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What Is a Sociopath? Key Traits, Causes & Current Treatments
January 21, 2017
Updated: August 28, 2017
Know someone who tends to be nervous, jittery, easily agitated or perhaps violent towards others at times? Worried that this person may have a serious psychological problem, and could potentially be a danger to those around them? You may find yourself asking, “What is a sociopath?”
While only a very small percentage of people with antisocial personality traits — such as frequent aggressive behaviors, social isolation and a tendency to break rules — are actually considered to be true sociopaths, all of these characteristics can be warning signs of deep-rooted mental dysfunction.
Experts believe that the prevalence rate of sociopathy may be higher than you think— around 1-4 percent of the total adult population, with more men than women being affected. Roughly one in 25 Americans is considered to be a sociopath, according to Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door. (1)
While there’s not complete consensus over the numbers, many experts estimate that Antisocial Personality Disorders (which include sociopathy and psychopathy) affects about 3 percent of adult males and around 1 percent of females.
What Is a Sociopath? Key Characteristics & Personality Traits
What is a sociopath, according to the official psychological definition? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the official resource used by psychiatrists and psychologists for diagnosing mental disorders, states that a sociopath is someone with a personality disorder who “displays antisocial tendencies that are ascribed to social or environmental factors.” Other definitions include “A pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” (2) In order to be diagnosed as a sociopath, these traits usually need to begin occurring before or around the age of 15. (3)
Sociopathy is considered a type of personality disorder, meaning it has certain things in common with other mental personality disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. The essential features of a personality disorder are: impairments in personality (those that affect both the self and interpersonal relationships) and the presence of pathological (compulsive or obsessive) personality traits.
Those with personality disorders display social patterns that are out of the ordinary in comparison to what most people would normally do in their culture or circumstance. They feel, think, perceive, and relate differently than people without personality disorders. Because sociopathic behavior is compulsive, someone with this personality disorder is not able to simply “turn off” their negative thoughts or traits, or snap out of bad moods. And usually they can’t even recognize the ways in which they’re traits are problematic.
- Having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing.
While it’s common to use the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably, as you’ll learn, most psychology experts believe that there are some important differences between the two. Sociopaths are sometimes called psychopaths, but more on this below. The fifth edition of the DSM-5 (updated and released by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013) classifies both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD). There is some overlap between the two disorders, including “ego-centrism” and self-serving behaviors. These are characterized by things like gaining self-esteem from personal gain, power over others or pleasure even in circumstances when obtaining these things harms other people. (10)
Common Traits & Symptoms of a Sociopath
Sociopaths are capable of working normal jobs, may be married or have children, and might even appear to be overall “successful” in life. However under stress, abnormal traits might worsen and cause outrage of aggression. Sociopathic signs are often evident in the workplace, during life transitions like going off to college, marriage or divorce; during arguments; and anywhere where social interaction and a variety of other forces come together (especially those involving being under pressure, meeting deadlines, or requiring change and criticism).
Several specific signs of sociopathic personality disorder might include: (11)
- Significant impairments in self functioning, including “ego-centrism” or self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure. This might display itself as a sociopath taking advantage of family members, peers, coworkers, and so on. According to an article published by the Huffington Post, many sociopaths act similarly to narcissists in that they have an “inflamed self image,” don’t take criticism well and blame others. (12)
- Although many have a high IQ and retain information well, they often experience problems with self-direction, including an abnormal ability to set goals. Goals are usually internal and solely based on personal gratification, but don’t take into account “pro-social” standards (contributing to the good of society or other’s lives). Sociopaths also tend to act impulsively and react quickly without thinking through consequences.
- Failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior. This usually means acting out in violence, getting into trouble at school, breaking the law and having difficulty holding a steady job.
- Lack of empathy, meaning lacking care or concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others. Sociopaths tend to lack feelings of guilt, shame or remorse after hurting or mistreating another, which makes it very hard to sustain healthy relationships or to learn a lesson when they’ve made a social mistake. They can’t place themselves “in someone else’s shoes” or imagine how someone who is hurting might be suffering. Some experts describe this as lacking a normal “inner emotional world” like most others. They might also appear very calm even in alarming or emergency situations, as if they aren’t affected by anxiety like others around them.
- Lacking intimacy, or an incapacity for mutually intimate relationships. Sociopaths tend to be loners, don’t have lots of close friends, and commonly exploit others through deceit, coercion, use of dominance or intimidation. They often desire control over others and don’t care about compromise or relating in a selfless way. And if they do come off as “charming”, it might be with the wrong intentions in mind. “Sneakiness”, strong eye contact, lack of facial expressions and a sense of mystery might make some people with personality disorders seem intriguing, but this is usually a disguise and superficial.
