Sociopaths are not easy to spot. Often, people can exhibit some characteristics of sociopaths but that does not necessarily confirm a diagnosis. What sets sociopaths apart is that they usually engage in harmful behaviour to others for their benefit. Sociopathy is a type of anti-social personality disorder, it exists on a spectrum that can range from minor transgressions to criminal behaviour. You may be surprised to learn that 1 in 100 people meet the diagnostic criteria, and most of them are men. So chances are you could very well know someone who is a sociopath.
High Functioning Sociopath vs. Low Functioning Sociopath
Because sociopathy is a spectrum disorder, there are high functioning and low functioning sociopaths. High functioning sociopaths hide behind a refined charm and charisma and often do well in work and can maintain an outwardly ordinary family life. However, high functioning sociopaths are still profoundly turbulent individuals and those closest to them (spouses, children, friends, etc) can find their intensity mentally exhausting at times.
Low functioning sociopaths on the other hand struggle to hold down a job or maintain any healthy relationship (both romantic and platonic). They do not have the same interpersonal skills as a high functioning sociopath and this type is more likely to be violent, resorting to coercion and threats to get their way.
It is important to note that the DSM-5 ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) does not distinguish between high and low functioning sociopaths.
By nature, sociopaths are pretty deceptive so it can take quite some time to identify the key characteristics correctly. The vast majority have mastered the skill of imitating emotions. However, they have poor anger control and often have outbursts if they feel things are not going their way.
A common misconception is that sociopaths are inherently violent individuals. They have often been depicted this way in popular TV shows and books, but most do not have violent tendencies. Sociopaths prefer to play mental games and undermine their victims with manipulation tactics and deception for personal gain. This allows them to maintain a charming façade and continue to enjoy any benefits from mentally abusing their victims without consequence.
The main characteristics of sociopaths include:
1. Lack of Empathy
This is the hallmark of a sociopath. They are hyper-aware of their feelings and needs but do not show any regard for others’ feelings. They are unable to recognise the emotions of others, the whole concept is foreign to them. It is not only a lack of caring, they are just unable to process others’ feelings. This lack of conscience and inability to feel remorse is what makes sociopaths, potentially, quite dangerous.
Sociopaths have charm down to a fine art and know how to use it as a tool for manipulation. They can blend in with almost any crowd and understand how to reel in those around them with exciting conversation and wit. They are excellent conversationalists but will always keep the focus on the person they are talking with and will be evasive in answering personal questions. The purpose of most of these exchanges is either to get as much information from the person to later use in attempts to manipulate or to use the person as a sounding board to boast and exaggerate their achievements. When pressed for personal information they will quickly become withdrawn and lose interest altogether.
3. Irresponsible and Impulsive
Sociopaths are not capable of seeing how their actions affect others, at least not in any absolute sense. They might understand their actions are wrong but because they want something, even if it’s at the expense of those depending on them, they will look after their interests first. They would prefer to write their responsibilities off as collateral damage than consider putting somebody else first. For example, a sociopath might regularly miss child support payments because they wanted to go on holiday or buy the latest smartphone.
Impulsivity in a sociopath can present itself as regular risky behaviour. This can include taking illegal drugs, heavy drinking, unsafe sex and criminal behaviour. If there are any adverse outcomes because of these activities sociopaths do not consider them, it will always be someone else’s fault or the world being out to get them.
The Difference Between a Sociopath and Psychopath
Like sociopathy, psychopathy is another anti-social personality disorder but the two have considerable differences. Psychopaths make up just 1% of the population and are extremely dangerous. One of the most significant differences between the two is that sociopaths are more prone to hot-headedness and acting without consideration for others. Psychopaths are calculating and do not tend to show emotion. Most criminal activities with sociopaths tend to be spur of the moment whereas psychopaths are usually involved in planning more elaborate schemes.
Studies have shown a psychopath’s brain is physically different from the rest of the population. These differences even have an impact on specific body responses. For example, an average person watching a horror film will become more on edge and their heart will beat faster. A psychopath will have the opposite reaction and become calmer.
How to Deal With a Sociopath
Sociopaths are not likely to seek treatment on their own or even realise there is a problem. Sociopathy is a life-long condition that cannot be cured. Treatment and close follow-ups with mental health care professionals can help to manage the disorder. Success here will significantly depend on the person’s willingness to accept treatment and the severity of their symptoms.
However, Donald W. Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine believes that ASP disorders’ symptoms decline as people age, particularly among those with a milder form of sociopathy who do not drink or take illegal drugs. However, he still cautions against involving yourself with these individuals because “they are going to complicate your life”.