Sociopath Definition And Symptoms

By: Michael Puskar

Updated July 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lindi Herrin, LPC

For some people, it's easy to identify a sociopath, but for others, the signs might be quite subtle. Nonetheless, sociopathic behavior and traits tend to cause problems in all types of relationships, and living with a sociopath can be particularly difficult. In this article, you will learn the formal definition of a sociopath, along with common indicators that someone might be one and how to address their behavior.

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A sociopath is someone who has specific and significant deficits when it comes to social norms. Sociopathy, also known as antisocial personality disorder, is widely known as a condition in which an individual does not care about or pay attention to another person’s feelings. In general, sociopaths lack conscience and empathy, and they exhibit a high degree of antisocial behavior with little to no remorse. Sociopathic behavior does not always lead to criminal behavior, but there is a link between the two.

General antisocial behavior is part of what it means to be a sociopath, but to fully understand it, we need to go a little deeper. Sociopaths struggle to experience most emotions. They may feel rage and anger, but this does not imply that all are violent. They may also feel some guilt or remorse on occasion, but this does not stop them from acting inappropriately.

High-functioning sociopaths generally have a higher than average IQ, and they function within society without notice. They tend to be charming, intelligent, and predatory. They pretend to have emotions they do not possess, and they know how to take advantage of others. Being mean or selfish does not mean that someone has this disorder, but these are common warning signs.

Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy

The term "sociopath" is often used interchangeably with the term "psychopath" because both have similar traits. That said, current health news categorizes these individuals into two distinct types of people. However, they do fall under the same mental disorder, being antisocial personality disorder. But, there are differences between the two. Primarily, the difference is how they start getting symptoms. Experts believe that sociopathic behaviors are created, whereas someone is born with psychopathic behaviors.

Many behaviors can be viewed as sociopathic, so understanding sociopathy requires more than just a basic definition. Furthermore, the term "sociopathy" has been abandoned in favor of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Antisocial personality disorder is the specific name of the disorder, whereas sociopath has become more of a colloquial term used to describe someone with the disorder.

Nature vs. Nurture and The Sociopath

The phrase "nature vs. nurture" was conceived by Francis Galton in the late 1800s. Since that time, it has been used to explain reasons why mental disorders might occur and how they progress. Nature includes all triggers and/or causes that stem from genetics and biological makeup such as hormonal and chemical imbalances. Nurture includes all environmental factors such as upbringing, family dynamics, economics, social situations, and traumatic experiences.

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Biology (nature) and environment (nurture) both play a part in the development of antisocial personality disorder. On the nature side, there is an area in the brain called the prefrontal cortex, and it's responsible for controlling judgment, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, and decision making. It's hypothesized that people with antisocial personality disorder may have chemical imbalances in this area of the brain, preventing the prefrontal cortex from sending out messages that control appropriate behavior.

The genetic aspects of antisocial personality disorder are not completely understood at this time, but many different genes can increase the chances of someone developing antisocial personality traits. This is particularly true if the environment also supports sociopathology. Environmental factors include problems in early childhood development such as abuse, trauma, and neglect. As such, the antisocial behavior of a sociopath often begins in childhood, but a diagnosis is generally not made until the age of 18. In the interim, sociopathic traits are sometimes called "Conduct Disorder" in adolescents.

Signs of a Sociopath

It can be difficult to spot sociopaths because they know how to fit in socially. In fact, sociopaths can decide to fit in or remain aloof. They are often quite social and charming, but they do not feel the emotional gratification that most people gain from socializing. To identify a sociopath, look for the following traits:

Antisocial Behavior

  • Disregard for the rights of others
  • Disregard for the feelings of others
  • Exploiting others for personal gain
  • Criminal acts

A disregard for the rights of others is not always obvious because a sociopath knows how to manipulate others. However, sociopaths have extreme emotional deficits, so they do not care how they make others feel while they pursue their goals. Their lack of morals, high impulsivity, and their tendency to manipulate others often result in 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

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Sociopaths have moral deficits that can impact their ability to maintain close and lasting relationships. However, because they lack emotions and do not want or need the love of others, they rarely have the desire to form close relationships. In general, sociopaths are not interested in the wants and needs of others, but they can appear to be caring, loving, and empathetic to get other people to do what they want.

