Traits Of A High Functioning Sociopath
Updated June 29, 2020
Reviewer Lindi Herrin, LPC
A mental disorder that is characterized by a person showing no regard for right or wrong and who shows no empathy for the feelings of others is referred to as antisocial personality disorder. Often referred to as sociopathy or sociopathic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder is defined by a pattern of low moral sense of conscience, disrupted personal and professional relationships, impulsive or aggressive behavior and a lack of respect for authority and rules which sometimes leads to a criminal history.
Sociopathy is estimated to affect between three to five percent of the population. There are different types of sociopathy and each is defined by the symptoms the sociopath exhibits.
Types of Sociopaths
There are different types of sociopaths, and they are usually classified according to the behavior or symptoms that they exhibit.
The Common or General Sociopath
Common sociopaths are considered to make up the majority of those who have sociopathic or antisocial personality disorders. They appear to have no sense of moral compass and are generally very manipulative, especially if they believe their behavior can cause them personal gain.
The Disempathetic Sociopath
Disempathetic sociopaths may feel emotional connections with a select group of people such as close friends or family members. People who are not part of a disempathetic sociopath’s inner circle are typically regarded as objects to achieve some self-serving purpose. While they understand what empathy is, they are not likely to show empathy or concern for anyone outside their inner circle. Even those with whom a disempathetic sociopath appears to have a close relationship may have limited response or feelings of true concern directed to them.
The Disaffiliated Sociopath
A person who is a disaffiliated sociopath exhibits an extreme inability to connect with others which generally affects every aspect of their life. Some mental health professionals believe that lack of nurturing from a caregiver as an infant and young child contributes to the seriousness of this type of sociopathy.
The Hostile Sociopath
While not all sociopaths exhibit aggression or violence, the hostile sociopath seems to be angry most of the time. Their feelings of rejection from others often contributes to the level of anger, aggression, or violence they exhibit.
What is a “High-Functioning” Sociopath?
A sociopath is a term used to describe someone with an antisocial personality disorder. They think and act without regard for others, and their behavior may include lying, cheating, and manipulating for personal gain. Typically, their narcissism and lack of remorse allows them to achieve their desires. On the surface, sociopaths may appear like anyone else. Some sociopaths do not function well in society and spend their time in and out of the justice system.
The term “high-functioning” sociopath is used to describe sociopaths who are especially skilled at giving the illusion of being what they believe others want to see in them. They are especially skilled at recognizing what other people like and do not like and often use that skill to help manipulate potential targets.
The Difference Between a Psychopath and a Sociopath
The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeable when referring to someone with antisocial personality disorder. Although a psychopath and a sociopath may share some of the same characteristic traits, there are some behavioral differences that distinguish them from one another. The most notable differences between psychopaths and sociopaths is the way the react in social situations and their behavior toward other people.
While psychopaths tend to be very organized, almost to the point that they are obsessed with organization, sociopaths are generally disorganized. Psychopaths seem to have no conscience and are often referred to as cold-hearted. While sociopaths do seem to have some sense of moral conscience, they do not allow their knowledge of right and wrong to dictate their behavior. Both are manipulative and engage others for personal gain.
How to Spot Traits of a High-functioning Sociopath Characteristics
Learning to identify the traits of a sociopath can help you recognize if you are being affected by their behavior and know when to seek help.
High-functioning sociopaths often test well on IQ tests and have superior intelligence. They are very charming, and their magnetic personality seem to naturally draw others to them. High-functioning sociopaths are typically very calculated and may show extreme patience when trying to lay the foundation necessary to work a situation for their own good.
High-functioning sociopaths usually hold jobs, are married, and have children. In fact, they can be extremely successful in life. Until their sociopathic tendencies are triggered by some type of stress such as a change in life or relationship role, the loss of a job or perceived attacks against them personally, there may be few if any signs that a person is a sociopath at all. Traits of a High-Functioning Sociopath
By understanding the characteristics of a high-functioning sociopath, you can see how this individual may be manipulating and exploiting you. They are usually very charming and clever, and, at first, their actions may seem genuine. Over time, lies, deceptions, and lack of empathy are exposed to reveal their sociopathic nature. Their traits may include the following:
- High IQ: High-functioning sociopaths often have a higher IQ than other sociopaths or people without personality disorders. This helps them plan, manipulate, and exploit others.
- Lack of empathy: They find it difficult to empathize with others or understand the emotional consequences of their actions.
- Narcissism: They often have strong self-love and grandiose self-image. This occurs because of low esteem and delusional beliefs.
