Is There A Difference Between Sociopathy And Antisocial Personality Disorder?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

These days, it’s become common to refer to someone who engages in cruel, destructive, or aggressive behavior as a sociopath. But what does that term really mean? The word “sociopath” originated as a psychological term, though it’s no longer widely used by clinicians to describe mental health conditions. We’ll look at the original definition of a sociopath and what the word means today, while also clearing up some misconceptions about the idea of sociopathy.

In simple terms, a sociopath is someone who experiences little to no shame, guilt, remorse, or empathy. They generally aren’t concerned with the possibility of negative consequences for their actions, which can lead them to engage in risky, impulsive, and often harmful behavior.

See below for some characteristic signs of sociopathy — as well as some things that people often incorrectly associate with this term.

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What is the definition of a sociopath?

In simple terms, a sociopath is someone who may not experience shame, guilt, remorse or empathy. They generally aren’t concerned with the possibility of negative consequences for their actions, which can lead them to engage in risky, impulsive, or harmful behavior.

The concept of sociopathy dates back to the early 20th century. Researcher George Partridge coined the term “sociopathy” to describe someone who persistently disregarded social norms, particularly in ways that hurt another person’s feelings or caused them harm. 

Though the term became popular in media and pop culture, the American Psychological Association now considers it outdated. It’s been replaced by the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a condition marked by a persistent tendency to disregard the rights and feelings of other people. Though ASPD cannot be diagnosed in children, it may be diagnosed if someone with conduct disorder continues displaying symptoms once they’re 18 years old.

Unfortunately, many people continue to use the word “sociopath” as though it had a precise clinical meaning. When you run into articles, shows, or podcasts claiming to explain “how to spot a sociopath”, keep in mind that they may not be working from an up-to-date understanding of psychological terminology.

Sociopath vs. psychopath

Partridge created the word “sociopathy” as a replacement for “psychopathy”, which he viewed as an imprecise and vague term. However, both words remain fairly common in popular usage. As a result, many people are confused about the distinction between “psychopaths” and “sociopaths”.

Like sociopathy, psychopathy is no longer used by the APA. However, some psychological researchers do regard psychopathy as a specific subcategory of antisocial personality disorder, identified by traits such as:

  • Extreme impulsivity
  • Predatory or manipulative behavior for personal gain and self-interest
  • Lack of concern about breaking rules
  • Inflated, unrealistic self-image
  • Inability to feel remorse for harming others
  • Exaggerated, dramatic expressions of emotion

Though researchers are not sure what causes antisocial personality disorder, it likely develops through a combination of inherited genes (genetics) and environmental factors (such as household stability and parenting styles).

Research indicates that only around one-third of all individuals with ASPD score highly on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, the most widely used measure of psychopathic personality traits. Therefore, it’s not accurate to use “psychopath” as a synonym for “person with ASPD”. It’s better understood as a personality type associated with a high risk of predatory or violent behavior.

What are the characteristics of a sociopathy?

Antisocial personality disorder — which is what most people mean by “sociopathy” — is based on several distinct but related factors. Here are some of the criteria that mental health professionals use to diagnose ASPD:

Limited empathy

Someone with an antisocial personality may have a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. Other people’s pain, sadness, or discomfort often don’t bother them. This can make them more likely to harm others, since they aren’t bothered by negative reactions.

Inability to feel remorse

Since they tend not to be concerned with the feelings of others, people with ASPD often don’t experience guilt or shame about doing inappropriate, offensive, or hurtful things. This is true even if their behavior is discovered; a person with this personality type is rarely bothered by the fact that other people dislike them unless it stops them from getting something they want.

Self-centeredness

A person with ASPD tends to have goals and desires that revolve only around themself. These individuals are rarely interested in relationships with other people for their own sake. Instead, they tend to be motivated mostly by status, power, wealth, and pleasure. They may care more about winning and dominating others than being liked.

Limited ability to maintain relationships

Perhaps as a result of the traits described above, people with this disorder may be less able than others to sustain friendship or romance in the long term. Some report cutting off relationships with little hesitation or warning once they become too difficult. In other cases, their lack of emotional intimacy may keep them from forming lasting bonds.

Manipulation

One common characteristic of people with antisocial personality disorder is a surface-level charm that makes them good at persuading others to go along with their wishes. They may lie frequently but appear very sincere, since they don’t experience guilt when deceiving others. Some individuals with ASPD come across as very charismatic and confident, perhaps because they genuinely don’t care what others think of them.

