Traits of a High-Functioning Person With Sociopathic Disorder

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Doctors and mental health professionals previously referred to people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) as sociopaths. However, this term is usually no longer used in clinical settings, although many still use it to describe someone with ASPD or co-occurring conditions. 

ASPD, or antisocial personality disorder, is a personality disorder characterized by showing little or no regard for socially acceptable behavior, a lack of empathy, and frequent engagement in risky behavior. Individuals with ASPD may also exhibit symptoms of sociopathic personality disorder. In addition, the symptoms of ASDP include having a low sense of morals and conscience, disrupting personal and professional relationships, displaying aggressive or impulsive behaviors, and showing a lack of respect for authority and rules, which sometimes leads to criminal behavior.

In everyday language, high-functioning sociopaths are often considered people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) who have impeccable social skills or a well-developed ability to fit into society much of the time. This would be the opposite of low-functioning sociopaths, or those with ASPD that have difficulty integrating into society. These low-functioning individuals have more trouble disguising their antisocial behavior, often struggling with morality and law. 
It's important to note that terms like “high or low-functioning” may not have clinical significance in regards to ASPD. For the most part, no one is actually diagnosed as a “high-functioning psychopath or sociopath”; rather, these are terms that are occasionally attributed to ASPD, some of its symptoms, or similar conditions.
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Prevalence and characteristics of ASPD and related personality disorders

ASPD affects approximately 3.5% of the population. Men tend to be more at risk for ASPD than women, which may explain the common trope of “sociopathic or psychopathic men” that we often see depicted in the media. Symptoms of ASPD must be present by the age of 15, although mental health professionals don’t provide an official diagnosis until a patient reaches the age of 18. ASPD has symptoms in common with several other personality disorders, although it also is distinct from these in meaningful ways. These similar personality disorders and their distinctions from ASDP are:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): A person with NPD typically has an overblown sense of self-importance, often believing they have superior intelligence to those around them. Those with NPD tend to lack the same degree of aggressiveness as a person with ASPD.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD): Someone with BPT typically has a similar degree of manipulative behavior as someone with ASPD but tends to be motivated by a need for reassurance rather than seeking gain.
  • Histrionic personality disorder (HPD): People with this disorder often show a high degree of seductive and attention-seeking behaviors and are easily influenced by others, a trait not usually seen in people with ASPD.

People with ASPD frequently act without regard for others, and their behavior may include lying, cheating, and manipulating to accomplish personal gain. They often have a high degree of narcissism, lacking remorse when hurting others; this trait may allow them to achieve their desires without regard for other people’s feelings. On the surface, people with ASPD may exhibit polished and polite behaviors in an effort to appear like anyone else. However, some do not function well in society and spend their time in and out of the justice system or living a nomadic lifestyle, and a high proportion of people in prison have ASPD. The term high-functioning applied to ASPD doesn’t necessarily have clinical significance, although some people use it to describe someone who is exceptionally skilled at giving the illusion of not having ASPD. People with high-functioning ASPD might even rise in the ranks of the professional world. 

How to spot traits of a person with antisocial personality disorder

Spotting high-functioning antisocial personality disorder traits (or in the correct clinical nomenclature, the traits of people with high-functioning ASPD may help you recognize if you are being affected by their behavior and know when to seek help. 

Many people with ASPD get high scores on IQ tests. They can have excellent interpersonal skills, and their magnetic personality traits often naturally draw others to them.  People with high-functioning ASPD can be calculating and may show extreme patience when trying to lay the foundation necessary to work a situation for their benefit.

A person with ASPD may hold a job, be married, and have children. They may also be actively engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy, possibly to help with their ASPD or to treat co-occurring conditions. CBT has been shown to be an effective treatment for some personality disorders, though research is still being conducted on its effectiveness with ASPD. People experiencing ASPD can be successful in life, and their lack of conscience might give them an advantage in some business situations. 