- Charming: Although most sociopaths lack empathy, they are capable of mimicking and manipulating emotions to appear charming and normal.
- Secretive: A sociopath doesn't feel the need to share intimate details with others- unless they are using them to manipulate others.
- Sexually deviant: Since they lack guilt, remorse, and emotional attachments, high-functioning sociopaths tend to have affairs and engage in the questionable sexual activity.
- Sensitive to criticism: Despite their lack of empathy, sociopaths desire the approval of others. They feel entitled to admiration and are quick to anger when criticized.
- Impulsive behavior: Sociopaths are often reckless. They typically live in the moment and will do what they feel is needed to reach their immediate goals.
- Sociopaths often lie: Compulsive lying is a common trait among all types of sociopaths. They will often disregard the truth to make themselves look better or get what they want.
- Needing constant stimulation: Sociopaths often get bored easily and need to be actively engaged.
- Addictive Behavior: Their compulsive mindset may result in addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or other addictive behaviors.
- Rule Breakers/ Criminal Behavior: In general, sociopaths are known rule breakers. It is not uncommon for them to have a history of criminal activity because of their belief that they are above the law. Criminal activity associated with sociopaths could include theft, assault, or destruction of property. High-functioning sociopaths may also participate in more serious crimes.
Possible Causes of High-Functioning Sociopathy
Personality is a combination of thoughts, emotions, experiences, and behaviors that make a person a unique individual. Personality forms during early childhood and is influenced by interactions with caregivers. Personality traits can be influenced by religion, culture, and society as a whole. Though the exact cause of sociopathy is not known, certain circumstances make one more prone to the disorder. These risk factors include:
- A family history of antisocial personality disorder or other mental illnesses
- Diagnosis of a childhood conduct disorder
- Exposure to trauma, abuse, or neglect during childhood
- An unstable or violent family life during formative years
Clinical Diagnosis of a High-Functioning Sociopath
Although the disorder may not be diagnosed until a person is 18 years old or older, sociopathic traits usually manifest by the time someone reaches their early teens. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-5) includes sociopathic traits under the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. The individual must exhibit at least three of these antisocial behaviors:
- Disregarding social norms and lawful behaviors-repeatedly performing actions that are grounds for arrest
- Repeated lying, conning, or deception for personal profit or gain
- Impulsiveness or failure to plan
- Irritable or aggressive behavior often marked by physical fights or assaults
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
- Consistent irresponsibility-failing to maintain regular work or financial commitments
- Lacking remorse or rationalizing actions that hurt, mistreat, or take from others
To meet the criteria to be clinically diagnosed as a sociopath, the individual must be at least 18 years old, with evidence of conduct disorder before 15 years of age. Their antisocial behavior cannot exclusively occur during schizophrenic or manic episodes or as a result of substance abuse.
High-Functioning Sociopath Test
There are internet sociopathy tests that may help determine if you or someone you know has sociopathic tendencies. Unfortunately, a high-functioning sociopath may not answer truthfully or accurately for fear of being exposed or criticized. It is important to note that internet quizzes are not intended for diagnosing disorders. They can, however, provide guidance as to whether or not someone should seek professional help.
Trained professionals may use the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) as a diagnostic tool to rate a person's sociopathic, psychopathic, or antisocial tendencies. The Hare PCL-R contains two parts: a semi-structured interview and a review of the subject's file and history. Since sociopaths lie compulsively and without remorse, the information they provide must be confirmed by the subject's case history. This makes the Hare PCL-R much more reliable than self-directed assessments.
Hare's Psychopathy Checklist measures 20 traits associated with antisocial tendencies. Scoring ranges from 0 to 40. Those exhibiting no sociopathic traits would receive a 0. A score of 30 or above qualifies the subject for a psychopathy related diagnosis. Most people without antisocial personality disorders score around a five.
Treating A “High-Functioning” Sociopath
Treating anyone with an antisocial personality disorder like sociopathy is often a difficult and lengthy process. The prognosis for treatment varies depending on a person's particular situation, their willingness to participate in treatment, and the severity of their symptoms. Many sociopaths have no desire to be treated or cured; however, treatments include:
- Psychotherapy - Using psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help with some sociopathic symptoms. Therapy could include anger management, challenging delusional thinking, or treatment for addictions and marital problems. Also, therapists can help the willing sociopath find root problems for their issues and give them a chance to change their negative thought patterns and harmful behaviors. The success of psychotherapy relies heavily on the therapeutic relationship between the patient and client. If a sociopath cannot admit to having a problem, it is often difficult to establish the therapeutic rapport necessary for effective psychotherapy.
