Sociopath Definition And Symptoms
Updated October 03, 2018
Reviewer Lindi Herrin, LPC
The term sociopath is often used interchangeably with a psychopathas the two terms have similar traits. Understanding sociopathy requires more than just a basic definition as there are many behaviors that can be viewed as sociopathic. Today, the term sociopath has been abandoned in favor of AntisocialPersonality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Antisocial personality disorder is the name of the disorder whereas sociopath is not.
Despite the terms psychopath and sociopath being used interchangeably, 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.
An area in the brain termed the prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling judgment, impulsiveness, aggressiveness and decision making. It is hypothesized that persons with antisocial personality disorder may have chemical imbalances in this area of the brain that negatively impact the prefrontal cortex from sending out messages that control appropriate behavior. Biology (nature) and the environment (nurture) play a part in antisocial personality disorder. The genetic aspectsare not completely understood. However, nature and nature together seem to contribute to sociopathology.
Many different genes are involved in increasing the chances for sociopathology. If genetic predispositions exist such as chemical brain imbalances in the prefrontal cortex and the environment supports sociopathology, there is an increased likelihood that antisocial personality traits will develop. Both nature and nurture work together to create a sociopath. Antisocial personality disorder is further exacerbated by such environmental factors as early childhood development, abuse, trauma, and neglect. The antisocial behavior of a sociopath often begins in childhood, but an Antisocial Personality diagnosis is generally not made until the age of 18. Sociopathic traits are sometimes termed Conduct Disorder in adolescents.
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 and exhibit a high degree of antisocial behavior and attitudes with little to no remorse.
To define sociopathology as lack of conscience and empathy, or to simply exhibit antisocial behavior and attitudes is only half of the definition. To fully understand what it means to be a sociopath, the definition needs to go a little deeper. A sociopath experiences feeling such as rage and anger, but this does not mean that all are violent. They have a tremendous deficit when it comes to experiencing other emotions. The sociopath has a weak conscience and may feel some guilt or remorse, but this does not stop the behavior from occurring.
High functioning sociopaths generally have a better 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. Simply because someone is mean or selfish does not mean that they have this disorder, but these are common warning signs.
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 are often quite social and charming. 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:
- Disregard for the rights of others
- Disregard for the feelings of others
- Exploit others for personal gain
- Criminal acts
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 as personal gain is their ultimate goal. The lack of morals, high impulsivity, and manipulation often results in criminal acts.
- 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 which impacts their ability to maintain close and lasting relationships. The desire to form close relationships is not apparent as they lack emotions and do not want or need the love of others. Sociopaths are not interested in the wants and needs of others and can appear to be caring, loving, and empathetic to get what they want from others.
Interpersonal deficits effect work relationships as well as family relationships. The lack of empathy and morals makes it easy for a sociopath to quickly be seen as a social climber or get quick promotions at a job. A sociopathic parent never forms normal emotional bonds with their child and the parent-child relationship is based on control and manipulation.
- Lack of emotions
- Can feel the emotions of anger and rage
Anger and rage are two emotions a sociopath experience. Some minimal guilt or remorse may be admitted but this does not interfere with poor behaviors. Most do not experience other emotions. EEG's show that the brain of a 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 minimally feels emotions like fear, remorse, or guilt, they have no problem behaving unscrupulously in relationships and careers.
Sociopaths may react to emotions of anger and rage, and this can make them dangerous. Other emotions temper anger and rage yet with sociopathology, this is often not the case. 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 determine if an individual is appropriate for the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. 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 sociopathology.
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. Psychotherapy which focuses on behavior change and skill building is used widely with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Due to the lack of depth of emotions in sociopaths, psychotherapy goals focus on teaching behaviors that are pro-social. Methods include a combination of behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy and personality reconstruction techniques. Psychotherapy is recommended as the primary treatment for sociopathic symptoms. There are no specific medications to treat sociopaths. However, other co-occurring diagnosis are often present such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and substance use. Anti-psychotics can be used to address aggressive behaviors whereas anti-depressants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications can assist with co-occurring symptoms.