Their interpersonal deficits affect all of their relationships. At work, the lack of empathy and morals makes it easy for a sociopath to be seen as a social climber or to get quick promotions. At home, a sociopathic parent never forms normal emotional bonds with their child; instead the parent-child relationship is based on control and manipulation.

Affect/Affective Deficits

  • Inability to feel most emotions
  • Experiences only anger and rage

Anger and rage are the only two emotions a sociopath can experience. Minimal guilt or remorse may occur on rare occasions, but this does not stop poor behaviors. Most sociopaths do not experience any other emotions. Electroencephalograph tests (EEG's) recording the electrical activity in the brain show that the brain of a sociopath does not exhibit the same electrical impulses as a normal brain. As such, a sociopath may not have the ability to "feel" emotions the way others do. However, they do understand what these feelings are, and they know how to mimic them.

Sociopaths may react when they feel anger or rage, and this can make them dangerous. These heated, and sometimes violent, emotions can also trigger a desire for revenge. This is particularly concerning when dealing with a sociopath because their antisocial behavior and their interpersonal and affect deficits not only mask their true intentions, but they also pave the way for criminal behavior.

Sociopath Diagnosis and Treatment

As mentioned previously, EEG's show that known sociopaths have unusual electrical activity in the brain. Specifically, diagnostic EEG's of event-related potentials show that sociopaths have different reactions in the brain when shown images that should evoke strong emotions. Many neuropsychologists point out that, yes, 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.

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The right psychological evaluation can help determine if it is appropriate to diagnose someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Repeated behaviors that demonstrate the symptoms of a sociopath must be evaluated to gain insight into sociopathic behavior. When appropriate, mental health professionals who use the DSM-5 for diagnosis would diagnose antisocial personality disorder, and this diagnosis covers sociopathology.

That said, treating sociopaths is notoriously difficult because they tend to have persistent patterns of violating the rights of others, and they only seem to care about themselves. This makes them unlikely to seek treatment.

Psychotherapy is recommended as the primary treatment for sociopathic symptoms. Due to the lack of emotions in sociopaths, psychotherapy aims to teach behaviors that are pro-social, focusing on behavior change and skill-building. Methods include a combination of behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and personality reconstruction techniques.

There are no specific medications to treat sociopaths. However, other co-occurring diagnoses are often present, such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, and substance use. Antipsychotics can be used to address aggressive behaviors, whereas anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety medications can assist with other co-occurring symptoms.

How BetterHelp Can Help

Finding a therapist who knows how to address sociopathic behaviors can be overwhelming, but with BetterHelp, a licensed therapist is just a click away. BetterHelp offers online counseling and therapy sessions, and they can both address sociopathic behavior or help you heal if you've been affected by the actions of a sociopath. Read the reviews below to learn how BetterHelp counselors have helped people with similar experiences.

Counselor Reviews

"Rickie is very good at understanding what you are trying to convey and provides constructive ways in which to change your thoughts and behaviors. She is kind and supportive in her communications. She likes to get you to figure out why you are doing certain behaviors so that you can change any negative behaviors."

"Blaire has been amazing. She's super supportive, empathetic, and kind. She has helped me gain confidence in myself and learn that it is okay to enforce healthy boundaries in my relationships."

Conclusion

Now that you've read this article, you understand the definition of a sociopath and you know more about typical sociopathic behavior. As mentioned before, helping sociopaths is often challenging, but with a combination of medication and therapy, they can learn to manage their behavior. If you've been affected by a sociopath's actions, know that you can seek help, too. Support is only a click away.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the traits of a sociopath?

A sociopath is a person who uses others for personal gain and exhibits little if any remorse for criminal acts and antisocial behavior. Psychopaths and sociopaths share similar characteristics with one primary difference, according to psychology researchers the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath is that sociopaths are a result of their environment where psychopaths are said to be "born."

What is difference between a psychopath and sociopath? 

Many people may be asking, “What’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? The main difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is nature vs. nurture. Psychopaths are born with their characteristics while sociopaths are created as a result of their environments. Whether a person is deemed a psychopath or sociopath is based on embedded traits vs. installed traits.

What is the definition of a narcissistic sociopath?

A sociopath meets the typical narcissist sociopath definition that includes having ongoing thoughts of grandiosity or superiority, the need for constant attention and approval, and a complete lack of regard for the feelings of others.

