Understanding and Treating Sociopaths: All the Questions You Might Have About a Sociopath

Published August 9th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

A sociopath is someone who has a personality disorder that affects their social interactions and how they view others. Sociopaths lack empathy for other people and feel no guilt or remorse about hurting them. They often have an inflated sense of entitlement and self-importance. We will answer all the questions you might have about sociopaths, including how they are diagnosed, how you should react when dealing with them personally or professionally, as well as potential treatments for this disorder.

What is a sociopath?

Sociopathy, also called antisocial personality disorder or ASPD, is described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, as a disorder that affects a person's ability to relate to and care about another person's feelings or the rights of others. In general, individuals who are sociopaths lack empathy and exhibit other sociopathic behaviors. It's helpful to know that some medical professionals differentiate between sociopaths and psychopaths although they share overlapping traits.

There are a number of symptoms and traits that are helpful when diagnosing a sociopath and these include, but are not limited to: 

  • Lack of empathy
  • Manipulative and deceitful behavior and superficial charm
  • Lack of responsibility
  • Lying or stealing for personal gain
  • Hostile, aggressive, and/or violent behavior
  • Attempting to control others with violent or intimidating behavior
  • Never learning from mistakes or failure
  • Disingenuous relationships with other people
  • Behavior leading to criminal behavior
  • Behavior leading to the abuse of substances 
  • Threatening suicide but never acting on it 

If someone exhibits some of these traits, that does not automatically qualify them as a sociopath. Consistently acting in this manner, however, could be a sign that they are a sociopath which should be diagnosed by a doctor. 

What's the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?

There is no difference between sociopaths and psychopaths from a clinical point of view, although several experts have attempted to distinguish between the two. 

A commonly held belief is that psychopathy is genetic while sociopathy stems from some abuse or trauma that happened early in a person's life. Another common school of thought is that sociopaths display a very weak sense of remorse or empathy while psychopaths have none. For example, if a sociopath stole your wallet, he or she may feel a slight pang of remorse but will ultimately do it anyway. Psychopaths, on the other hand, will take your wallet and feel no remorse about it. [link: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/sociopath-psychopath-difference] [link: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-sociopath]

Since there is no clinical distinction between the two, you can consider them interchangeable for now until other medical data proves otherwise. 

What causes someone to become a sociopath?

There are many different theories about what causes someone to become a sociopath but the exact cause is not known. It is generally believed to be a combination of both genetic and environmental factors that lead to sociopathy. Some experts believe there may be some genes that predispose certain people to sociopathy and that experiences in life, specifically during childhood and adolescence, can help turn someone towards sociopathy. 

How do you diagnose someone as a sociopath?

A sociopath can be diagnosed through a series of questions that you answer about the person in question. These questions are designed to ascertain whether or not someone is exhibiting sociopathic traits. 

These traits might include: 

  • A lack of empathy
  • Manipulative and deceitful behavior
  • Inability to feel guilt for lying or stealing

There's no specific test for sociopathy but instead, it is diagnosed using diagnostic interview techniques. A doctor will do a check up to rule out any other reasons for the behavior and if none were found they will refer the sociopath to a psychiatrist or psychologist who can more accurately diagnose the symptoms. The best way to diagnose a sociopath is by sitting down with them over a period of time, perhaps even weeks or months, and taking notes on their behaviors while asking probing questions related to sociopathic symptoms. If the psychiatrist or doctor finds someone to be a sociopath, they may then refer them for treatment. 

How do you deal with someone who is a sociopath? 

It can be very hard to cope with sociopaths, but there are some tips that might help. The first thing to note about sociopaths, which is also true for abusers and narcissists, is the importance of distancing yourself from them as much as possible. Remove anything the individual has access to such as your phone number or car keys. If it's not safe for you to remove objects from their possession, then try calling the police and asking if they will issue an injunction against this person so he or she cannot contact you further under any circumstances. 

If you are unable to remove the sociopath from your life because they are a loved one or colleague it is important to try to get them to talk to a trained professional in therapy if it is safe for you to do so. You should also remember the conditions they suffer from when you are dealing with this person and note that they will probably not feel the same way as you about most things. You can also try to explain how their behavior may make someone else feel and attempt to set defined boundaries and consequences for their actions.  

What treatments are available for sociopaths?

A sociopath can be treated with medication, therapy, or a mix of the two but it's important to note that many sociopaths refuse treatment because they don't believe anything needs to be done about their behavior. The stronger medications may lead to sociopathy being "cured" by masking symptoms, this is why some doctors do not recommend these methods in order to truly cure someone from sociopathy. The following treatment options are the most popular today. 

Therapy

Long-term therapy should be pursued by a sociopath, if they are willing, as it can help alter behaviors that can be harmful to themselves and others. Therapy, also called psychotherapy, can allow the patient to recognize certain thoughts or feelings that may lead to APSD behaviors. Helping a sociopath find and react appropriately to these behaviors can help them in the future. 

Medications

There is no FDA-approved medication dedicated solely for APSD. Instead, doctors may prescribe medications that treat symptoms that may occur with sociopathy, like aggression, but will not treat the overall cause of APSD. Often, psychiatric medicines like antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers, can be prescribed to treat these other symptoms. 

It should be noted that there is no cure for sociopathy. Both long-term therapy and medications can not cure APSD, even together. That being said, these therapy and medication treatments may be utilized by a doctor to help control it. 

Summary

Sociopathy is a disorder that has a number of symptoms but is often most highlighted by a person's inability to empathize with others. It is a very difficult disorder to diagnose because of wide-ranging symptoms and because a sociopath normally believes nothing is wrong, making it difficult to get the individual diagnosed and treated. The cause of sociopathy is unknown but it is believed that both genetic and environmental factors may play a role. Treatments usually involve therapy, medications, or a combination of the two, but nothing can cure APSD. If you believe you, a family member, or a loved one are suffering from APSD, please see your healthcare provider for treatment

Sources: 

Mayo Clinic – Antisocial Personality Disorder 

Journal of Mental Health Counseling – Treatment Guidelines for Clients with Antisocial Personality Disorder

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