Sociopath: Meaning, Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Updated in February 2022

Anti-social personality disorder, or someone who is a sociopath, is characterized by a group of characteristics like apathy, disregard and a lack of consideration for right or wrong. These people often do not care for other people’s feelings or rights. 

Generally, people with this disorder will have an aggressive behaviors that can be impulsive or manipulative. They treat people indifferently and are unable to be sensitive to others. Many times, they do not accept rules or authority, and will often break them purposely, without showing guild or remorse. 

Anti-social personality disorder is often passed down, as it is related to changes in brain structure. It can also occur as a result of home influences. This disorder is treated with monitoring by a psychiatrist and/psychologist, and normally includes psychotherapy as well as medications (like antipsychotics or antidepressants).

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Main signs and symptoms 

Common signs and symptoms of a person with antisocial personality disorder are:

  • Lack of empathy and/or sensitivity to other people’s feelings or rights 
  • Compulsive lying or tricking other people 
  • Using their charm to manipulate other people for personal gain or pleasure 
  • Showing they are superior to other people 
  • Inability to follow societal rules or authority 
  • Inability to understand other people’s suffering 
  • Not understanding or not caring what society deems right or wrong 
  • Rude behaviors without remorse or guilt 
  • Irritability, agitation, aggressiveness or violence 
  • Difficulty following a life plan, as evidences by constantly changing jobs or inability to manage spending 

The first signs of antisocial personality disorder generally emerge in childhood or at the beginning of adolescence. Some children will show rude behaviors, like agressiveness toward people or animals, destruction of property, tricking, stealing, disregard for societal rules or age-related expectations.

Is a sociopath the same as a psychopath? 

A psychopath is considered to be a more serious form of anti-personality disorder. Only one third of people with this disorder will present with symptoms of a psychopath. 

Although a psychopathy shares some similar traits with a sociopath, psychopaths are less impulsive and will have a more controlled and calculated behavior. They will also have more normal-seeming relationships, be more polite, and cope well with other people. They are, however, able to avoid creating deep relationships and can be very manipulative. 

Confirming diagnosis 

Anti-social personality disorder is difficult to diagnosis, as it can be difficult to distinguish it from other disorders with similar symptoms, like schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy, brain tumors or even use of psychoactive substances. Therefore, all of these possibilities should be rules out before confirming a diagnosis. 

Diagnosis for antisocial personality disorder is confirmed by a psychiatrist or psychologist who will first assess the patient’s history of personality impairments from childhood, before 15 years of age. It can be done with reports from the actual patient or from close friends or family. A thorough mental evaluation will then follow.   

Possible causes

The causes of this disorder are not totally known, but it is thought that antisocial personality disorder can be heditary. Children with a sociopath parent are at a higher risk for developing this disorder. 

Antisocial personality disorder can also be triggered by cigarette use, alcohol use or drug use during pregnancy, which can alter brain development in the baby and lead to changes in brain structures. 

In addition, during the child’s growth and development, the family environment can also contribute to their emotional development. It is very important that close and loving bonds are established between the child and parents, as separation, physical abuse and negligence can affect the child later on in adulthood. Poor childhood experiences can influence adults to be more aggressive, and increase the risk of developing antisocial personality disorder.  

How it is treated 

Treatment for antisocial personality disorder should be guided by a psychiatrist or psychologist. It will depend on the severity of the symptoms and the person’s willingness to comply. 

Treatment can be completed with:

  • Psychotherapy, to help with anger control, aggressiveness and violent behaviors
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, to help the person manage their personal problems and change the way they think and behave in certain situations 
  • Mentalization-based therapy, which consists of the psychologist encouraging the person to understand how their thoughts and and mental state can affect their behaviors 
  • Use of medications, like antipsychotics and antidepressants, to treat symptoms of aggressiveness or impulsivity, or other conditions that can be triggered by this disorder, like anxiety or depression 

In addition, community service work can be a long-term treatment strategy for people who have antisocial personalty disroder. This integration can help patients to understand the emotional and psychological needs of other people, and stimulate them to work within a group. It allows them to make decisions and teaches the patient to follow rules and authority. 

It is important the family and close friends of people with antisocial personality disorder also seek professional help in order to help them establish limits and prevent violations and aggressiveness.