Reckless, impulsive behavior

Antisocial personality disorder can make it hard for people to truly care about what might happen to them in the future. This might result in poor planning and a tendency to act on whims without much thought for the consequences. Those with ASPD often become bored easily and may deliberately do risky things simply because they’re exciting.

Irritability and anger

Some people with ASPD are easily angered and tend to lash out or seek revenge in response to seemingly small offenses. They may experience persistent feelings of hostility that cause them to come across as tactless, petty, and cruel. This may also manifest as animal cruelty or mistreatment.

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What sociopathy is not

Some myths about ASPD have remained widespread despite little basis in reality. This may be due to works of popular media that discuss psychological concepts like personality and other mental disorders without the nuance and perspective that mental health professionals can provide. Here are a few things many people associate with “sociopaths” that are not actually characteristics of ASPD. 

Narcissism and ASPD are different

Many people believe narcissism is sociopathy-related (or that the two terms are synonymous), but psychologists consider narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) distinct from ASPD. Though people with ASPD may act selfishly, they don’t necessarily have the inflated, unrealistic image of themselves that characterizes a narcissistic personality.

There are some similarities between the two personality types. People with NPD or ASPD may both lack empathy, for example. They may also deceive and manipulate people to get what they want. However, a narcissistic personality tends to involve a craving for attention and admiration, while people with antisocial personality disorder are often indifferent to how others view them.

Antisocial doesn’t always mean violent

When some people hear the word “sociopath”, they immediately picture serial killers or organized crime figures. Though research does back up the idea that those with ASPD are more inclined toward violence and aggression than the general population, not everyone with this disorder will become a violent criminal. Some are capable of learning to interact successfully with society, becoming successful professionals who do not commit criminal offenses.

Those with ASPD aren’t beyond help

Many people assume that antisocial personality disorder is completely untreatable and unchangeable, so people with this illness will be a constant threat to others. However, lifetime studies of people with ASPD suggest that their tendency toward harmful behavior often decreases over time, especially with therapeutic support and family involvement. Though these individuals may still have difficulties relating to others, they can become reasonably well-adjusted to society. Strong social bonds appear to make this more likely, perhaps by providing incentives to seek treatment.

What if you think you or someone you know has ASPD?

Are you seeking to learn more about ASPD because you suspect someone in your life might have this disorder? It’s possible, though researchers estimate that people with this disorder make up only 1-4% of the population. 

Identifying ASPD in others can be difficult. Your best bet may be to evaluate the other person’s behavior rather than their words. Do they often:

  • Take advantage of you?
  • Deceive you?
  • Attempt to control or dominate you?
  • Disregard promises they’ve made?
  • Display unpredictable aggression?
  • Harm you?

Regardless of their excuses or explanations for this behavior, you can decide for yourself whether you want someone who does these things in your life. Antisocial personality disorder can be a risk factor for partner abuse.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

It might also be a good idea to seek professional help. Interacting with a person who displays antisocial behaviors may be stressful and emotionally difficult. A mental health professional may be able to assist you in working through your feelings, advocating for yourself, helping you set boundaries, and making positive changes in your life. 

If you think you might meet the criteria for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, you might also want to talk with a therapist. Though more research is needed on treatment approaches for ASPD, there’s some evidence that therapy may be able to reduce negative feelings, destructive behavior, and interpersonal problems. 

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Consider online therapy

Whether you’re interested in counseling due to your own antisocial tendencies or those of someone close to you, you may want to seek help online. Therapy conducted over the internet can provide a greater sense of comfort and control which might make it easier to discuss difficult interpersonal challenges. It may also be easier to locate a therapist through web-based programs than through traditional channels.

Numerous research studies support the effectiveness of online therapy. A 2007 meta-analysis of the psychological literature found that internet-based treatment was equally effective as in-person therapy. The authors concluded that previous studies “provide[d] strong support for the adoption of online psychological interventions.” BetterHelp can assist you in finding a therapist over the web.

Takeaway

The term “sociopath” is not currently used in clinical practice, but in everyday use, it typically refers to a person with an antisocial personality disorder. This diagnosis involves a lack of remorse and empathy and a tendency toward manipulative, hostile behavior. Despite common misconceptions, ASPD does not always mean a person will display violent or criminal behavior.
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