- Medications - Currently, there are no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat antisocial personality disorder. Medications can help relieve the symptoms of co-occurring conditions such as anxiety, depression, impulsivity, or aggression. Since sociopaths could also have addictive tendencies, the drugs they are prescribed need to be monitored for misuse or abuse.
- Stress Reducing Activities- Yoga, exercise, guided meditative strategies, and other alternative therapies may help a sociopath with anxiety and stress. Though these therapies will not "cure" the disorder, they can be used as a supplement for medication and counseling.
- Focus on Relationships- Sociopaths can benefit from working on sustaining healthier relationships with friends, family, and spouses. Marriage and family counseling may help if the high-functioning sociopath is willing. Also, faith communities and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous may provide necessary social support and accountability for their actions.
Protecting Yourself from a High-Functioning Sociopath
By realizing the behaviors and warning signs of a sociopath, you are better able to protect yourself from their selfish, sometimes dangerous, behaviors. Here are some tips for dealing with high-functioning sociopaths:
- Remove them from your life. This may sound harsh and drastic, but it is the best way to protect yourself. Sociopaths' minds operate differently. They will not feel the same emotions you would if someone immediately decided to leave your life.
- Know you can't fix a sociopath. There is no "cure" for a sociopath. As mentioned above, it is a long, difficult process to help a sociopath lessen their symptoms. Chances are you may not have the knowledge or resources to give this person proper help, and most sociopaths have no desire to be helped. Without that desire, any form of treatment is useless. Believing you can "fix" a sociopath will only lead to failure and frustration.
- Don't make agreements or deals with a sociopath. The sociopath is looking out for his or her best interests and has no desire to accommodate your needs. If they come at you with "you owe me," remember this line has been used by sociopaths for years. Maintain your distance and be wary of any tearful pleas to get you to do or conceal something. This is just another manipulation technique.
- Trust your instincts. If that gut feeling nags at you when you first meet someone, trust it. Sociopaths are experts at alluring others, so, at first, it may be difficult to see through the charming facade. If your instincts tell you something is not right, do not let a sociopath's ego-feeding flattery quiet that little voice.
- Get support. If you have been in a relationship with a sociopath- whether romantic, professional, family, or otherwise-, chances are that you have been hurt and abused in some way. A mental health professional can teach you to set boundaries and protect yourself from the deceit, aggression, and anger of a high-functioning sociopath. There may also be local support groups for families and friends affected by antisocial personality disorder.
When You Need Help
Although a person with antisocial personality disorder may not be willing to seek treatment, if you are in a relationship with someone or have a family member with sociopathic traits or behaviors, it’s important to reach out for help. You cannot force someone else to get help, but you take care of yourself.
If you are concerned about someone with sociopathic personality disorder, or if you are experiencing symptoms that make you uncomfortable, reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health professional. Take the time to talk about your concerns. Talking to a counselor or therapist can help you make sense of traits you are experiencing or witnessing. Also, a mental health professional can help you establish a plan to protect your safety and well-being.
Whether you choose to talk to a local counselor, visit a community mental health center, or engage in online counseling, you can learn effective ways to cope. Online counseling options, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, focus on providing affordable mental health care you can access from the comfort of your own home. The team of licensed, professional therapists will work with you to identify risks for your safety and well-being and help develop a plan of care that is specific to your needs.
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FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)
What makes a sociopath tick?
A sociopath is someone living with antisocial personality disorder. You may have heard the word sociopath; it's a term that refers to someone with ASPD. As a general rule, sociopaths don't have much regard for people's emotions. A true sociopath lacks empathy or remorse. High functioning sociopaths operate within the world and are not concerned with how other people view them. Sociopaths are so charming that they can fool people into believing that they care about them. However, see other people as easy to manipulate, and they are usually calculating and highly secretive. Sociopaths are rule-breakers, or at least, they can be. They're often charming and can be surprisingly sensitive. Sociopaths are phenomenal at being chameleons. They blend into any given situation based on what they want to benefit out of it. They don't need other people's approval but can become defensive if people prod them too much. Calculated sociopaths also tend to plan ways to get what they want, and aren't stopped by worrying what other people think about them. Sociopaths often lie, so it can be challenging to spot them. They may appear similar to any member of society. Sociopaths are also reckless at times and calculated at others.
