Sociopathy In Media: What They Get Right (And Wrong)

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), also sometimes known as sociopathy, is a mental health condition that is commonly portrayed in movies and television. Sometimes, the depiction of antisocial personality disorder in the media may lead to misconceptions about the condition. In this article, we’ll explore what antisocial personality disorder and how this condition is depicted in the media.

Think you may have symptoms of antisocial personality disorder?

What is antisocial personality disorder?

Antisocial personality disorder is a mental health condition generally characterized by a refusal to conform to society’s laws and expectations; persistent disregard for the feelings, safety, and rights of others; lack of conscience, remorse, and empathy; and reckless, impulsive, self-centered, or irresponsible behavior. 

Approximately one-third of people with antisocial personality disorder may demonstrate violent, criminal behavior that can indicate a loss of touch with reality or psychopathic traits as an extreme form of the condition. 

Updating the language surrounding antisocial personality disorder

The language used to describe mental health conditions and symptoms often changes as our understanding grows and evolves. For example, the terms “sociopath,” “sociopathic,” “psychopath,” and “psychopathic” can be considered clinical descriptors that may be used to describe undesirable behaviors associated with mental health conditions like personality disorders. However, they can be offensive or hurtful when colloquially used to describe a person. 

Common symptoms of antisocial personality disorder

  • Reckless behavior, often disregarding the safety of themselves and others
  • Refusal to accept responsibility and a tendency to blame others
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Frequently lying, deceiving, and manipulating others for personal gain or enjoyment
  • Lack of remorse or guilt when hurting others
  • An absent or diminished sense of empathy
  • Dismissive of the feelings, rights, and ideas of others
  • Increased risk of developing alcohol and substance use disorders
  • Arrogance and believing themselves superior to others
  • Trouble maintaining close friends and long-term relationships
  • Persistent disregard for the law, others’ property, or a conventional sense of right and wrong

Examining depictions of antisocial personality disorder in popular media

Mental health professionals have scrutinized decades’ worth of movies and television shows, identifying and rating the accuracy of the portrayals of ASPD in media. This can include characters with “dark triad” personality traits that display narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, sharing some common malevolent features. While this list is by no means complete, it can enable you to explore some of the most notable examples of antisocial personality disorder in the media. 

According to researchers at the University of Rochester, "Several studies in the past three decades have found significant support for the concept that what people see on T.V. and in movies influences their perception of reality and plays a role in shaping their knowledge of the world, including public opinions and societal perceptions." 

Typical antisocial personality disorder character types can include:

  • “Evil” villains or antiheroes who manipulate people and seek power
  • Hypersexual women and charming con artists
  • Pathological liars and manipulators with no conscience or remorse
  • Raging psychopath and serial killer characters
  • Serial killers with “dark triad” traits
  • Impulsive, violent killers who commit heinous crimes
  • Arrogant criminals who think they are superior
  • High-functioning sociopaths who use their dazzling charm, wit, and cunning to manipulate others
  • Self-centered teenage girls with pervasive disregard for others’ needs, rights, and feelings

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The charismatic, intelligent main character becomes the leader of his delinquent gang, leading them to commit horrific violent crimes with no empathy for the victims. After being captured, he turns the full force of his considerable intelligence and charm toward fooling officials. 

Badlands (1973)

Badlands tells the fictional story of a teenage girl’s murder spree alongside her violent, antisocial older boyfriend. The film depicts the charming, manipulative behavior people with ASPD often exhibit, along with violent, impulsive, and aggressive behavior. 

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

This film is set in a psychiatric institution, where viewers watch the characters struggle with various mental health disorders, including antisocial personality disorder. 

Se7en (1995)

Using the seven deadly sins as themes, a methodical serial killer with ASPD murders and displays his victims, drawing the police into a deadly game with fatal consequences, manipulating them until the end. 

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Another film set in a psychiatric hospital, this movie tells the story of a young girl's experience with her own and others' mental illnesses. ASPD is among the conditions depicted in the film, which received acclaim for its portrayal of mental illness. 