- Alcohol and drug abuse, or addictive behaviors like frequently gambling, shopping, working, spending money, and so on.
- Crimes like theft or burglary
- Harm towards property of others or animals
Antisocial Personality Disorder Risk Factors and Potential Causes
Personality disorders usually form during childhood and are believed to be shaped through a combination of genetics (inherited tendencies) and upbringing or environmental factors. Men are at a much greater risk of having antisocial personality disorder than women are.
While it’s not exactly clear what the main cause of antisocial personality disorders are, risk factors include: (13)
- Family history of antisocial personality disorder or other personality disorders or mental illness
- Changes in the way the brain functions due to abnormal brain development or injuries
- Diagnosis of childhood conduct disorder, misbehaving, aggression, etc.
- Being subjected to abuse or neglect during childhood
- Unstable, violent or chaotic family life during childhood
- Low social and economic status, or homelessness
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Being in jail or prison
- A history of homicidal or suicidal behaviors
- Having other mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety
- Gang participation, especially during youth
Conventional Treatment For Dealing With Sociopath Disorders
One troubling finding, according to Psych Central, is that few individuals with antisocial personality disorders actually wind up seeking help on their own, mostly because they don’t think anything is wrong with their behavior. (14) Ultimately more than 46 percent of those with antisocial personality disorders will receive professional treatment at some point. For those who do, it’s usually due to confounding problems such as marital problems or abuse, alcohol or drug abuse, violent (sometimes criminal) behaviors or suicidal thoughts.
More than ever before, a range of conventional and alternative methods for treating those with personality disorders are now available. Treatment depends on how severe the mental illness is, the willingness of the afflicted person to undergo treatment, and whether the patient chooses to try managing their disorder naturally, or through use of combination therapy/medication. Some of the treatments used by psychologists and psychiatrists when treating sociopaths include:
- Neuropsychological assessment
- Prescription medications: Usually medications aren’t routinely used to treat antisocial personality disorder, however sometimes they are to curb things like anxiety, aggression, lack of focus, depression or threatening behaviors. Phenytoin (Dilantin) is an anticonvulsant that has been shown to reduce impulsive aggression in some patients, and drugs including carbamazepine, valproate, propranolol, buspirone and trazodone may be used to treat those with behavioral problems due to brain-injury or mentally retardation. Stimulant medication can also be used to reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Psych Central states that tranquilizers (benzodiazepine) are not recommended for sociopaths because “they are potentially addictive and may lead to loss of behavioral control.”
- Psychotherapy, family therapy or group therapy
- Hospitalization or rehabilitation if need be (such as to help treat alcohol and drug abuse)
- When needed, prison or jail may be the only way to keep very violent sociopaths from harming others
- Or natural alternatives that may help with mental illnesses including: guided meditative strategies, acupuncture, yoga, exercise, herbal medicine or body massages— many of which help to relieve stress and built-up tension.
No matter what type of mental illness someone might be dealing with, chances are they are experiencing symptoms of related mental health problems like: depression, anxiety, paranoia, insecurity, and isolation/withdrawal from society. All of these can result from neurological changes, including changes in endorphins (“feel good hormones”).For this reason many patients will work with a therapist to overcome root problems and form more supportive relationships, which are key for building intimacy, trust and recovering.
Natural Treatments for Sociopathy & Personality Disorders
It is not always easy to identify a sociopath, so therapists and doctors usually ask specific questions to assess someone’s personality and uncover abnormal traits or thought patterns. The first step to recovery is accurately identifying the pattern of an antisocial personality disorder, which can be achieved by asking relatives, spouses or friends close to the person in question the following questions:
- Does it feel like this person is only using you, lying often or manipulating you?
- Does it feel like this person does not really care about you and has hidden motives?
- Does this person contradict his own statements or stories, or get caught in lies often?
- Does this person take from you and never seem to have the intention of giving back?
- Does this person use pity and make you feel sorry for him too often?
- Do they have difficulty taking feedback or criticism?
- Does this person get easily bored and need constant stimulation?
- Do they have outbursts and get violent?
- Do they have a hard time maintaining a job or meeting goals?
Once diagnosed, therapy might be able to help a sociopath change their thought patterns and control harmful behaviors. However some experts think that “curing” a sociopath shouldn’t be the goal and isn’t always likely to happen (especially if the patient is only seeking therapy to avoid a jail sentence, divorce, etc.). Prevention is important, as is early diagnosis to prevent full-blown sociopathic behaviors.
