What Is a Sociopath?

Sociopathy is an informal term that refers to a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes, including manipulation and deceit, that often arises from environmental factors. Sociopaths may or may not be criminals.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), sociopathy is most closely represented by Antisocial Personality Disorder. It is important to note that sociopathy is not a formal diagnosis, but is often invoked in discussing people on the antisocial spectrum, who generally display callous behavior with little regard for others.

Sociopaths are often difficult to identify until one is very familiar with their behavior. Sociopaths are often manipulative, lie frequently, lack empathy, and have a weak conscience that allows them to act recklessly or aggressively, even when they know their behavior is wrong.

How Do Sociopaths Act?

The public idea of a sociopath is often a serial killer, con artist, or other lawbreaker, but this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, in recent years, several influential books have attempted to dispel the myth that most sociopaths are ruthless killers and criminals. On the contrary, they argue, the nearest sociopath might be a boss, a partner, or a parent.

While most sociopaths may not be literal outlaws, however, they can share certain traits with them. This includes a lack of remorse, a propensity for untruthfulness, and a tendency toward behavior that benefits the sociopath at the expense of others.

Ultimately, the defining characteristic of the sociopath is a profound lack of conscience—a flaw in the moral compass that typically steers people away from breaking common rules and toward treating others decently. This internal moral disconnect, however, is often masked by a charming demeanor.

What's the Difference Between a Sociopath and a Psychopath?

The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are often used interchangeably but while they may refer to similar behaviors, there is a difference: Sociopaths are individuals whose callous, deceitful behavior is shaped by environmental factors, such as child abuse or exposure to expedient behavior. Psychopathy is considered inborn and immutable, hence it is classified as an antisocial personality disorder. Still, because both conditions can lie on a spectrum, and the origins of a disorder are murky, it can be difficult to know whether someone displays sociopathic or psychopathic behavior.

Because sociopathy is not an innate characteristic of an individual, sociopaths are considered more amenable to behavioral change and rehabilitation, while psychopaths are considered to be largely impervious to treatment once they reach adulthood.

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