Most of us, thankfully, don’t encounter people who exhibit sociopathic tendencies on a daily basis. Yet every so often in life (or in the media, or in fiction!) we encounter someone who seems to meet the definition. They have so little regard for those around them, or seem to harm others regularly without remorse, that we find ourselves asking if they might be a sociopath.
We might be wondering if there is a way to evaluate their sociopathic tendencies — a sociopath test, of sorts. Additionally, we may be wanting to know things like what the definition of a sociopath actually is, how psychologists diagnose sociopaths, whether sociopathy can be “cured” — and maybe most importantly, how to preserve our own mental health if someone in our lives seems to be a sociopath.
What Is a Sociopath?
While we each might have a loose definition of the word “sociopath” in our minds, in the world of psychology and psychiatry, a sociopath is someone who suffers from a personality disorder known as “antisocial personality disorder.”
There are 10 basic personality disorders, including antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder, among others. Personality disorders are different than other mental health diagnoses, such as depression or bipolar disorder, in that they are more static, and have more to do with someone’s intrinsic personality than their emotional state.
Personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder, are usually noticed by the time someone reaches adolescence or early adulthood, and are characterized by transient and troubling behaviors.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), people with antisocial personality disorder exhibit, “a pattern of disregarding or violating the rights of others.” Someone with this personality disorder “may not conform to social norms, may repeatedly lie or deceive others, or may act impulsively.”
There is no sociopath test, per say, but antisocial personality disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. A psychiatrist or medical doctor can diagnose antisocial personality disorder based on this criteria.
What’s the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?
Neither “sociopath” or “psychopath” are terms used in psychology or psychiatry. They are colloquial terms to describe someone who has an impulsive, reckless personality and who lacks basic empathy for others. Sociopaths, as defined by most people, tend to share more traits with people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Psychopaths are unusually thought of as more deviant and violent — less likely to blend into society than sociopaths.
Who develops antisocial personality disorder?
It is unclear why certain people become sociopaths or develop antisocial personality disorder. Theories include genetic propensities, as well as environmental factors. People who have biological relatives with the disorder are more likely to have it themselves — this may be because of genetics, but it may also be as a consequence of being raised by someone with the disorder. Those who grow up in abusive or neglectful homes, or are raised by family members who misuse alcohol, are more likely to develop the disorder. Men are more likely to develop antisocial personality disorder than women.
Symptoms Of Antisocial Personality Disorder
Again, while there is no specific “sociopathic test,” there are specific criteria outlined in the DSM-5 that describe someone who has antisocial personality disorder. These criteria include:
- Regularly violating others, physically or emotionally
- Instability when it comes to work and home life
- Exhibiting signs of aggression and irritability
- Unremorseful in the face of wrongdoing
- Often irresponsible
- High levels of impulsivity
- Lying and willful deceit
- Behavioral problems in childhood; often diagnosed with a conduct disorder
Other symptoms or behavior patterns of this personality disorder include:
- Inability to have close friendships or relationships
- A “cold” or unfeeling personality
- Substance abuse issues
- Getting in trouble with the law
- A superior attitude, and the inability to admit mistakes
- A bullying demeanor — using threats to deal with personal conflicts
- Inability to learn from mistakes or admit wrong
- Breaking rules, lying
- Lack of compassion, inability to empathize with others
- Aggressive and sometimes violent behavior
- Mental health issues might include talk of suicide or threatening suicide
Outlook for antisocial personality disorder
Because one main characteristic of antisocial personality disorder is the inability to experience or express remorse or to admit when one has done something wrong, it can be very difficult for someone to admit that they might be experiencing the disorder. Even if they are encouraged to seek an evaluation for the personality disorder, they may refuse. For those reasons, it can be very difficult for someone to even get a diagnosis for antisocial personality disorder.
It is also difficult to treat the disorder, even once treatment has begun — again, because of the resistance from the person who has the disorder. However, treatment for the disorder, which may include psychotherapy and medication, does exist, and may be helpful for patients who are willing to commit to getting better. Sometimes those with personality disorders begin therapy for other mental health conditions, such as depression, and then receive a personality disorder diagnosis.
How Is Someone Diagnosed as a Sociopath?
Although the internet may be rife with “sociopath tests” to try, the only person who can diagnose a sociopath, or someone with antisocial personality disorder, is a doctor or a psychiatrist.
An evaluation for antisocial personality disorder may include:
- An evaluation of the person’s mental health: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, family history, relationship history
- A full medical history
- An evaluation of symptoms based on the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
Although symptoms of antisocial personality disorder can manifest as early as the teen years, it isn’t usually diagnosed until age 18 or older.
Does A Sociopath Need Treatment?
A sociopath, or someone with antisocial personality disorder, cannot be cured on their own, and even someone who is in a close relationship with them cannot fix them. They have to be willing to admit they have a problem, seek treatment, and be willing to follow a treatment plan. Again, these things typically and unfortunately don’t happen with someone who has antisocial personality disorder because of their strong resistance.
Treatment options for antisocial personality disorder include:
- Therapy, such as anger management therapy, therapy for substance abuse, or cognitive behavioral therapy
- Medications, which may include antipsychotic medications or medication for other mental health disorders
How To Cope With Someone Who’s A Sociopath
Living with or being intimately involved with someone who is a sociopath or who has antisocial personality disorder can be troubling and extremely difficult. You may try endlessly to change this person, or to get them to seek help for their disorder, to no avail. Your own mental health may suffer, and you may believe that you somehow caused or deserve the treatment they unleash on you.
One of the most important things you can do if you have a relationship with someone who has antisocial personality disorder, or any personality disorder, is assert strong boundaries. There may be ways for you to interact with them, but it must be done in a safe way, on your own terms. That may mean limited contact with the person at times, or contact in ways that are less likely to be harmful to you.
If you are in a close relationship with a sociopath, you may want to seek group therapy, if they are willing to participate. Convincing someone with antisocial personality disorder to seek individual therapy may be difficult, but they may be more willing to go to group counseling or marriage therapy with you. Even this may prove challenging.
Perhaps the most important thing for you as you cope with a sociopath is to remember that you are not at fault, and that there are limits to what you can do to change this person, given the nature of their disorder. Protecting your own mental health, as well as the mental health of others involved in this person’s life, might be the best and most productive way to cope and for you to live a healthy, balanced life.
If you’re struggling with someone you suspect of having antisocial personality disorder, consider speaking with a licensed online therapist — a convenient, inexpensive first step.