Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC
More often than not, people approach decision-making by aligning their choices with a moral code. Many of us agree that stealing, lying, and manipulating others is morally wrong and rarely without consequence. Usually, committing any of these actions imbues people with enough guilt or negative repercussions to hinder us from doing so again in the future.
When we encounter people who seemingly disregard others or dismiss the consequences of their actions for their own personal gain or their best interests, the terms “sociopath” or “narcissist” are typically used. Sociopathy and narcissism, however, are complex personality disorders that are each defined by a specific set of criteria and behaviors that may drive people to make harmful or destructive choices. These decisions can affect their lives and those of the people around them.
Are Narcissists and Sociopaths The Same?
Though narcissism is typically present in sociopaths, all narcissists are not sociopaths. The primary difference is the motivation behind the actions and decisions of the two. Whereas narcissists are driven by their ego and an extreme need for recognition from others, sociopaths typically are driven by persistence and achieving a goal or specific result by any means, not necessarily because they are in pursuit of recognition or outside validation.
Narcissistic personality disorders affect people’s patterns of thinking, and as a result, their decision-making can be unhealthy, impulsive, or detrimental. Often, the behavior of someone with a narcissistic personality disorder can be rigid to the point of compromising their relationships, careers, or academics.
A sociopath is someone with a personality disorder that causes them to exhibit serious antisocial behaviors and the lack of a conscience or empathy toward others. A sociopath’s behavior may be hurtful to others because they do not experience empathy in the same way that another person would. However, this does not necessarily mean that a sociopath is incapable of maintaining healthy relationships, as someone with sociopathic tendencies may grow to objectively believe in the benefits of empathy as a member of society, even if they do not naturally feel it.
In very rare cases, it is possible for a person to exhibit both narcissism and sociopathy, often making it difficult to treat their symptoms. A person exhibiting both narcissistic behavior and sociopathic behavior could be a narcissistic sociopath.
What are the Traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
What are the traits of a narcissist? Narcissistic personality disorder is defined as a pervasive pattern of grand fantasy or behavior, a need for recognition and admiration, as well as a lack of empathy. The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and severity vary from person to person, though the following are typical signs of narcissism as defined by the DSM-5:
- Exaggerating achievements or abilities due to grand self-importance
- Obsessed with obtaining influence, success, beauty, or adoration
- Often exercising entitlement or expecting favorable treatment
- A tendency toward arrogance in behavior or attitude
- Exhibiting exclusivity in their association with peers, for example only associating with people of a certain status, or believing they can only be understood by high-achieving or socially revered individuals
- Lacking empathy toward their peers and others
- Often feeling envy toward others, or perceiving that they are being treated a certain way due to others being jealous
- Non-hesitant in exploiting other people in order to achieve personal goals
- Feeling a need for excessive displays of admiration or requiring excessive admiration from others
If a person displays five or more of the above sociopath traits, they could be diagnosed with NPD. Those living with NPD tend to struggle with receiving and interpreting criticism, stress, or change and are easily upset if they believe they are being treated unfairly.
This inability to cope with certain situations can strongly inhibit their ability to interact with others as they can feel unable to efficiently regulate their behavior or emotions. A lack of relationships can lead a person to feel depressed, and those with NPD may be at higher risk since their expectations in their relationships can be lofty and unrealistic.
What are the Traits of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD)?
What are the traits of a sociopath? A person with antisocial personality disorder, or a narcissistic psychopath, may exhibit a pervasive pattern of disregard for others and dismissal of the rights of others. The DSM-5 lists the following symptoms and tendencies as potential indicators of APD:
- Consistently and repeatedly failing to adhere to social conduct or norms in regards to the law, resulting in arrests for misconduct and illegal activity
- Deceiving others in regards to lying, using aliases, or scamming others for monetary profit or gain (often leading to debt)
- Making impulsive decisions and/or failing to plan ahead
- Prone to physical violence or altercations due to irritability and aggressiveness
- Reckless disregard or lack of concern for the safety of other people as well as themselves
- Persistent display of irresponsibility, typically reflected in the failure to perform at work or maintain a job, in addition to being unable to meet financial obligations
- Indifferent to the hurtful impact of their actions on others, sometimes rationalizing their behavior in order to justify a lack of remorse
If an individual displays three or more of the above by the age of fifteen years old and they are at least the age of eighteen, they could be potentially diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
It can be extremely difficult to diagnose a person who has APD as they are typically extremely cunning and skilled at manipulating others to get what they want. Some of the most famous sociopaths in history were known for their charisma and magnetic personalities. They will typically also withdraw from relationships if they suspect they are getting too close to someone who can learn their behaviors.
