When it comes to narrowing down a list of five characteristics of a sociopath, one thing is for certain: there are more than five. However, there are five common traits that most sociopaths exhibit and these can often be the first signs that a person has that they are dealing with someone who may be a sociopath.
While it’s not an untrained individual’s responsibility to diagnose individuals with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), which is the technical designation of sociopaths, it can be helpful to know what professional psychiatrists say about the matter. First, individuals should know that it is a relatively rare condition, for all that the term is commonly used. Only between one and four percent of the population may be classified as having ASPD.
Another consideration is that individuals with this particular disorder will rarely seek or comply with professional diagnoses, which makes them difficult to treat. Treatment is possible, although there is no known cure for the behavioral disorder. Individuals with ASPD that exhibit the behavior of sociopaths can still have rewarding and loving relationships with others when they receive the care they require. Some therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy have worked well for many. In other instances, medications are most effective. It’s a matter of seeking treatment and being committed.
With that said, there is a decided resistance to therapy, and these individuals may not want a deep or rewarding relationship with anyone. In these cases, the best and most effective way of dealing with them is to not deal with them. If a person suspects they may enmeshed in a relationship with an individual with sociopath characteristics, these five grouped identifiers can help.
While alone, irresponsibility isn’t a terrible characteristic, it can be one of the first characteristics of a sociopath that people have. They can bounce from goal to goal, refuse to honor their obligations, or act on a whim with no regard to who or what might be at risk because of their behavior. Irresponsibility can also take on the form of disregarding societal norms if it doesn’t suit a sociopath’s needs at the moment. It also manifests in a refusal to take on responsibility for their actions, because a sociopath seems to always assume that anyone hurt by their actions got exactly what they deserved.
This general sociopath characteristic is an umbrella for other behaviors that relate to it. Individuals who suffer from ASPD often develop a decided taste for breaking laws, but it goes much deeper than that. They exhibit a lack of respect for personal boundaries as well as the laws that govern society. A criminal record is often not sufficient to pinpoint this type of disorder. Instead, one should look for a person who has no respect for the personal rules that govern social interaction.
They also exhibit a decided lack of respect for the safety and well-being of others. When coupled with their irresponsibility and absence of a sense of accountability for their actions, this creates a dangerous mix. Individuals who are lured by their charm are often left burnt by these encounters. But a sociopath will simply move on and find a new set of acquaintances.
Sociopath behavior often includes a lack of consideration for their own safety. These people will often take greater risks, even if they act alone, because they do not weigh the risks of their behavior. They are impulsive to the point of damaging themselves, their own property, and other people or things. This impulsivity may also manifest as an aggressive personality. Sociopaths may use others’ fear of damage to control them, offering violent consequences when their chosen path is blocked.
One of the top five characteristics of a sociopath is that they lie constantly. They will lie to get what they want, hurt others, or just for their own amusement. Sociopaths are adept at lying because it comes so naturally to them; in fact, many probably don’t remember a time where they didn’t lie. They also most likely don’t believe that lying is wrong. And most sociopaths can lie with such charm and grace that most people never question if the person is telling the truth. In fact, this is probably the most recognizable sign of a sociopath: they lie so much that once they’re found out, it’s hard to know if they had ever told the truth.
In and of itself, lying is not a reliable metric for judging whether or not someone is a sociopath. It must be taken in context with the other signs and symptoms of ASPD. Lying is a human trait. Everyone, as a popular television character once asserted, lies. However, when the behavior exhibits pathological traits, one should take note. Pathological lying has the flavor of a learned behavior. It is directly related to several other traits on this list. First, it is a tool of manipulation. A sociopath learns early that telling people what they most desire to hear is a sure way to get whatever they are currently seeking.
Secondly, it’s a way to escape the negative consequences of their actions. The lack of accountability that a person with ASPD feels will lead them to consistently violate the norms of the social contract. Responsibility is not a word that a sociopath holds in high regard, and they will often renege on personal or professional responsibilities. These can include infractions like always being late or failing to pay bills in a timely fashion.
The fact that these are small things that everyone does from time to time allow sociopaths to operate below most people’s social radar. When people start noticing, the tendency to lie expediently allows them to continue on unfettered for a period of time. However, because they often use people and manipulate situations for their benefit, this results in cessation of any relationships, personal or professional, and the sociopath must move to better pastures.
3. Lack of Emotion
Lack of emotion is another of the five characteristics of a sociopath. The inability to feel any emotion, with the possible exception of feigning it for personal gain, is common among this group of people and can be also one of the most destructive aspects of their personality. A person with no emotion can be eerily calm in moments that normal people would consider heartbreaking or frightening and will often drop the act of emotion when it no longer suits them. This lack of emotion also allows them to dismantle their lives quickly, with no thought to the destruction they may leave behind, and move on without baggage.