American Psycho (2000)

The character of Patrick Bateman is believed to have ASPD, which can be shown through his total lack of empathy, impulsive actions, and manipulative behavior. The increasingly violent actions and criminal behavior indicate that Bateman would likely also score high on rating scales for psychopathic traits. 

Monster (2003)

This film tells the story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a woman with antisocial and borderline personality disorders. Actress Charlize Theron received critical acclaim for her intense depiction of Wuornos. 

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

One of the supporting characters has antisocial personality disorder, and viewers witness his mental and emotional states deteriorate throughout the movie. 

Hannibal Lecter (1986, 1991, 2001, 2002, 2007)

Actor Anthony Hopkins brought the character of Hannibal Lecter to life in multiple movies, portraying several accurate antisocial traits as a malevolent antisocial genius with psychopathic, cannibalistic behavior. Lecter shows a stunning lack of remorse or guilt for his heinous crimes. 

Black Swan (2010)

This dark drama did an exceptional job of portraying mental illness triggers and the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. While the main character may not strictly have ASPD, she may show signs of psychotic episodes. 

Sherlock (2010-2017)

The titular character used the drastic differences in his brain function and high intelligence level to solve crimes in a spectacular fashion, approaching typical sociopathic behavior from another angle. Sherlock seems to be aware of his mental health condition, once quoting, “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson. I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty, may also fit the diagnostic criteria for psychopathic behavior. 

The Joker (2019)

This film depicts the extremes of what can happen when someone is aware of their mental illness but cannot receive the treatment they deserve. The main character demonstrates violent behavior and reckless disregard for others' rights, safety, and lives. This movie also received critical acclaim for its portrayal of the destructive suffering ASPD can cause for those with the condition and the people around them. The main character clearly feels no guilt or remorse for his repeated crimes and enjoys what society typically finds repugnant. 

Other examples of antisocial personality disorder in media include:

  • Gaslight (1944)
  • Brighton Rock (1947)
  • Rope (1948)
  • The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Cape Fear (1962)
  • Halloween (1978)
  • A Killer in the Family (1983)
  • The Burning Bed (1984)
  • The Deliberate Stranger (1986)
  • A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
  • Blue Steel (1989)
  • Pacific Heights (1990)
  • Goodfellas (1990)
  • Henry (1990)
  • The Krays (1990)
  • Miami Blues (1990)
  • Pacific Heights (1990)
  • Deceived (1991)
  • The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)
  • Kalifornia (1993)
  • The Good Son (1993)
  • Natural Born Killers (1994)
  • Speed (1994)
  • Freeway (1996)
  • Matilda (1996)
  • Scream (1996)
  • Lolita (1997)
  • Clay Pigeons (1998)
  • Wild Things (1998)
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
  • The Sopranos (1999-2007)
  • Sexy Beast (2000)
  • Training Day (2001)
  • White Oleander (2002)
  • Catch Me if You Can (2002)
  • Matchstick Men (2003)
  • The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
  • Red Eye (2005)
  • No Country for Old Men (2007)
  • The Killer Inside Me (2010)
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)
  • The Iceman (2012)
  • Starred Up (2013)
  • Stoker (2013)
  • Paradise Lost (2014)
  • Gone Girl (2014)
  • Nightcrawler (2014)
  • Primordial (2015)
Think you may have symptoms of antisocial personality disorder?

Mental health care for antisocial personality disorder

Without a well-developed sense of emotional intelligence, awareness, and literacy, it can be challenging to recognize mental health symptoms in yourself and others. Consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp to benefit from the support and guidance of a mental health professional from the comfort and convenience of your home. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tends to be a widely used treatment to help individuals explore the connection between their thoughts and feelings. Research suggests that online CBT can be just as effective as its in-person counterpart.


The way the media depicts mental illness can impact the public’s knowledge and understanding—or misunderstanding—of various mental health conditions, such as antisocial personality disorder. While there may be accurate depictions of antisocial personality disorder in moves and television, there are also misrepresentations. If you’d like to learn more about ASPD or address any mental health concerns of your own, working with a therapist in person or online may be helpful.
Explore antisocial personality disorder in therapy
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