What is a Sociopath, How do I Know?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/14/2020

A recent survey of the American population, coupled with data from mental health experts around the country, shows that almost 4% of the US population – or about one in every 26 people – exhibits sociopathic tendencies or behaviors. That means that you most likely know and spend time with at least one person with sociopathic behavior in your day to day life.

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It’s not uncommon to see depictions of sociopaths in popular culture, either. There are many popular TV shows, movies, and songs that talk about sociopathic behaviors and tendencies. So, everywhere you look, you’re likely to see a little bit of sociopathic influence. But how do you know if someone is a sociopath? What is a sociopath exactly? And how should you approach or interact with sociopaths that you might come across during your life?

Here, we’ll look at some of the key features that sociopaths share, as well as some common things that can be confused with sociopathic behavior. Then, you’ll be able to know if you’re dealing with a sociopath or not.

The Official Name: Antisocial Personality Disorder

You might be surprised to learn that there is no official diagnosis for a “sociopath.” In fact, in modern psychology and psychiatry, mental health professionals never call a person a sociopath. Instead, they are diagnosed as having an antisocial personality disorder.

According to DSM-5, the official guide that psychologists and psychiatrists must adhere to when they are making a diagnosis of patients, the elements for the diagnosis of a person with antisocial personality disorder include the following:

  1. Disregard for and violation of others rights since age 15, as indicated by one of the seven sub-features:
  2. Failure to obey laws and norms by engaging in behavior which results in a criminal arrest, or would warrant criminal arrest
  3. Lying, deception, and manipulation, for profit or self-amusement,
  4. Impulsive behavior
  5. Irritability and aggression, manifested as frequently assaults others, or engages in fighting
  6. Blatantly disregards the safety of self and others,
  7. A pattern of irresponsibility and
  8. Lack of remorse for actions (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

The other diagnostic criteria are:

  1. The person is at least age 18,
  2. Conduct disorder was present by history before age 15
  3. and the antisocial behavior does not occur in the context of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

As you can see from these diagnostic criteria, a sociopath will always be an adult. A child cannot be diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder. Furthermore, there will be observable patterns of behavior that indicate someone has an antisocial personality disorder.

If you’re curious as to whether you’re showing signs of being a sociopath, you can try out this sociopath quiz. With this quiz, you can identify some of the indicators that might point to your being a sociopath. Either way, you’ll also be able to find out more about easily accessible mental health resources online!

Also, it’s important to know that antisocial personality disorders can include many different colloquial labels, including sociopath, psychopath, or any “high-functioning” variety of those two. Other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and anger management can also contribute to the symptoms and observable patterns of behavior that are often associated with antisocial personality disorder. So, before you determine that someone is a sociopath, you’ll have to rule out some other potential mental health or social disorders.

Here are some of the most common issues that are confused for sociopathic behavior and tendencies.

Sociopath, or Anger Issues?

Anger management issues are often confused for sociopathic behavior because the behavior and actions of people with anger management problems are often brash and reckless. This is similar to the behavior exhibited by sociopaths, since sociopaths often don’t think through the consequences of their actions and act recklessly, often to the harm of others. In the case of a sociopath, this lashing out may seem to come out of nowhere. However, in the case of a person coping with anger management issues, you’ll likely be able to point out a trigger for their anger – even if that trigger doesn’t seem like a rational one to you.

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In both instances, the person’s actions will likely be brash and have the potential to damage those around them. Also in both cases, the person will have very little regard for how their actions might adversely impact those around them. However, in the case of a person struggling with anger management issues, they are more likely to realize the harm that they’ve done to others after they’ve calmed down. They’re also much more likely to take ownership of their actions and apologize to anyone that they’ve hurt – whether it was physically or emotionally – during their outburst of anger. Sociopaths, on the other hand, are much less likely to apologize for hurting others, since they often justify their actions to the point that they believe that even though they might be hurting someone else, it isn’t necessarily wrong or worthy of an apology.

Sociopath, or Just Shy?

When many people hear “antisocial personality disorder” or think of “antisocial behavior,” they often think of someone sitting alone in a corner and refusing to join in group activities. However, this is not the strict medical or psychological definition of “antisocial.” Colloquially, “antisocial” is used to describe people who aren’t super social, talkative, or quick to participate with others.

However, when it is used in the context of antisocial personality disorder, antisocial takes on a much broader meaning. In terms of psychology, antisocial behavior actually refers to actions and behaviors that conflict with the accepted social norms of the society in which one finds themselves. So, when you consider this much broader definition of antisocial behavior, it’s easy to see how someone might confuse a shy person with someone who is struggling with an antisocial personality disorder.

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If someone is struggling to fit in or join in a social activity or setting, it doesn’t mean that they also have an antisocial personality disorder. Remember, an antisocial personality disorder involves established patterns of behavior that usually harm others. When a person is just shy – not antisocial – they will keep to themselves, and this usually doesn’t harm anyone.

Sociopath, or Psychopath?

Since both the sociopath and psychopath fall under the penumbra of antisocial personality disorder, this can be a trickier distinction to make. There are two main points where sociopaths and psychopaths will differ: their conscience, and their behavior.

A psychopath is usually said to have no conscience. That is, a psychopath will do what they can to get what they want, even if they know that these actions are inherently immoral. They won’t act out of any regard for other people; their only aim is to get what they want at any and all cost. Sociopaths, on the other hand, usually have a concept of what is morally right and wrong. They will listen to their conscience, but then carefully explain it away and justify their actions. They believe that they can explain or justify away the moral misgivings of any action since it is helping them to get what they want.

The behavior of sociopaths and psychopaths is also different. Psychopaths will often play it cool, calm, and collected – you might not even recognize their asocial personality disorder for a long time after meeting them. Their glibness and smooth talking can make it hard to spot the psychopath underneath it all. A sociopath, on the other hand, is prone to outbursts or reckless behavior. They don’t really care about the consequences of their actions, so they are often brash. This is the biggest difference in the actions and behavior of psychopaths and sociopaths.

Sociopath, or Other Mental Health Issues?

Many of the symptoms of sociopathic behavior are closely tied to other common mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. Many common mental health issues have symptoms that could be closely related to the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder. For example, sudden mood changes and an inability to articulate or explain one’s feelings are symptoms of both depression and antisocial personality disorder. Or, a lack of responsibility and withdrawing from positions of responsibility is a common response to trauma, as well as a symptom of antisocial personality disorder. That’s why it’s important to consider each and every one of the criteria for antisocial personality disorder as laid out in DSM-5 before jumping to the conclusion that someone is a sociopath or is suffering from antisocial personality disorder. Remember, even psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals have to rule out the existence or possibility of other mental health issues – including everything from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and many others – before issuing the official diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.

Conclusion

Even though “sociopath” is a colloquial and widely known way to refer to people who show sociopathic tendencies, they are actually suffering from an antisocial personality disorder according to psychology. Taking a sociopath quiz or looking deeper into the official diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder – as well as other related mental health issues such as anxiety and depression – can be helpful in spotting a sociopath in your life.