What Does It Mean To Be A High-Functioning Sociopath?

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 06/22/2022

Many of us make mistakes throughout our life. We hurt people we don't want to hurt. We yell at people when we're angry. We make bad decisions - sometimes due to peer pressure, sometimes due to inexperience. It's an inevitable part of life we must all prepare for.

Part of what makes us human is our ability to feel guilt for our actions, our ability to understand how our actions make others feel, and our ability to right those wrongs. It plays a major role in maturing, developing, and evolving as a human being.

Man Wearing White Dress Shirt With Black Necktie

Unfortunately, some people suffer from a mental health disorder known as antisocial personality disorder -- also known as ASPD. While that's what doctors call it, most people refer to these individuals as sociopaths and psychopaths.

Psychopaths and sociopaths are individuals who act and behave without a conscience. Even when they have a conscience, it's weak enough that their wants and needs come first - no matter what that means for those around them.

Since sociopaths act and behave differently than others, they are often easy to spot in the crowd. They're rude, they only care about themselves, lack empathy, and often come across as aggressive individuals.

So, what is a high-functioning sociopath?

high-functioning sociopath carries all the same characteristics as a sociopath, except they're not as easy to spot in a social setting. In fact, they're often viewed as 'masterminds' of manipulation that come across as friendly, caring, empathetic, gentle, sweet, and humble.

The main difference between someone suffering from ASPD and someone who's considered a high-functioning sociopath is that the high-functioning sociopath can function normally in everyday society. In contrast, those with ASPD struggle to adapt to everyday life.

This is very troubling for society because they are far more dangerous than someone suffering from an antisocial personality disorder. They're able to have deeper negative impacts on other people's lives, they're often given more time to harm others, and can carry out their mischievous plans in a more secret manner.

What Are The Traits Of A Sociopath?

To understand the mind behind a high-functioning sociopath, you must first understand what qualifies someone as a sociopath. The common term sociopath is actually used to describe a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder. Much like the other mental health disorders, the criteria is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition: DSM-5).

While they use the official term, antisocial personality disorder, let's look at the criteria when diagnosing someone as a 'sociopath.'

First, the individual must experience a minimum of three of the following seven traits of a sociopath:

  • Disregarding the law, failure to conform to society, and behaving in ways that could lead to arrest.
  • Repeatedly lying to others to get what they want or need, no matter what it takes.
  • Acting on impulse, not planning actions or behaviors.
  • Getting into physical and aggressive altercations with others, especially due to short temper or sudden irritability.
  • No regard for the well-being of those around you, including the safety of the individual.
  • Acting and behaving in irresponsible ways, especially regarding their responsibilities at home, work, and financially.
  • No sense of guilt for their negative actions towards others and often trying to rationalize their behavior, no matter how irrational.

The second and third criteria state that the individual must be 18 years old and have evidence of the onset as early as age 15 -- meaning they started to experience minor symptoms between the ages of 15-18+.

Finally, the fourth piece of criteria states the individual must not be experiencing the symptoms exclusively during bipolar disorder or schizophrenia episodes. Once an individual meets those four criteria, doctors normally diagnose the patient with an antisocial personality disorder.

Beyond that, healthcare professionals will determine how they function in normal society. Those that struggle to function are known as low-functioning, while those that can blend into the crowd are known as high functioning -- which is where the terms high-functioning sociopath and high-functioning psychopath come from.

Crowd of Protesters Holding Signs

Are There Different Types Of Sociopaths?

While researchers and psychologists haven't uncovered any other subtypes of antisocial personality disorder -- other than low-functioning and high-functioning sociopaths -- there is a wide range of other personality disorders found in three different clusters.

The three clusters include 'odd, eccentric' personality disorders, 'dramatic, emotional, erratic' personality disorders, and 'anxious, fearful' personality disorders. Ten different personality disorders fall into these three clusters -- antisocial personality disorder being one of them. ASPD is found in the 'dramatic, emotional, erratic' cluster.

There are three other personality disorders found in this cluster, referred to as Cluster B, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. Let's take a closer look at this cluster since they're all similar:

  1. Borderline Personality Disorder -one of the most common personality disorders that cause individuals to experience intense and unstable shifts in mood, with little-to-no warning. Once upset, these individuals struggle to relax or calm down.
  2. Narcissistic Personality Disorder -these individuals believe they're above those around them and believe they should be treated as such. They often overvalue themselves to the point they undervalue others, and it shows in social settings.
  3. Histrionic Personality Disorder -these individuals often seek attention, especially while experiencing excessive emotionality. They're often viewed as 'drama queens' and don't feel comfortable unless they're the center of attention.

