30th January, 20215 min read

What is a sociopath?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Daniel Piggott
Daniel Piggott
Last reviewed: 23/01/2021
Medically reviewed

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The terms ‘sociopath’ and ‘sociopathy’ aren’t used by mental health professionals anymore. But people who are sometimes referred to as ‘sociopaths’ may be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. This is 1 of the 10 personality disorders commonly used by psychiatrists for diagnosing mental health conditions.

Like all personality disorders, it’s a diagnosable mental health condition with signs and possible causes – not just a way to describe someone who thinks, feels or behaves in a challenging or abnormal way.

Generally, someone with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder struggles to keep stability in their life because of impulsive or irresponsible behaviour, often acts out of anger, and is seen as not caring about the feelings of others.

Read on to find out more about antisocial personality disorder, the common signs and possible causes, and how it can be treated.

What are the signs of antisocial personality disorder?

As mentioned, people with sociopathic behaviour may be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. The signs of this condition include:

  • not caring much about the feelings of others
  • acting impulsively or irresponsibly – not following normal social behaviour
  • lacking remorse
  • breaking the law
  • difficulty making close relationships
  • getting easily frustrated
  • having uncontrollable anger
  • not learning from unpleasant experiences
  • exploiting, manipulating or violating the rights of others
  • blaming others for problems in their lives

If someone is showing these signs as part of their everyday personality, antisocial personality disorder may be diagnosed after a full assessment by a mental health specialist.

What causes antisocial personality disorder?

Mental health experts don’t fully understand why some people have the feelings and behaviours that lead to a diagnosis of a particular personality disorder. But it’s thought that a mixture of things can increase the risk, including:

  • early life experiences
  • environmental and social factors
  • genetics – traits inherited from our parents

Our beliefs about the way people are and how relationships work, and how we learn to cope with life, are formed at an early age, generally because of our experiences – and this shapes our personality.

People who are diagnosed with a personality disorder are more likely than most to have had difficult or traumatic childhood experiences, such as neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

It’s also thought that certain behaviours – such as alcohol or drug abuse – can play a role in triggering personality disorders.
Experts don’t fully understand what role genes play in personality disorders, but some parts of our personality are likely to be inherited (genetic). Some people with antisocial personality disorder have been found to have small differences in the structure of their brain.

Can antisocial personality disorder be treated?

There are treatments that can help with any personality disorder, including antisocial personality disorder. These include:

  • talking therapies
  • therapeutic communities
  • medication

Talking therapies aim to improve someone’s ability to manage their personality disorder by teaching them skills to help them change the way they think, feel and behave. Different types of talking therapies that may be used to treat antisocial personality disorder, include mentalisation-based therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and cognitive analytic therapy.

Therapeutic communities are another treatment that can be helpful. These involve spending time as part of a group, led by a facilitator, helping and supporting each other in managing mental health problems.

There isn’t evidence to support using medication to treat antisocial personality disorders, and there are no drugs specifically licensed for this. However, someone with antisocial personality disorder may also be diagnosed with another mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety or psychosis, so they may be prescribed medication for these.

Therapy session

What to do if a loved one has antisocial personality disorder

If someone you love is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, you may have concerns, questions or fears. It might be difficult to maintain a good relationship, and you may not know what to do or say.

When you’re talking to them, try to be patient, compassionate and calm. Avoid being judgemental – you may not understand why they feel the way they do, but you can acknowledge it.

You could try reminding them of other aspects of their personality, to reassure them. It’s also a good idea to set clear boundaries and expectations, for example, agreeing how to talk to one another and what you expect from one another, for when situations or conversations get difficult.

It can help to learn more about their condition, so you can understand what they’re dealing with and help them get the right treatment and more support. Finally, it’s important that you take care of yourself, too.

Key points

  • the term ‘sociopath’ isn’t used by professionals to diagnose a mental health condition
  • ‘sociopathy’ falls under a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder
  • there are common signs that can lead to a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder
  • like all personality disorders, antisocial personality disorder can be treated with therapies
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