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What is a Sociopath? (And Why So Many Use the Term Incorrectly)

by Andrea M. Darcy

According to social media and the internet, it would seem that nowadays, everyone’s boss and ex is a sociopath.

But what is a sociopath, really? Are you using the term correctly?

What is a sociopath, really?

Sociopathy is not an illness you can find under a microscope. Like all mental health labels, it is a term created and used to explain a group of behaviours occurring together in one individual.

Nor is ‘sociopath’ actually a proper medical diagnosis. While you can have ‘sociopathic traits’, the diagnosis that most of those with such traits are given is that of antisocial personality disorder.

Antisocial personality disorder

A personality disorder means that an individual constantly behaves in ways that are outside the cultural norm. Their behaviours and ways of seeing affect all areas of their life, and would have been present since at least early adulthood.

Antisocial personality disorder means an individual consistently manipulates, violates, and exploits others.

The diagnostic criteria for this disorder vary depending on what diagnostic guide you are using.

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But in general, someone with antisocial personality disorder will have some of the following symptoms (note not all are required for a diagnosis):

  • no concern at all for the feelings of others
  • unable to feel empathy even if they hurt others or witness suffering
  • disregard social norms, rules, obligations, and the law
  • do not experience guilt or learn from punishment
  • do not take responsibility for their actions
  • can establish relationships quickly, but cannot maintain them or have intimacy
  • very low level of patience – can become aggressive, cruel or violent easily
  • driven by a need for personal gratification, pleasure, and power
  • very prone to blaming others for any conflict they create
  • extremely dishonest and tell stories
  • prone to impulsive and risky behaviour, no sense of danger.

[Read our article on antisocial personality disorder for a more thorough overview.]

But aren’t sociopaths were more sophisticated than that?

Perhaps one of the reasons antisocial personality disorder and sociopathy are assumed to be different is because we see ASPD as something street criminals have, but associate sociopathy with a slick man in a suit. (More common in males, it should be noted females can of course have the disorder, too).

Remember, to classify as having antisocial behaviour disorder you do not need all traits, just some. And these symptoms can manifest differently depending on the personality and intelligence of the person in question.

The variation of personality types who have antisocial behaviour has led to such terms as ‘high functioning sociopath’, the sort who has a successful career sadly made possible by their lack of remorse and ability to manipulate.

Sociopath or Psychopath?

‘Psychopathy’ is again not an official ‘diagnosis’. The World Health Organisation’s diagnostic manual the ICD-10 includes it under antisocial personality disorder, and America’s latest version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) mentions an alternative model of ASPD ‘with psychopathic features’.

There is disagreement even in the medical community over the difference between sociopathic traits and psychopathic traits. But in general a psychopath is seen as having an even bolder personality, with negligible levels of inhibition accompanied with almost no stress and fear. So while a sociopath might have a tiny bit of conscience and know things are wrong but not be able to stop him or herself, a psychopath lacks a moral compass entirely.

Sociopathy vs Narcissism

The popularity of the term ‘sociopath’ might be helped by a confusion between narcissism and sociopathy.

On the surface these types of people can appear similar. Both narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder involve:

  • high levels of charm
  • low levels of empathy
  • manipulation, control, deceit
  • expecting others to bend to your will.

But those with narcissistic personality disorder are at heart extremely insecure with a great need for attention, and they do have access to feelings and guilt (and therefore can be helped by therapy).

Someone with antisocial personality disorder doesn’t question him or herself, and doesn’t care at all what others think of them.

So how to tell if your arrogant, thoughtless ex or boss has sociopathic or narcissistic traits? For starters, look for how they respond to criticism. A narcissist hates criticism because it attacks their severely low self worth. They respond strongly, either with harsher criticism in return, or rejection. A sociopath isn’t affected by your criticism. They don’t care what anyone thinks. Of course, if it suits their goals, they can ‘pretend’ to care.

How does someone end up a sociopath?

It’s not entirely understood how personality disorders develop, but it’s most likely a blend of genetic and environmental factors.

Say, for example, two twins are born with a genetic predisposition to be sociopathic. Separated at birth, one grows up in a violent household lacking affection, the other is loved and supported. While they both might still end up sociopaths, there is more of a chance the one who grew up around violence would.

How many people are actually sociopaths?

Sociopaths evidently don’t come forward to be counted. So any number is merely an educated guess.

The popular book ‘the Sociopath Next Door’ suggest the number is four per cent, but the DSM-V suggests it’s between .02 per cent to 3.3 per cent. So saying that it’s around two per cent of the population is a fair guess.

Prison populations are a different story – it’s suggested up to one in five inmates have antisocial personalities and are sociopathic or psychopathic.

So back to your ‘sociopathic’ ex and boss . With such statistics it’s highly unlikely (although possible) that all your exes and previous employers are sociopaths.

And if you find that you are calling everyone who upsets you a sociopath? It might be possible, given the main symptom of leaving you unable to relate well to others, that you have some form of personality disorder yourself. (See our comprehensive Guide to Personality Disorders if you are curious).


Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor, with training in counselling and coaching. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy



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Blog Topics: Personality Disorders

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