There are no official diagnostic criteria used to identify a sociopath, but the label does have a widely-accepted meaning within the field of psychology. The term is generally applied to individuals who display extreme antisocial characteristics of a personality disorder, including a disregard for the feelings or well-being of others. While the term sociopath is often used interchangeably with psychopath, there are actually several key differences between the two.
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Common Traits of Sociopathy
The primary traits of a sociopath are often defined in relative terms by comparing their behavior to that of other members within their society. They are sometimes described as having little sense of morality, which manifests in extremely self-centered behavior. Sociopaths may feel, do or say things that benefit them with little care about the impact these actions have on other people. While these traits can lead to a higher risk of malicious or criminal behavior, not all sociopathic individuals have a history or propensity for illegal activity. Despite an atypical sense of morality, these individuals are often able to skillfully manipulate social situations and other people without their knowledge.
Differences from Psychopathy
Both sociopathy and psychopathy can fall under the umbrella of antisocial personality disorders, but they are not technically the same. Unlike sociopaths, people with psychopathy are usually born that way. Physical abnormalities resulting from genetics or injury alter the standard function of the brain, preventing the person from experiencing the same range of emotions and reactions as their peers. While genetics are considered a factor in sociopathy, this condition is often attributed to a wider range of preventable factors, according to Psychology Today.
Causes and Risk Factors
The development of sociopathy is often linked to certain social and environmental triggers, although this is not always the case. Serious trauma, particularly prolonged abuse or neglect during childhood, is often cited as a primary cause of the condition. The disorder can also be the result of learned behavior, especially in youth who are repeatedly rewarded for manipulative, deceptive or malicious behavior. These inclinations can become more serious and entrenched over time without intervention from a parent, guardian or therapist. Sociopathy not only presents risks for people around the individual in question, but it’s also associated with higher potential for personal risk-taking and dangerously reckless behavior.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Self-identified or reported sociopaths often receive a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) in a clinical setting. Extreme antisocial behavior can also result from other physical or mental health disorders, like physical brain damage or degenerative cognitive disorders. While many forms of sociopathic behavior can be managed with therapy, many people with the disorder don’t feel pressure to seek treatment or correction. However, counseling sessions, cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of professional intervention have proven effective at addressing the negative features associated with the disorder.
Since most forms of psychological therapy require voluntary participation from the recipient, it’s often up to friends and family to encourage people with serious social disorders to seek help. The ability to recognize a sociopath is also a useful social skill for anyone who wants to avoid developing unhealthy social or work relationships.