December 07, 2021

Sociopathy: How to Recognize it and How to Avoid It

High-profile murders in the news have journalists and healthcare professionals throwing around a term that is often misunderstood: sociopath. But what is a sociopath? Is it someone who murders and feels no remorse? Is it someone who asks you on a date and spends the whole dinner putting you down? Is it someone who laughs when you fail and scoffs when you succeed? What does sociopathy really mean?

First, sociopathy is not a psychological diagnosis. More aptly, people who meet the criteria for sociopathy tend to have Antisocial Personality Disorder, a personality disorder in which a person shows a consistent disregard for right and wrong and a pervasive lack of remorse. Symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder include: (1) lying and deceiving in order to exploit others; (2) callous disrespect; (3) using charm to manipulate; (4) arrogance; (5) using intimidation and dishonesty to cause harm; (6) agitation or aggression; and (7) failure to consider the negative consequences of their behavior, among other criteria. Using the succinct (albeit medically inapt) term sociopath may, however, be preferable, as it is a shorthand everyone understands and one that is even acknowledged by reputable sources like the May Clinic.  

Recognizing sociopathic traits can be challenging in practice because we are not often privy to the internal motivations of those with whom we interact. One good barometer, however, for whether you are encountering a sociopath is an innate tool we are all born with: our gut. If spending time around a person makes you feel uncomfortable, inadequate, anxious, and lesser-than, you may be dealing with a sociopath. Other indicators are someone who seems too good to be true and quickly earns your trust and confidence through their charm and wit. The sociopath is so seductive that you find yourself ignoring obvious red flags. One caution about reaching your own lay diagnosis of sociopathy: only 3.7 percent of Americans meet the criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder, so it is unlikely that every mean person you date or every difficult boss is a sociopath. Perhaps that offers some consolation. 

Remember that sociopaths, unlike psychopaths, can form attachments, so it is very possible and indeed common to love a sociopath. The problem with loving a sociopath, though, is that they cannot reciprocate your love in a healthy way. The relationship will always be asymmetrical, and you will always come second to their desires. Of course, sociopaths are people, too, and cannot likely control their symptoms—so it is more than okay to offer them sympathy and care. It is best, however, to avoid intimate entanglements with persons who exhibit antisocial behavior, unless they are actively seeking treatment and have some insight into their condition. In the case of untreated sociopathy, it is better to care from afar.