In popular culture, the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe a person who lacks empathy or is prone to violent or criminal behaviors. Books and movies often portray psychopaths as cold-blooded, intelligent individuals who are cunning and sophisticated, though completely devoid of emotion. But despite their common use, neither sociopathy or psychopathy are official mental health diagnoses.
According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), both sociopath and psychopath are used to describe individuals diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD); a mental health condition characterized by a general disregard for what’s right and wrong.
The word “antisocial” is generally used to describe someone who’s a loner or avoids social interaction. However, in the context of ASPD, it’s more helpful to think of the literal meaning of the word: anti-social, against society, rules, laws, etc., to understand the disorder. Typically, this disregard for social norms often makes it difficult for people with ASPD to stay out of the criminal justice system, maintain healthy relationships, or keep a steady job.
Differences Between Sociopathy And Psychopathy
Although psychopathy and sociopathy are sometimes used interchangeably to describe a person diagnosed with ASPD, there are actually a few noteworthy differences between both classifications. According to some interpretations, psychopathy involves more cunning or manipulative behaviors towards others. Additionally, people who are described as “psychopaths” are sometimes also perceived as charming and charismatic.
Some psychologists believe that while psychopaths don’t “have” a conscience, people with sociopathic personalities understand that what they’re doing is technically wrong, but have rationalized their behavior (often by blaming society or others) in their own minds. Other key differences include:
- A clear disregard for other people’s distress
- Hot-headed and impulsive
- Sometimes forms emotional attachments
- Rationalizes their behavior
- Pretends to care about other people
- Uses intelligence / charisma to manipulate or control others
- Cannot form emotional attachments
- Rarely feels guilty for their behavior
While psychopathy and sociopathy are not official conditions per the DSM-V, it does list diagnostic criteria for ASPD. First, a diagnosis cannot be made until the person is 18. Before that age, a child showing symptoms of ASPD may be diagnosed with conduct disorder: a mental health condition characterized by a pattern of antisocial behaviors that may include violence, cruelty to animals, and a persistent violation of the rights of others.
To be diagnosed with ASPD, the person must also show a pattern of at least three of the following traits since age 15:
- Ignores social norms or laws by engaging in behavior that could lead to criminal arrest
- Lies, manipulates, or cons others for personal gain
- Outbursts or impulsive behavior
- Aggressive or irritable. May fight often or bully others
- Doesn’t care about their personal safety or the safety of others
- Difficulty managing responsibilities, such as work or school
- Lacks remorse or guilt, or tends to rationalize their actions
Causes And Risk Factors
No one knows exactly what causes ASPD. Both genes and environmental factors, including traumatic childhood experiences, abuse, or neglect, may play a role in this condition. Research suggests that children who have a family member with ASPD are more likely to develop this condition. However, there’s also evidence that adoptive children of non-biological parents with ASPD have a higher risk of developing it as well.
Recently, scientists have started to observe structural differences in the brains of some people with ASPD. For example, a longitudinal study with over 1,000 participants published in 2020 found that individuals with antisocial behaviors also had differences in cortical thickness in specific regions of the brain, compared to those without ASPD. And there’s evidence that trauma, particularly to the frontal lobes of the brain, can also lead to antisocial behaviors.
Myths And Facts
Antisocial personality disorder is an uncommon but very real condition that affects between 0.2 and 4% of the general population at any given time. However, despite the challenges that can cause to those affected, ASPD is often twisted and glamorized by the media, perpetuating damaging and sometimes contradictory stereotypes and myths, such as:
People with ASPD are intellectually gifted: contrary to the pop culture stereotype of the “psychopathic genius,” there’s no evidence that individuals with ASPD are more intelligent or have greater cognitive abilities.
People with ASPD are killers: not all serial killers have ASPD, nor are all people with ASPD are killers (or criminals). This is also a common misconception perpetuated by movies and TV, such as Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and dozens of others. In fact, with the right treatment, many individuals with ASPD are able to lead a functional life and remain active members of society.
ASPD cannot be treated: some cases of ASPD are highly resistant to treatment, but not all. While there is no known cure for this condition, studies show that a combination of therapy and medication may be beneficial for some people. And there’s also emerging evidence that antisocial behaviors in people with ASPD may start to “dwindle down” by age 40.
ASPD cannot be prevented: ASPD can be prevented in some individuals. Some medications have been shown to reduce aggression, and certain forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, can be useful for learning actionable tools to curb antisocial tendencies.
A Final Word
The words psychopath and sociopath are often misused and misunderstood in popular culture. Both terms are used interchangeably to describe antisocial personality disorder, a serious mental health condition that can severely disrupt a person’s ability to function in society. However, many of the stereotypes we see on the big screen are simply not true.
In general, people with ASPD tend to lack empathy and remorse, though not all engage in criminal or violent behaviors. It can be a challenging condition to treat, but with the right tools and support, many people with ASPD can live healthy, well-balanced lives.
Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.