Are sociopaths dangerous?

Psychopaths or sociopaths are capable of living completely normal lives with the assistance of ongoing treatment. The primary treatment recommended for psychopaths and sociopaths is psychotherapy. Medications may also be prescribed if concurrent mental health disorders or illness is discovered upon reviewing psychopaths and sociopaths medical and mental health history.

What creates a sociopath?

When it comes to studying antisocial behavior, the sociopath and a psychopath share many characteristics. The primary difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that a psychopath is born with their antisocial tendencies while sociopaths are created by traumatic circumstances and early childhood neglect.

How do you outwit a sociopath?

Since a sociopath has little regard for the feelings and emotions of others, it's' not recommended to try to outwit them. If you find yourself in an inescapable situation involving a sociopath and a psychopath, the best thing to do is to show as little emotion as possible, keep the conversation short, and exit the situation as quickly and safely as possible.

Is Joker a psychopath or sociopath?

In order to determine the true nature of the Joker character a licensed mental health professional would need to subject the person in question to a full battery of psychological assessments. At first glance, it would appear that the Joker character is exhibiting traits of both the sociopath and the psychopath at different points in time.

What is a high functioning sociopath?

A "high-functioning" sociopath is a sociopath who also has a high IQ and is adept at carrying out daily tasks. The primary difference in a high-functioning sociopath is that they are able to complete daily tasks and live normal lives without being completely affected by their disorders.

What triggers narcissism?

Psychology experts believe that narcissism is linked to early childhood neglect or trauma that caused the child in question to develop an inadequate sense of self. As a result, the person may seek unwarranted adoration, attention, and praise in inappropriate situations in their lives in an attempt to feel validated and whole.

What is the root of narcissism?

The root of narcissism is the feeling of inadequacy or powerlessness. People who didn't get enough emotional support and attention in early childhood may carry that desire for attention into adulthood and make what seems to be unreasonable demands for attention on their family, friends, and romantic partners.

How does a narcissistic mother behave?

A narcissistic mother often puts the needs of herself above those of her children with the intention of meeting her own needs at all costs. Narcissists parents are often neglectful or completely unaware of the emotions of their children, spouses, and other family members.

Do sociopaths cry?

Sociopaths may cry if they feel insulted, are faking emotions, or have a physical injury. If a sociopath is crying it is likely due to one of these reasons and not due to the experience of emotions as sociopaths have difficulty feeling and expressing genuine emotions.

Can sociopaths love their family?

With proper intervention and treatment like psychotherapy, sociopaths can learn to curb their narcissistic behaviors and re-engage with their families. Sociopaths can learn how to experience genuine emotions like love and sympathy through cognitive-behavioral therapy and behavior-modification exercises.

How common are sociopaths?

According to mental health and medical experts sociopaths make up less than five percent of the total population of the US. While this number is small, it may be artificially low due to the fact that most sociopaths don't self-identify or seek mental health treatment on their own.

Do sociopaths have friends?

Most sociopaths keep friends and acquaintances around in an effort to blend in with the rest of society. They also have another important reason for having family and friends around. That reason is to make sure that their individual needs can be met by using a friend, family member, or romantic partner to meet their needs.

Do psychopaths have friends?

Like sociopaths, psychopaths may appear to have friends in order to blend in with the rest of society. Due to their nature and inability to experience deep emotional connections and bonds, it's unlikely that a psychopath will experience friendship the way that most other people do.

Are sociopaths depressed?

In many cases, people who suffer from sociopathy also suffer from concurrent mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder. These chronic mental health conditions can aggravate sociopathic tendencies if left untreated. If you suspect that you or someone you know is a sociopath and want to get help, contact the mental health professionals at BetterHelp.com to get started.

What are the 7 symptoms of a sociopath?