Although psychologists cannot formally diagnose the disorder until a person is 18 years old or older, ASPD traits usually manifest when someone reaches their early teens. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-5) includes the diagnostic criteria of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

A diagnosis requires that an individual must exhibit at least three of these antisocial behaviors:

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  • Disregard for social norms and lawful behaviors, such as repeatedly performing actions that are grounds for arrest
  • Repeated lying, conning, or deceiving for personal profit or gain
  • Impulsiveness or failure to plan
  • Irritable or aggressive behavior, including physical fights or assaults
  • Reckless disregard for other people’s emotions, as well as the safety of their self or others
  • Consistent irresponsibility and failure to maintain regular work or financial obligations
  • Lack of remorse or rationalization of actions that hurt, mistreat, or take from others

To meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of ASPD, an individual must be at least 18 years old with evidence of conduct disorder before 15 years of age. In addition, their antisocial behavior cannot exclusively occur during schizophrenic or manic episodes or as a result of substance use.

By understanding the characteristics of a high-functioning person with antisocial personality disorder, you may see how an individual with this disorder can manipulate and exploit you. Other common traits and compulsive behaviors may include the following:

Lacking in empathy

A person with antisocial personality disorder may find it difficult to empathize with other people’s emotions or understand the emotional consequences of their actions.

Narcissistic

They often have a grandiose self-image and sense of entitlement. 

Charming

Although most people with antisocial personality disorder lack empathy, they can mimic and manipulate emotions to mimic polite behaviors in an effort to appear charming and normal.

Secretive

A person with ASPD usually doesn’t feel the need to impart information with others unless they are using them to manipulate others.

Sexually deviant

Since a person with ASPD often lacks guilt, remorse, and emotional attachments, they often have affairs and cheat on their partners.

Sensitive to criticism

Despite their lack of empathy, people with high-functioning ASPD often desire the approval of others. They can feel entitled to admiration and be quick to anger when criticized.

Impulsive

People with ASPD are often reckless. They typically live in the moment and do what they believe is needed to reach their immediate goals.

Prone to lying

Compulsive lying is a common trait of people with ASPD. They often disregard the truth to make themselves look better or get what they want.

Easily bored

People with ASPD often get bored quickly and continually seek excitement. 

Prone to addictive behaviors

Their compulsive mindset may result in addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or other addictive behaviors.

Prone to rule breaking and criminal behavior

Generally, people with ASPD are rule breakers. It is not uncommon for them to have a history of criminal activity because of their belief they are above the law and that breaking the rules is of no consequence. Illegal activity associated with this personality disorder could include fraud, theft, assault, or destruction of property. People with high-functioning ASPD may also participate in more serious crimes. However, the vast majority of them do not commit murder. 

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Possible causes of ASPD

Personality is a combination of thoughts, emotions, experiences, and behaviors that make a person unique. Personality begins to form during early childhood and is influenced by interactions with caregivers, religion, culture, and society as a whole. Although the exact known cause of ASPD hasn’t been found, specific circumstances, including environmental factors and behavioral genetics, can 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
  • Unstable or violent family life during formative years
  • Genetics factors

What to do if you are involved with a person with ASPD

If you suspect that someone you are involved with has ASPD, it can be frightening and lead a person to despair or even suicidal thoughts.* Sometimes people may also experience abuse by a person with ASPD.**

You can also get help understanding ASPD or managing a relationship with someone with this condition by talking to an online therapist at a platform like BetterHelp. Numerous studies show that online therapy is just as effective as traditional in-person therapy. In addition, talking to a mental health professional online can make the experience easier and more comfortable if you are in a stressful situation. 

With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist via audio or video chat from anywhere with an internet connection. You can also reach out to your therapist in between sessions via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Takeaway

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is often known as sociopathy in non-clinical settings. People with ASPD show little regard for others and often lie, steal, and manipulate people to gain something they want. Many people with ASPD may commit crimes or end up in a US or UK high security hospital, but many others are high-functioning enough to succeed in life to some degree. Being connected to someone with ASPD can be scary and painful, but therapists at online platforms like BetterHelp can help you seek treatment for yourself. BetterHelp therapists may be able to provide support and ideas for how to cope and defend yourself from someone with ASPD. Take the first step to getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today. 
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