Signs and Behaviors of Sociopaths

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The term "sociopath" is often used loosely in media and pop culture. But despite being frequently lumped together with psychopaths as likely criminals, not all sociopaths are violent, nor is sociopathy a condition recognized by doctors or psychologists.

In the past, sociopathy was considered a form of psychopathy or a closely related condition. In contemporary medical practice, antisocial personality disorder is the diagnosis that best fits the characteristics associated with sociopathy.

Key Takeaways

  • Although the term "sociopath" is popular, sociopathy is not an actual medical condition.
  • Traits of a sociopath include a lack of empathy, a disregard for social norms of right and wrong, impulsivity, excessive risk-taking, frequent lying, and difficulty maintaining relationships with others.
  • The characteristics associated with sociopathy best fit the description of antisocial personality disorder, which is a diagnosable medical condition.

A Brief History of Sociopathy

In the 1880s, the prefix "socio-" first came up in science and medicine. German-American psychiatrist and neurologist Karl Birnbaum appears to have coined the word "sociopathy" in 1909. Then, in 1930, American psychologist George E. Partridge popularized the term and contrasted it with "psychopathy."

Partridge described a sociopath as an individual who displayed antisocial behavior or defied social norms. In the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), published in 1952, the condition was identified as sociopathic personality disturbance. Over time, the name continued to change. The modern DSM-5 includes sociopathy under the label antisocial personality disorder

Characteristics and Behaviors

Most non-sociopathic individuals display antisocial traits and behaviors from time to time. A diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder requires an ongoing pattern of behavior that produces a consistently negative impact. The standard criteria for antisocial personality disorder include:

  • A failure to conform to social norms or laws.
  • Lying, usually for personal gain or pleasure, but sometimes for no apparent reason.
  • Impulsive behavior and failure to plan ahead.
  • Irritability, aggression, and poor anger management.
  • Disregard for the safety of self or others.
  • Irresponsibility, typically manifesting in problems maintaining employment and relationships or meeting financial obligations.

To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, an individual must be at least 18 years of age and have demonstrated the behavior before 15 years of age. The antisocial behavior cannot occur only in conjunction with other disorders (e.g. schizophrenia).

Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths 

The difference between sociopaths and psychopaths depends on how you define the terms. In the modern era, there are three different definitions of sociopathy, which may be compared with psychopathy:

  • Some doctors and scientists contend that antisocial behavior caused by environmental and social factors is sociopathy, while antisocial behavior stemming from genetics or biology is psychopathy.
  • A few researchers consider sociopathy to be synonymous with psychopathy, or else a less-severe form of psychopathy. In this definition of sociopathy, a sociopath is simply a type of psychopath. 
  • Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare describes a psychopath as an individual who lacks any sense of morality or empathy, while a sociopath is a person who has a different sense of right and wrong from the majority.

How Common Are Sociopaths?

Deciphering the prevalence of sociopathy is complicated by its changing definition. However, no matter which definition is used, it's not a rare condition.

A 2008 American study identified 1.2 percent of its sample as "potentially psychopathic," correlating with alcohol abuse, violence, and low intelligence. A 2009 British study reported an incidence of 0.6 percent, correlating the traits to the male gender, young age, violence, drug use, and other mental disorders.

Diagnosed antisocial personality disorder is more common in alcohol or drug abuse treatment programs than in the general population. It occurs more frequently in individuals who were hyperactive as children. Antisocial personality disorder is seen in between 3 percent and 30 percent of psychiatric outpatients. A 2002 literature review found 47 percent of male prisoners and 21 percent of female prisoners had the disorder.

Potential Treatment

Sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy tend not to respond well to treatment. In fact, some studies indicate treatment may worsen the condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are no drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat antisocial personality disorder. Psychotherapy is often unsuccessful because many sociopaths won't admit they have a problem or else are unwilling to change. However, if the disorder is identified early (by the teen years), the chance of a better long-term outcome increases.