Sociopaths exist on a spectrum, which means that they may exhibit these symptoms to vastly varying degrees. However, there are 7 symptoms that often show up in those with antisocial personality disorders. Remember, individuals must have a medical advice diagnosis to be “labeled” as a sociopath but understanding these symptoms can allow you to be on the lookout. The first symptom is pathological lying/manipulation. Many sociopaths will tell lies, break promises, or gaslight people in order to get what they want. Alongside this, the second symptom is having a lack of morality and being prone to breaking rules. Many sociopaths have no true sense of morality and cannot understand what is “right” and what is “wrong”. The third symptom of many sociopaths is their extreme lack of empathy. They are unable to feel for others, and in fact, their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that regulates empathy) often has less cells than the average individual. The fourth symptom is the superiority complexes and narcissistic traits that sociopaths often have. They are self-absorbed and many believe that they are better than everyone that surrounds them. The fifth main symptom is their tendency to gaslight and psychologically bully their peers. They often utilize their abilities of lying and manipulation to psychologically abuse or hurt people around them. The sixth symptom is their lack of remorse. Many do not feel remorse, and in fact, they will often flip the script and invent a victimhood personality for whatever situation they have created. The seventh and final symptom of sociopathy is the individual’s tendency to at times, be a “situational” sociopath. They exhibit kindness, grace, and respect towards some groups, and target groups they see as “weaker” or lesser for manipulation and abuse.

What is the true definition of a sociopath?

The true definition of a sociopath is someone who is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, which causes an inability to feel emotional ties or bonds with other people.

What is a sociopath’s weakness?

The difference between a sociopath and most people is that they don't seek out lasting connections and relationships. This can make it difficult to spot the weakness of a sociopath. The primary weakness of a sociopath is their narcissistic tendencies. Due to a constant need for attention and complete lack of regard for others -- sociopaths often make critical mistakes that reveal their true intentions. Another of a sociopath’s weaknesses is not truly understanding human emotion. They rely heavily on logic. They may expect an individual to take certain steps or move forward in a certain way based upon this logic and reasoning. However, they may not expect a person to act based upon emotions. This can intervene with their goals and confuse them.

How can you tell if someone’s a sociopath?

It can be quite difficult to spot a sociopath, as many are very good at blending in with the neurotypical population. However, look out for people that exhibit superficial charm and high intelligence, individuals who are unreliable, often lie or manipulate others, or those who seem to feel no shame or guilt over their actions. Sociopaths can also be identified for their egocentricity, inability to react emotionally, or having few close emotional ties.

What are the three steps to identify a sociopath?

The three steps to identify a sociopath, or understand whether someone has sociopathic traits, is known as the WEB method. The WEB method stands for (their) Words, (your) Emotions, and (their) Behavior.

Their Words: Look out for big promises, lies about their past or present, or unreliable narratives that do not match up with what you know about them. Their words can be extremely positive, or they may be used to blame and gaslight you.

Your Emotions: Many times, people can tell when a person has warning signs. Pay attention to how they may make you feel—stupid, guilty, at fault—over what they say or do.

Their Behavior: The easiest way to spot a sociopath is to focus only on their behavior and ignore their words. This is called the 90% rule. Pay attention to the things that they do that 90% of other people do not. Make sure you ask yourself if you would engage in this action, or if your close friends and family would engage in this action. If the answer is “No”, 90% of the time, they could possibly be a sociopath.

Do sociopaths love?

While many sociopaths are charming, suave and often very charismatic, the hallmark of their personality is that they only engage in self-serving behaviors. They value themselves above all others, even those that they are in familial or romantic relationships with. While sociopaths are good at faking love, especially when it serves them, they can never truly love.

Do sociopaths apologize?

Sociopaths do not feel remorse or guilt, but that does not mean they do not apologize. Sociopaths will evaluate a situation to understand what the best possible move is for them. If apologizing will further their goals and allow them to gain trust from another person, they will apologize. However, they will not mean it.

Does a sociopath know they are a sociopath?

Many times, it takes a while for sociopaths to understand that others feel differently and have the ability to feel emotions or empathy for other people. However, as they move through their lives, they will generally become aware that others are different and that they are sociopaths.

Do sociopaths feel anxiety?

No. They do not have the emotional capability to experience anxiety, paranoia and other emotions driven by feeling a certain way. They approach all situations based upon logical reasoning, and as anxiety is largely exhibited in situations where the trigger/item causing anxiety is illogical (for example, someone with anxiety may worry that they have left their house unlocked, even though they have checked multiple times), the sociopath will not experience these feelings.

How do I deal with a sociopath?

It is not advisable for many individuals to “deal” with sociopaths by themselves. The best way to deal with a sociopath is by disengaging and removing yourself from their influence. They will immediately begin to attempt to manipulate you and gain something, so not revealing emotions and avoiding the sociopath as much as possible can save you from their harmful influence.


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