The word sociopath is often used in social settings to describe anyone who lacks empathy. Despite the frequent and often incorrect use of the phrase, true sociopaths must be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional—and they're actually quite rare.
What is a sociopath?
A sociopath is a colloquial term for someone who has been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). Some common sociopathic characteristics include lack of empathy and remorse, manipulation, disregard for others, and poor interpersonal skills, among others, according to licensed therapist Alyssa Mancao, LCSW.
Sociopaths make up only between 1 and 4% of the population, according to licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, PsyD. In order to be diagnosed, she says a person has to meet specific criteria based on social, medical, and family history.
Key characteristics of a sociopath.
To be diagnosed with ASPD and classified as a sociopath, a person must exhibit at least three of seven characteristics listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V):
- Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, such as performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for pleasure or personal profit.
- Impulsivity or failure to plan.
- Irritability and aggressiveness, often with physical fights or assaults.
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility, failure to sustain consistent work behavior, or honor monetary obligations.
- Lack of remorse, being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.
Along with that criteria, a person must be at least 18 years old and have a history of behavioral issues by the time they're 15, to be diagnosed. "There also needs to be evidence that these behaviors are not happening while a person is intoxicated by any substance or during a schizophrenic or bipolar episode," Abrams adds.
Signs of a sociopath.
The signs and symptoms of a sociopath can vary widely—and may change over time—but if you're trying to recognize whether someone in your life might be exhibiting sociopathic tendencies, these are just a few identifying signs:
According to the DSM-V, sociopaths might make up aliases or con others for personal or monetary gain. "A person who is a sociopath has no issues with lying in order to get their way," Mancao says. "They also have no issues with feigning remorse and apology in order to exploit others."
Lack of empathy
Empathy is what allows people to follow the rules, be kind to others, and form close relationships. "However, with a sociopath, their lack of empathy allows them to harm others (through cheating, lying, stealing, and rule-breaking) without concern for the consequences," Mancao says.
Unlike psychopaths who purposely harm others, sociopaths might not be aware of the harm they're causing. "A sociopath's ability to engage in perspective-taking and put themselves in another person's position is incredibly limited," Mancao explains.
Poor interpersonal skills
Because of their other symptoms, like deceitfulness, manipulation, and lack of empathy, sociopaths lack the ability to sustain healthy close relationships, Mancao says. "If a sociopathic person has a close relationship, this is due to a personal gain they are trying to achieve or attain," she explains. "The reason is self-centered versus caring."
Disregard for rules or boundaries
Sociopaths generally have no regard for consequences. This may cause them to break the law, cheat, lie, or become verbally and/or physically aggressive with others. Their deceitful and impulsive tendencies may also play a role in this.
One of the criteria for ASPD is "impulsivity or failure to plan," according to the DSM-V. This is another characteristic that helps distinguish sociopaths and psychopaths, Mancao explains. While a sociopath may be hasty, she says psychopaths are usually intentional and premeditated with their moves.
The difference between sociopaths and psychopaths.
Sociopaths and psychopaths have many of the same symptoms, and they both fall under the diagnosis of ASPD. "Both lack empathy, are self-centered and self-serving, use others for personal gain, and cause emotional and sometimes physical harm," Mancao says. "The differences between a sociopath and psychopath lie in their conscience and behaviors."
According to Abrams, sociopaths usually have a history of childhood trauma or abuse but may be able to connect with others. They understand the concept of remorse to a degree but generally aren't strong enough to avoid harmful behaviors. Their ability to connect and form emotions may lead sociopaths to be more impulsive and erratic.
"On the other hand, psychopaths may not even form relationships or emotional attachments to others so exhibit no remorse when they manipulate or harm," she says. "The research also shows that psychopaths may have more of a genetic predisposition and be colder."
Some experts consider psychopathy to be simply a more severe form of ASPD, while others see it as its own distinct personality construct. Psychopathy is one of three "dark" personality types known as the "Dark Triad," along with narcissism and Machiavellianism.
The bottom line.
Though sociopath and anti-social are often used as colloquial terms, they describe a serious mental disorder, called anti-social personality disorder.
Sociopaths, aka those who are clinically diagnosed with ASPD, "often have really unstable relationships, may isolate themselves, be incarcerated for their behaviors, and cause harm (emotional and physical) to people around them," Abrams says.
If someone exhibits these behaviors, Abrams says it's important to set boundaries. Along with being clear about those boundaries and the consequences of violating them, she says it's OK to disengage from people who exhibit sociopathic symptoms and traits.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.