Research suggests that criminal acts, violence and other harmful situations may be prevented with treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. In this case cognitive therapy’s major goal is to help the patient understand how he creates his own problems and how his distorted perceptions prevent him from seeing himself the way others view him. It can also help the patients cope with any past trauma, find better ways to handle stress, and recognize normal human emotions better.
Bouts of depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug abuse are common problems for those with personality disorders. Very stressful situations, trauma and suffering from other personality disorders (like paranoia or OCD) can worsen sociopathic traits. To reduce these mental health issues, a healthy lifestyle is often key, which includes practices and habits like:
- A healthy anti-depression diet: including healthy fats, enough quality proteins, antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals, and very low intake of things like sugar or alcohol
- Regular exercise: A great way to blow off steam and de-stress.
- Getting enough sleep, which helps to normalize cognitive functions, mood, focus and self-control.
- Supplementing: Supplements to fight anxiety or depression can include omega-3s, Vitamin D, magnesium and probiotics. All of these may reduce symptoms associated with personality disorders like nervousness, fatigue and moodiness.
- Doing things to manage stress, like keeping up with hobbies just for “fun”, spending time outdoors, meditating, writing in a journal, and joining a support group, church, organization, etc.
People with antisocial personality disorder can benefit significantly from working on sustaining healthier relationships with spouses, friends and family. This is why many benefit from marriage and family counseling or joining supportive groups like a faith community, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Cocaine Addicts Anonymous if this applies. Experts believe that social support and involving family members in the treatment/recovery process may help antisocial patients realize the impact of their disorder and learn more compassion and empathy. Those close to the patient can also help them stick to goals, be accountable, and work on problems regarding lack of honesty, lack of responsibility, anger and hostility.
Psychopath vs. Sociopath: Is There A Difference?
Doctors don’t officially diagnose people as psychopaths or sociopaths—instead both are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. People often use the term “psychopath” to refer to criminals and people with violent tendencies who disregard the feelings of others. Others think of psychopaths as those as “compulsive liars” who don’t feel guilt over their actions. However far from everyone who commits crimes, lies often or lashes out with aggression is diagnosed as a psychopath or sociopath. Not all psychopaths/sociopaths are criminals, and not all criminals are people with personality disorders.
Not every expert in the psychology field considers these two disorders to be different from one another, however most do. Some psychologists agree that psychopaths are “more calculating and measured in their actions”, or more organized than sociopaths usually are. According to an article published by Psychology Today, there are several key traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share, but also some ways in which the two differ. Characteristics that both tend to have in common include: (15)
- A disregard for laws and social more
- A disregard for the rights of others
- A failure to feel remorse or guilt when doing something “wrong” or harmful
- A tendency to display violent behavior towards others
Sociopaths tend to be more nervous, easily agitated, prone to emotional outbursts, unable to hold down a job for very long, unorganized, unreliable, and distant from others. Psychology Today states that “Any crimes committed by a sociopath, including murder, will tend to be haphazard, disorganized and spontaneous rather than planned.”
On the other hand, psychopaths are more likely to have “charming personalities”, gain people’s trust, develop relationships by mimicking other’s emotions, and sustaining jobs. They are more likely to appear “normal” to others and to have families and other long-term relationships.They plan in more detail, set goals in advance and appear more “cool, calm, and meticulous” which means they might be more dangerous criminals. (16) Some experts think that psychopaths make better criminals or “con artists” because they can stay calm when lying and come off as charismatic.
Precautions When Treating A Sociopath
Not all sociopaths are criminals or even bad people. Many are not violent and might even contribute positively to society in some ways. Ultimately many personality experts think that sociopaths should not be viewed in comparison to normal people and accepted for what they are: people who’s “brains are wired differently”. They might never become fully “normal” but can still live fulfilling and peaceful lives. For people around them, such as spouses or children, it’s not important not to take blame, lash out or contribute to the problem by provoking arguments. Group or family therapy involving sociopaths can be helpful, since sustaining healthy relationships is a big part of recovery or management.
Final Thoughts On Sociopaths & Treatment For Antisocial Personality Disorders
- Sociopaths and psychopaths are considered to have antisocial personality disorders. Traits that are common in those with these disorders include frequent aggressive behaviors, sometimes social isolation, lack of empathy, manipulative behaviors, and breaking rules, laws or norms.
- Risk factors and causes include a chaotic home during childhood, genetics, brain injury, trauma and exposure to violence or drug abuse.
- Treatments for sociopaths and psychopaths (antisocial personality disorders) include medications to control aggression, psychotherapy or family therapy, joining a support group, living a healthy lifestyle including through diet and exercise, and practicing stress-reducing techniques.