Because sociopaths are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal, they will go as far as disingenuously exhibiting remorseful behavior or emotions such as embarrassment or guilt if they believe the displays will work to their advantage. They will play into others’ societal expectations for the sake of attaining a goal, not because they adhere to or believe in moral behavior.
Sociopathic people may also suffer due to their inability to maintain healthy relationships. Remember that humans are social animals and healthy relationships with other people are important for maintaining your mental health. If you are worried that you may be experiencing symptoms associated with being a sociopath, try taking this online, confidential test that may shed some light on your symptoms. Remember, this is not a substitute for a diagnosis from a mental health professional, but it can be a helpful first step for learning about the condition.
What Does a Narcissistic Sociopath Look Like?
When an individual displays symptoms of both NPD and ABP, it’s very possible they are a narcissistic sociopath. They can be described as seemingly cold or unfeeling individuals who also seek or believe they deserve the respect and admiration of others, often going to the point of exploiting others in order to get ahead.
While sociopaths are indifferent towards how other people perceive them, narcissistic sociopaths are driven by their desire for power, control, and admiration. Because of their bloated self-perception and need for recognition, they may manipulate the emotions of other people in order to achieve status or power. Because of their sociopathy, they may believe they are completely justified in their actions and might lack any sense of guilt or remorse for their actions. If a narcissistic sociopath tires of someone or believes they can’t exploit them further to get what they want, they will sometimes abandon or cut ties with that person. This makes it extremely hard to treat the condition or to help change the behavior of a narcissistic sociopath as they might view people as pawns to be manipulated, not as others deserving of their respect or grace.
Because narcissists are often obsessed with status and admiration, they’re typically different from sociopaths, whose primary motivator is to get what they want at all costs, not to impress others.
Narcissistic sociopaths typically want to be held in high regard and will try not to subvert public opinion. They may step on others to climb a social or corporate ladder in order to achieve a higher status or hold higher positions of power, but they might attempt to do this subtly or quietly for fear of social retribution. They may even go so far as to participate in charitable causes or philanthropic activity because such participation will be well-received by others, boosting their image and perception, rather than because they are genuinely invested in charity or the well-being of others.
When a narcissistic sociopath is criticized or called out on their behavior, they will often resort to their narcissistic tendencies and can take it extremely personally. They may lash out or feign superiority to hide their pride being wounded. Sociopaths, on the other hand, typically are unaffected and will react or emote in a way that they perceive will get them ahead. If apologizing or acting humble is the best way to manipulate others at a certain moment, they will often easily do so.
How Do I Know If I Have Antisocial Personality Disorder? Can It Be Treated?
Research suggests it’s extremely rare to have antisocial personality disorder, though the symptoms listed in the article may sound familiar to many.
A person with APD might not consider seeking help on their own accord, and they may not even perceive their own behavior as problematic. Antisocial behavior is not a strong indicator of APD and should not be thought of as the primary sign of personality disorder. Personality disorders are complex in that personalities are a combination of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors influenced by childhood, environmental factors, and interactions, as well as inherited tendencies. These disorders can change in severity over the lifetime of an individual.
Only mental health professionals and licensed doctors can provide a diagnosis and come up with treatment plans tailored to the needs of an individual who may be struggling with this condition. Because someone with APD is unlikely to get help on their own, it may take someone else to encourage them to seek therapy.
It’s also typically recommended that those who have relationships with a sociopath seek support for themselves from a licensed mental health professional so that they are able to manage healthy boundaries and their own personal mental health.