Here, again, it’s important to delve a bit more deeply into the psyche of a person who exhibits sociopath characteristics. To say that they feel no emotion is technically correct, but it often paints them in a light to be ultimately rational or lack emotional or less logical motivations. They aren’t usually Vulcan and they don’t live at 22b Baker Street. What they lack in experiential emotions, they make up for in a certain twisted sense of emotional intelligence.
There are two types of empathy, both of which are equally important in the formation of long-term bonds between humans. The first is emotional empathy, and it describes the ability to feel the emotional states of others, even if one has not directly experienced the situation leading to those states. In simple terms, one feels distress at the pain of another and a concomitant desire to assist them when they come in contact with that pain.
The second is cognitive empathy. While both types of empathy occur in the brain, this sort is a bit more removed from the limbic system. It involves being able to imagine the distress another might feel without experiencing distress or pain oneself. It takes place in the fore and upper brain—the regions that negotiate, deal with the politics of living in a society, and perform functions such as language and logic.
Sociopaths posses a strange type of intellectual empathy. Since they lack the first type, this intellectual capacity is perverted by their need to obtain impulsive goals, manipulate others, and, in many cases, cause harm. They do understand emotions and emotional responses, but use this comprehension for their own ends.
These people are masters of manipulation; it is one of the best tricks in their bag. It’s also a strong characteristic of a sociopath. They use manipulation as a tool every day to get the results they want, whether that means a promotion, a new relationship, more money, or to get revenge on a person. But their use of manipulation is most used on family members and close loved ones, such as partners and children. Because manipulation is used to get a result, they will use it every time they want something without regard to the consequences; this can lead to broken homes or people getting hurt because of their actions.
This is perhaps the broadest and most identifying characteristic of sociopath behavior. All other behaviors and traits mentioned within this article act in service to this, which is a goal as much as it is a characteristic. Individuals with ASPD want what they want and they want it now. They will not scruple to any behavior if it serves this goal.
Their lack of emotional empathy and accompanying understanding of others’ emotional states, the lying, the breaking of rules and laws, the lack of consideration for anyone’s safety including their own all feed into a manipulative state of mind. If it serves their impulsive desires, one may assume they will do it, even if it violates every social norm and aspect of the social contract. But because they cannot be as they are in an open sense, they rely on manipulation to operate undetected by others.
5. Superficially Charming
One of the most interesting things about sociopaths is that they can be incredibly charming, but only in a superficial way. This is a major characteristic because it helps them to blend into normal society while keeping their real agenda hidden. Most sociopaths create an outer personality that would be accepted by modern society, allowing them to get along at work, at home, and in social situations. However, it’s just a mask, and the moment someone goes against their wishes, the sociopath will show their true colors.
This trait relates directly to the third sociopath behavior, specifically. It relies on understanding the emotional needs of those the individual with ASPD wishes to manipulate. As long as the charade of charm requires less energy than the individual is gaining through others, the perks, the promotions or rewards, the relationship benefits, the sociopath will continue to maintain it.
Abusive personalities may often fit the basic profile for ASPD. What makes these individuals so difficult to detect is society’s conflation with agreeableness with goodness or strength of character. Agreeableness is often directly related to emotional empathy and involves enacting altruism, exhibiting trust as well as trustworthiness, affection, kindness, and several other types of prosocial behavior.
It is generally assumed to be a reliable metric for gauging a person worthy of belonging to a group. However, because sociopaths are experts at masquerading emotions, they may slip inside the circles of several people with this particular ruse. By pretending to be an agreeable person, they may pilfer resources, real or emotional, of many people.
This is the first step in a dance that often becomes violent or aggressive, as a sociopath seeks to extort the maximum amount of energy from a human system. First, they pretend to be socially desirable, then they coerce if it’s at all possible. Finally, they burn these bridges and move on to better, less aware social actors.
Sociopath or Psychopath?
There is no clinical differentiation between these two terms. That said, some researchers believe there may be more of a genetic component in psychopathy, whereas sociopath characteristics are both nurtured and often rewarded in society. They also note that organized psychopaths are far more deliberate and calculated in their behaviors than sociopaths, who would often be described as disorganized and lacking in impulse control.
Psychology students and astute observers will want to keep these five characteristics of a sociopath in mind if they think they might be close to one; it’s always best to be prepared rather than be surprised, especially when confronted with these masters of disguise and manipulation.