as others, but they know what they are and what they mean to others.


A sociopath is sometimes broken down into two types, sociopath, and high functioning sociopath. A high functioning sociopath usually has a high IQ, and they function within society without notice. High functioning sociopaths are charming, intelligent, and predatory, they pretend to have emotions they do not possess, and they know how to take advantage of others.

Symptoms Of A Sociopath

The symptoms of a sociopath are not easy to spot because they know how to fit in socially. A sociopath "decides" to fit in or remain aloof; they have no problem socializing at a party with charm and personable chit-chat. However, the emotional gratification most people gain from socializing is not something a sociopath experiences. Recognizing the symptoms of a sociopath is difficult but not impossible, the following are symptoms and signs to look for:

  • Antisocial Behavior
    • Disregard for the rights of others
    • Disregard for the feelings of others
    • Exploit others for personal gain
    • Criminal acts
    • Addiction

The antisocial behavior of a sociopath begins in childhood, but a diagnosis cannot be made until the age of 18. A disregard for the rights of others is a symptom that is not always obvious because a sociopath knows how to manipulate others. Sociopaths have extreme emotional deficits and do not care how they make others feel, and they will use feelings for personal gain. Lack of morals, high impulsivity, and addiction lead to criminal acts.


  • Interpersonal Deficits
    • Lack of empathy
    • Lack of morals
    • No desire to form close relationships
    • No interest in the wants or needs of others

Sociopaths lack empathy and have moral deficits outside the norm; this makes them incapable of forming close and lasting relationships. The desire to form close relationships is not apparent in a sociopath, they lack emotions and do not want or need the love of others. Sociopaths are not interested in the wants and needs of others. A sociopath can appear to be caring, loving, and empathetic to get what they want from others.

Interpersonal deficits effect work relationships as well family relationships. The lack of empathy and morals makes it easy for a sociopath to climb to the top of the heap through deceit. A sociopath parent never forms normal emotional bonds with their child and the parent-child relationship is based on control and manipulation.

Anger and rage are two emotions a sociopath experiences; most do not experience other emotions. EEG's show that the brain sociopath does not show the same electrical impulses as a normal brain. A sociopath may not have the ability to "feel" emotions the way others do, but they do understand what emotions are and they know how to mimic emotions. Because a sociopath does not feel emotions like fear, remorse, or guilt, they have no problem behaving unscrupulously in relationships and careers.


Sociopaths feel the emotions of anger and rage, and this can make them dangerous. Other emotions temper anger and rage, but in the sociopath, other emotions are not present. The emotions of anger and rage can trigger a desire for revenge. Revenge is particularly concerning when dealing with a sociopath because their antisocial behavior, interpersonal and affect deficits not only mask their true intentions but lend themselves to the propensity for criminal behavior.

Sociopath Diagnosis And Treatment

EEG tests or electroencephalograph tests record the electrical activity taking place in the brain. EEG's of known sociopaths show that their tests differ from the norm. Diagnostic EEG's of event-related potentials show that sociopaths do not register the same as the norm when shown images that should evoke strong emotions. Many neuropsychologists point out that sociopaths have abnormal brain function, and this abnormal function can be recorded and studied, but it takes more than an EEG to diagnose a sociopath.

The right psychological evaluation can help distinguish between the two and actions are more important and insightful than words. Repeated behaviors that demonstrate the symptoms of a sociopath must be evaluated to gain insight into sociopathic behavior. Mental health professionals who use the DSM 5 for diagnosis would diagnose APD (antisocial personality disorder), and this diagnosis covers both sociopath and psychopath.


Another way in which sociopathy may be diagnosed is the PCL-R (psychopathy check list revised). The PCL-R is an assessment tool used to determine psychopath/sociopathy. A mental health professional administers it during a structured interview. The psychologist/psychiatrist marks off traits and behaviors on the checklist and uses it to diagnose.

Sociopaths tend to have persistent patterns of violating the rights of others, manipulation, exploitation, and they seem to care only about themselves; so, is there treatment for sociopaths? There is no cure for sociopathic behavior, but there are ways of managing it.

Treating sociopaths is notoriously difficult, they do not respond to behavior modification or other types of psychotherapy. Sociopaths do not respond to punishment-based corrections like a prison, and medications for this disorder do not exist. Medications are meant to treat symptoms of a mental disorder; the symptoms of a sociopath are not symptoms that can be medicated.

Sociopaths respond most to positive reinforcement. It is almost impossible to provide positive reinforcement without a strong diagnosis of symptoms. Before positive reinforcement can be introduced, the Psychiatrist or psychologist must first understand what behaviors are present and then devise therapy that provides positive reinforcement. This type of positive reinforcement therapy was developed by Dr. Robert Hare, and it is the only treatment that seems to work.


Positive reinforcement therapy requires a logical, rational, approach because sociopaths use logic and rational to benefit themselves, they do not behave emotionally. When a patient behaves according to set rules an instant reward must be provided, this seems to be working in correctional settings. This treatment works if the patient believes the behavior is in their best interest, instant gratification and instant reward are always in the best interest of a sociopath.

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