Are there different levels of sociopathy?
There are different levels of sociopathy or antisocial personality disorder. You could be in a relationship with a sociopath and not know it, because they can blend into society. Some sociopaths can function in society typically, and you'd never know that they have antisocial personality disorder, but it's like any other mental illness; there are varying degrees of severity in antisocial personality disorder. There are surprisingly “high-functioning” sociopaths. The traits of a high-functioning sociopath differ from those of someone with the disorder who has a harder time functioning in society. Individuals without antisocial personality disorder might exhibit a high level of empathy, whereas someone who is a sociopath doesn't have that. That's the difference between someone with the disorder and someone without it.
Are all sociopaths dangerous?
Sociopaths are rule-breakers, but not all of them are dangerous, just like not all people with any form of mental illness are dangerous. The media would have us believe that all people with antisocial personality disorder are dangerous criminals. However, they can lead completely healthy lives, and in fact, many people with antisocial personality disorder aren't dangerous because they don't want to be around others; they don't engage with other people, necessarily. They might have trouble functioning, but they aren't typically dangerous. A high functioning sociopath is one who lives within society and effectively interacts with others. To get the diagnosis of a high-functioning sociopath, you need to exhibit three of the following characteristics:
- High level of intelligence
- Addictive behaviors
- Lack of empathy
- Being secretive
- Exhibit calculating behaviors
- Extremely sensitive
Just like other people with ASPD, high-functioning sociopaths often lie to manipulate others and get their way. Lying is a big part of the condition. There are many paths for a high functioning sociopath to take, and it depends on the mental health treatment they receive. You can't change the diagnosis, but you can work with the behaviors, so they don't cause other people harm.
Does a sociopath know they are a sociopath?
A person doesn't know that they have a diagnosis unless they've been diagnosed by a mental health professional. A sociopath probably knows that they don't have the same emotional attributes as someone who has a higher level of empathy. Those with the traits of a high-functioning sociopath specifically might not get a diagnosis, and some people may be sociopaths without realizing it. It's an interesting question, but the answer is that the only way to truly know you're a sociopath is to get evaluated and receive a diagnosis from a professional. Someone living with antisocial personality disorder (AKA, a sociopath) would have to see a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist to get the accurate diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, which is frequently abbreviated as ASPD.
How do I deal with a sociopath?
The question "how do I deal with a sociopath?" implies that a person is dangerous, whereas someone with an antisocial personality disorder doesn't necessarily need to be dangerous at all. There are personality disorders that have symptoms that can be more dangerous than others, but symptoms vary from person to person. Sociopaths can be good people that are incredibly self-aware. As with anything, all people with ASPD are different. A psychopath and a sociopath will both fall under the diagnosis of ASPD, but they differ from one another. A psychopath can mimic the behavior of an empathetic person and pretend to have empathy. They have impaired remorse, use people as pawns and manipulate others, and can be egotistical. They have little conscience, whereas sociopaths do have a conscience, although it may be lower than it is for people without ASPD. The other noted difference in the world of psychology is that a psychopath is born that way, whereas a sociopath isn't.
Are sociopaths born or made?
Unlike other mental illnesses, sociopaths are a product of nurture. You're not born a sociopath; you've experienced a high level of trauma or neglect as a child, and unlike psychopaths who are born with their condition, a sociopath develops ASPD out of these experiences.
What is the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?
A sociopath tries to find ways to deal with being continuously bored, which is why many of them tend toward getting drunk or high and have substance use disorders. They can be very aware of themselves, whereas a narcissist is utterly oblivious to the fact that they're hurting other people - unless, of course, they've decided to commit to treatment for NPD honestly. A sociopath doesn't necessarily want attention, whereas someone with a narcissistic personality disorder or NPD tends to crave attention.
Is being a sociopath genetic?
Sociopathy is a product of the environment, so it's not necessarily genetic. However, personality disorders can have a genetic component. Psychopathy has a higher genetic component than sociopathy does. It's important to note that sociopathy is generally a product of a person's environment.
It should be noted that not all sociopaths are bad people. Due to the circumstances of their formative years, their brains are "wired differently." However, keep in mind if a high-functioning sociopath is not willing to get treatment, it may be best to cut them out of your life and seek help for yourself. In many cases, sociopaths' obsessions and compulsions are not controlled, but their behaviors may be managed with treatment. They can go on to lead happy, successful lives, with the right tools. If you know someone with sociopathic traits, or you think you may be exhibiting signs of ASPD yourself, know that there is help available.