That's just one cluster of personality disorders that should be understood before you start making assumptions about someone's behavior or actions. The other two clusters each include three different personality disorders, which we'll detail below.

Cluster A, also known as the 'odd, eccentric' cluster, includes the following:

  1. Paranoid Personality Disorder - when individuals are overly suspicious and show extreme distrust in those around them for no apparent reason. They often assume others are out to get them, even when they're not.
  2. Schizoid Personality Disorder - these individuals tend to detach themselves from social interactions with others and experience a low range of emotion daily. They often have no intention of building relationships with anyone.
  3. Schizotypal Personality Disorder - similar to the personality disorder above, except these individuals often experience distortions of their cognition and perception. They often behave eccentrically (unusually).

Young woman with luminous garland lights

Cluster C, also known as the 'anxious, fearful' cluster, includes the following:

  1. Dependent Personality Disorder -needing the help of others, being submissive, or clingy. These individuals have a difficult time providing for themselves and struggle to make the right decisions without others' help.
  2. Avoidant Personality Disorder -excessive shyness that often leads to difficulty receiving criticism. These individuals have a hard time interacting with others unless they know they have a strong liking towards them.
  3. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder -needing everything around you to be perfect, accounted for, and in-order. They often struggle with morals, values, spending time with others, and living a balanced life due to their obsessive and compulsive tendencies.

While all three clusters contain disorders that affect someone's personality and how they behave daily, they each require a different set of treatments and care. Even as you break down the clusters further, treatment options vary depending on the specific personality disorder in question.

HOW ARE SOCIOPATHS TREATED?

While there aren't any known cures for antisocial personality disorder, researchers and psychologists have several treatment options that they consider when dealing with a patient.

The effectiveness of these treatments continues to improve, but they're often limited due to the low numbers of people that seek help. Since many people suffering from this disorder don't understand there's something wrong with them, they have no reason to seek help.

With that being said, psychologists often recommend psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy. It's designed to find the root cause of the disorder and uncover the disorder's hidden or deep truths. That way, the psychologist has a better idea of how to treat it.

Therapist Giving Advice

While the FDA has yet to approve any medication to directly support antisocial personality disorder, several medications are prescribed to treat co-occurring conditions with the disorder -- such as depression, anxiety, excessive aggressiveness, and more.

Due to ASPD's complexity and all the different symptoms the individual experiences, treatment is often long-term. The individual will likely need to maintain the treatment throughout the entirety of their life. The good news is there are people out there ready to give you the help you need.

DO YOU KNOW A HIGH-FUNCTIONING SOCIOPATH?

Since most high-functioning sociopaths believe their actions and behaviors are normal -- or at least justified -- it's rare they seek help independently. Most of them seek help due to hospitalization, being arrested, or once a loved one steps in to help.

Whether you believe you're experiencing symptoms yourself, came across someone that might be a high-functioning sociopath, or have a loved one suffering from the disease, we have several tips for you to follow when seeking help:

  • If you're dealing with someone you don't know and they have the traits of a high-functioning sociopath, distance yourself from that person immediately.
  • Don't make deals, come to agreements, or bargain with a high-functioning sociopath because they don't care to uphold their end of the deal.
  • Listen to what your gut is telling you, pay attention to the warning signs, and be honest with yourself when meeting new people. If they seem off, there's usually a reason why.
  • While you should never attempt to fix a high-functioning sociopath by yourself, you should always reach out to a professional to seek individual needs.

Detecting a high-functioning sociopath is extremely difficult because they're good at hiding the symptoms and getting away with their behavior.

If you're struggling to determine whether or not someone you know is suffering from antisocial personality disorder -- or worse, think they're a high-functioning sociopath -- we're here to help.

At Mind Diagnostics, we've created an online high functioning sociopath test that can show the level of risk an individual has of developing the disorder. This is often used to reassure that professional help is needed, but don't worry, we can help with that.

Once it's determined that more help is needed, we'll help match you with a therapist or psychologist that meets your needs. It's one of the ways we've pledged to help end the mental health stigma that has taken control of our society.