Sociopathy And Empathy: Clearing Up Misconceptions

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Due to common misconceptions about mental health conditions like personality and conduct disorders, many people may have incorrect ideas about how sociopathy impacts a person's sense of empathy and emotional understanding. 

Mental health and the psychological community constantly grow and evolve, as does the language used. There are several terms, such as sociopathy, present in the research that are no longer included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Words like “sociopath, psychopath, psycho, psychopathic,” and “sociopathic” may be used as clinical descriptors to describe symptoms associated with certain mental health conditions, but they can be seen as offensive when used to describe a person.

The American Psychiatric Association states that “antisocial personality disorder may be one of the most misunderstood mental disorders.” 

Read on to learn more about the connection between antisocial personality disorder and empathy. 

Do you know how antisocial personality disorder impacts empathy?

What is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)?

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a mental health condition characterized by a persistent disregard for others’ rights, feelings, and safety. The lack of empathy is often a defining trait, but how it presents may differ for everyone with the condition. People with this condition may demonstrate impulsive or reckless behavior, seem selfish or arrogant, aggressive, irritable, violent, believe themselves outside the rules, or lie and manipulate for entertainment or personal gain. 

Some of the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder include:

  • Acting recklessly or with disregard for personal and other’s safety
  • Refusal to accept responsibility
  • Blaming others for problems
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Breaking the law
  • Destruction of property
  • Manipulating others
  • Frequent lying
  • Showing no remorse for actions or words that hurt others
  • Ability to mimic typical emotions and act witty or charming
  • Increased risk of alcohol or substance use disorders
  • Tendency to lie, steal, or instigate fights 
  • Frequent angry outbursts
  • Arrogance or seeing themselves as above or outside the rules
  • Difficulty maintaining long-term relationships

What is empathy and how is it related to ASPD?

Empathy is a complex set of emotions that can help people identify, understand, and respond to other people's emotional states. Empathy allows a person to act compassionately to make another person feel better. Generally, empathy encompasses understanding someone else's feelings, experiences, perspectives, needs, or intentions, even when different from your own.

Empathy can be categorized into different types. Cognitive empathy involves recognizing and understanding another person's feelings and experiences, enabling one to envision themselves in similar situations and better understand the other person's perspective. Emotional empathy entails experiencing someone else's emotions, leading to a shared emotional connection. Compassionate empathy is understanding someone's situation with a genuine desire to support or take action to alleviate the situation.

Although it may not be present in everyone with the disorder, people with antisocial personality disorder may experience challenges expressing empathy. For example, many people with ASPD may have trouble understanding others' emotions because the brains of people with antisocial personality disorders typically work differently from those without conduct disorders. Also, people with ASPD may consider themselves to exist outside of conventional social norms, leading them to disregard others’ feelings, ideas, and rights to achieve their own goals and desires. 

The following are signs of reduced empathy that may be present in people with ASPD:

  • Being overly critical or harshly judgmental of others
  • Having difficulty picturing themselves in other's circumstances because they'd do "better."
  • Disregarding others’ emotional reactions, believing them too sensitive
  • Inappropriate emotional responses that don't fit the situation
  • Trouble understanding how their words and actions affect others
  • Challenges in maintaining close, meaningful relationships
Getty/Xavier Lorenzo

Exploring common misconceptions about sociopathy and empathy

Empathy is often considered a fundamental part of developing meaningful social relationships. People with antisocial personality disorders often have reduced empathy, leading to many misconceptions about how the condition impacts someone's behavior and interpersonal interactions. Below are some of these misconceptions:

People with ASPD can’t feel empathy

There is more than one type of empathy and few concrete rules regarding mental illness. Some people with ASPD may not experience one kind of empathy. For example, they may not understand why a friend or loved one is upset about something, but they could be sad or upset that someone they care for is hurting. Like many emotional reactions, empathy is a spectrum; everyone experiences it at their unique individual level. 

All people with antisocial personalities are violent

While some people with ASPD demonstrate violent behavior, research shows that approximately only one-third of those diagnosed meet the criteria for psychopathy—which can be considered an extreme form of ASPD. 

It can be important to note that psychopathy is not a separate psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM-5; it is included as a group of behaviors and traits, such as impulsivity, lack of empathy or remorse, anger and aggression, absent deep emotional connections, and superficial charm. 

People with ASPD can’t have loving, functional relationships

Many people with antisocial personality disorder may experience challenges maintaining healthy relationships because they often disregard social obligations as unnecessary and may habitually consider others’ thoughts, feelings, or ideas unworthy of concern. These practices can make people with ASPD unreliable friends and romantic partners, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of the task. Someone with ASPD may show their love in unconventional ways.

What causes antisocial personality disorder?

While researchers have not identified a single cause of antisocial personality disorder, the medical community believes a complex interaction of multiple risk factors may cause it. 


Some people with ASPD may have biological risk factors such as physical brain differences like atypical serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurochemical that helps regulate mood and feelings of happiness. 


Environmental factors can include things a person has experienced, such as childhood trauma, abuse, or unstable family life. 


Personality disorders like ASPD may have a genetic component predisposing someone to develop the condition. However, there is no single specific genetic marker to indicate ASPD. 


Approximately half the people with antisocial personality disorder experience issues with alcohol or substance use disorders. 


Research suggests that people assigned male at birth may be more likely to develop antisocial personality disorder than people assigned female at birth. 

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.

Do you know how antisocial personality disorder impacts empathy?

How online therapy can help treat antisocial personality disorder? 

Combining regular psychotherapy treatments and medication for comorbid mental health conditions is often an effective way to treat and manage antisocial personality disorder. Therapy can teach practical coping skills to manage antisocial symptoms and healthy ways to reshape harmful or maladaptive thought and behavior patterns. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of ASPD, you may consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual teletherapy platform for the support and guidance of qualified mental health professionals. One of the benefits of online therapy is increased affordability and convenience, making it more accessible to a broader range of individuals. By engaging in therapy remotely, individuals with ASPD can overcome potential barriers, such as geographic limitations or mobility challenges, and receive therapeutic support from licensed professionals.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be particularly effective among the various therapeutic approaches used to address ASPD.CBT is frequently used to help patients examine the link between their thoughts and feelings. Research shows that online CBT can be as effective as in-person CBT in treating several mental health conditions, including personality disorders.


Antisocial personality disorder is a mental health condition characterized by a persistent disregard for others' rights and feelings, often accompanied by challenges in expressing empathy. However, the presence and expression of empathy can vary among individuals with ASPD, leading to common misconceptions about how ASPD affects individuals’ sense of empathy and how it impacts their behaviors and relationships. Online therapy can help reduce the impact of symptoms to manage the disorder.
Explore antisocial personality disorder in therapy
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