The term “sociopath” gets thrown around a lot, but it seems that few actually understand what it means to be a sociopath. In fact, of all mental health conditions, sociopathy is one of the least understood and most stigmatized.
While it is easy to write them off as something from the movies, sociopaths do exist and live normal lives. To give you a more nuanced picture than the wild depictions in TV and film, we’re going to take a look at the reality of sociopathy, known officially as antisocial personality disorder.
What Does it Mean to be a Sociopath?
Being a sociopath means that a person has chronic difficulty engaging appropriately with social norms. This leads to a number of characteristics that are common in people with sociopathy, including:
- Not understanding the difference between right and wrong.
- Not respecting the feelings and emotions of others.
- Frequently lying or deceiving others.
- Acting callously.
- Having difficulty recognizing or understanding emotions.
- Engaging in manipulative behaviors.
- Being arrogant or impulsive.
- Violating the rights of others through dishonest actions.
- Taking unnecessary risks.
- Having trouble realizing the negative aspects and/or consequences of his or her behavior.
A person with antisocial personality disorder, or APD, may not even realize what he or she is doing is wrong. Or else they just don’t care. According to psychologist Robert Hare, who created the Psychopathy Checklist that’s used to diagnose psychopathy, sociopathy involves both a conscience and a sense of morality. However, a sociopath’s sense of morality does not match social norms.
Despite its popularity, the term “sociopath” isn’t actually used in clinical diagnosis. Instead, people who exhibit these behaviors are simply “individuals with APD”.
APD is a cluster B personality disorder, which means it disrupts emotions and is characterized by extreme and often irrational behaviors. A person with APD may repeat harmful actions, some of which could be grounds for arrest. Even then, the individual will experience a lack of remorse for these actions. The DSM-5, which is the the guidebook that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders, defines antisocial personality disorder as a consistent disregard for rules, social norms, and the rights of others. The text also points to difficulty controlling impulses and managing responsibilities, little to no guilt or remorse, and a tendency to justify negative actions.
A person with APD may have other (and often related) conditions that can include anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, substance use disorders, and gambling disorders (or other disorders related to impulse control). It’s possible for someone with antisocial personality disorder to also meet the diagnostic criteria for other cluster B personality disorders.
The main thing to understand is that not all people with antisocial personality disorder act on their impulses and emotions, just as not all people who violate the rights of others have a mental health condition. Antisocial personality disorder tends to remind us of famous criminals known to be afflicted with this disorder, like Ted Bundy; however, only about one percent of criminals have it.
Treatment for antisocial personality disorder can vary. Since there are no medications that treat it directly, psychotherapy is the go-to form of treatment for antisocial personality disorder. However, the patient must recognize his or her issue for therapy to work. If he or she doesn’t recognize the behavior as wrong, someone with APD may have trouble recognizing help is needed.
Sociopath vs Psychopath: What’s the Difference?
The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” tend to be used interchangeably and are both highly stigmatized. However, neither is a medical term or diagnosis. Rather, they’re generally used to describe more specific types of behaviors.
With this in mind, let’s go over what are considered to be the differences between sociopath and psychopath.
1. Psychopaths are calculated while sociopaths are impulsive.
While deceit and manipulation are associated with both personality types, they ultimately manifest in different ways.
Sociopathy differs from psychopathy in that sociopaths tend to be more erratic and impulsive. Meanwhile, a psychopathy diagnosis focuses on what a person is thinking rather than how he or she is behaving. Someone with psychopathy can be cunning and manipulative or engage in pathological lying without guilt. There’s a callousness and lack empathy.
2. Psychopaths are less violent than sociopaths.
To be clear, we’re not saying that all sociopaths are violent individuals. Rather, if we compare all sociopaths to all psychopaths, then we start to see a distinction.
According to the DSM-5, psychopathy is the lack of anxiety or fear as well as a dominant, bold style of interaction that can mask harmful behaviors. Psychopaths have little to no emotion and, as a result, tend to be cold and have shallow relationships. Of those individuals who are psychopaths, we tend to see two distinct categories: successful and unsuccessful. Those in the successful category achieve their goals through nonviolent means. Because their executive functioning is better, they are able to achieve societal success, especially in the corporate world. Executives of this kind often reach this point in their careers by degrading employees, blaming others, and relying on their deceptiveness.
An unsuccessful psychopath is one who violates social norms, which can be relatively minor or lead up to murder. Overall, psychopaths are often far more calculated and controlled than sociopaths.
Sociopaths could be seen as a more violent version of psychopaths. Compared to psychopaths, sociopaths are very hot-headed and quick to anger, making them prone to outbursts, which is where the violence comes in. Sociopaths can form emotional attachments in their own way, but it’s very difficult for them.
3. Psychopathy is interpersonal while sociopathy is behavioral.
Psychopathy focuses on interpersonal and affective aspects of behavior while sociopathy is focused largely on the behavior. A person with sociopathy can be described as quick to anger while a psychopath disregards the rights and feelings of others, engages in more controlled and manipulative behavior, has no shame, and is unable to form emotional relationships.
Sociopathy is considered more an environmental construct than a genetic one while psychopathy seems linked to biology.
How to Treat Antisocial Personality Disorder
Although antisocial personality disorder is a lifelong affliction, that doesn’t mean it cannot be treated. With counseling and therapy, many patients are coached regarding the management of behaviors, emotions, distress, anxiety, and even depression. Any comorbid diagnoses are examined to maximize the individual’s ability to live a healthy, stable, and productive life.
Group-based sessions can be helpful as well. In a group setting, patients can work on their impulsivity, aggression, and antisocial behaviors. When appropriate, mood stabilizers may also be prescribed as part of the patient’s treatment plan.
Stay Strong With Silicon Beach Behavioral Health
Antisocial personality disorder is a complex and more nuanced condition than is often portrayed in the media. And it isn’t the only mental illness to receive such treatment. Plenty of people are experiencing mental health issues they don’t understand because of these misunderstandings and misconceptions.
If you think you might be suffering from APD or any other mental illness, Silicon Beach Behavioral Health is here to provide the support you need. With our state-of-the-art mental health treatments, we can help support you in your journey to improve your mental health. Call our toll-free number today to see which of our resources could help you.