What is a sociopath?

Sociopath” is an informal term that’s often used to refer to someone who has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). ASPD is a personality disorder that involves a lack of empathy in addition to manipulative behaviors and impulsiveness in some people.

The additional behaviors set it apart from other conditions, such as autism, which can also cause a lack of empathy. “Having empathy” refers to being able to recognize and identify with the feelings of another person.

When trying to identify someone as having ASPD, it’s important to remember that this is a complex diagnosis. It involves a mix of biological and environmental factors. The term “sociopath” also carries many negative associations, so it’s best to avoid accusing someone of being one.

If you think someone you’re close to might have ASPD, consider taking a step back from the relationship. People with ASPD often don’t recognize that they have a problem, and they’re typically reluctant to find treatment.

The signs of ASPD can vary widely from person to person. In addition, one person’s symptoms may change over time. When reading through these signs, keep in mind that all humans exhibit this kind of behavior from time to time, especially when they’re upset. They aren’t always signs of ASPD.

Unlike someone having a particularly bad day, people with ASPD never feel any remorse for what they’ve said or done, even if it caused someone a great deal of harm.

1. Lack of empathy

One of the most notable symptoms of ASPD is a lack of empathy. In response to another person’s feelings, they may come across as:

  • cold
  • unfeeling
  • callous
  • overly critical
  • harsh

People with ASPD don’t always realize how harmful their actions are. In other cases, they may simply not care that their actions hurt someone.

2. Disregard for right and wrong

People with ASPD generally have no regard for boundaries, rules, or laws. Someone with ASPD may:

  • lie
  • cheat
  • steal from others
  • break laws
  • be in constant legal trouble
  • be in an out of jail for minor to major crimes

When disregarding right and wrong, people with ASPD usually don’t consider the short- or long-term consequences of their actions.

3. Wit and charm

In addition to their more negative behaviors, people with ASPD often come off as very charismatic and charming. They may use humor, flattery, intellect, or flirtation for personal gain. In other cases, they might use these techniques to get someone to do something that’s harmful to them.

4. Impulsiveness

People with ASPD tend to act without considering the consequences. They might regularly engage in life-threatening activities without considering their own safety or the safety of anyone else involved.

This impulsiveness and disregard of consequences puts people with ASPD at a high risk of developing an addiction to a substance or behavior, such as gambling.

5. Arrogance

People with ASPD may act as if they’re above those around them. In addition to acting extra confident, they may also be condescending or easily irritated by others, especially those who disagree with them.

6. Aggression

People with ASPD are often psychically or verbally abusive. They may physically harm people without any consideration of the resulting injuries to the other person.

Verbal abuse might include:

  • insults
  • deprecation
  • negative statements
  • public or private humiliation

Many ASPD behaviors are common in young children who are still learning about and adapting to social boundaries. As a result, children usually aren’t diagnosed with ASPD. Instead, doctors use the term conduct disorder to refer to children who regularly display antisocial behavior.

While many of these behaviors are normal in some children from time to time, it’s best to seek (or rule out) a formal diagnosis as early as possible. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children with conduct disorder do best with early treatment.

1. Rule violation

It’s normal for children to test boundaries before understanding the consequences. They might do this by:

  • running away from home
  • skipping school
  • not coming home on time

However, most children stop doing this once they realize it’ll get them in trouble. Children with conduct disorder often continue to break rules despite understanding the consequences. As they grow older, their rule-breaking behavior might involve more extreme things, such as drug use or theft.

2. Destruction

Children with conduct disorder often display consistently destructive behavior that can be extreme. This includes:

  • spraying graffiti on public buildings
  • breaking into people’s homes
  • stealing property
  • starting fires by playing with matches or lighters

Again, some of these behaviors, such as playing with matches, are generally common in children. However, children with conduct disorder continue doing them even after learning about the dangers their behavior poses to themselves and others.

3. Aggression

Conduct disorder often involves acts of verbal or physical aggression, which can range from mild to severe. These acts might include:

  • physical violence, such as punching and kicking
  • using weapons, such as knives
  • insulting or humiliating their peers
  • injuring, torturing, or killing animals
  • forced sexual activity

This aspect of conduct disorder is especially dangerous for children because it can lead to early legal problems that can impact their education and follow them into adulthood.

4. Deceitfulness

While most children dabble with finding different ways to get things they want, children with conduct disorder continuously lie or steal from others to get what they want. As with adults with ASPD, they may act unusually sweet or charming in an attempt to get their way.

Again, this isn’t an uncommon behavior in young children, but most of them quickly learn that this hurts others and only results in their own punishment.

Each case of ASPD is unique, though there are a few common characteristics. However, most people exhibit some of these traits at one point or another without having ASPD. If someone regularly acts out these behaviors despite fully understanding the consequences, they may have conduct disorder or ASPD.

Regardless of their actions, its best to leave the actual diagnosis to a doctor.

If you suspect someone close to you may have ASPD, consider seeing a mental health specialist who can give you tips for safely interacting with people who have ASPD.

You can also check out these tools from Out of the Fog, an organization dedicated to helping people who are close to someone with a personality disorder.