Sociopaths: Warning Signs and Red Flags

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on December 26, 2023
7 min read

Sociopath is an outdated, informal term for someone who has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). This disorder can cause you to lack empathy, which means you don't care about or understand other peoples' feelings. You might not feel remorse for bad things you do, and you might often take advantage of others for your own personal gain. 

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes ASPD, but both nature and nurture seem to be involved. You are more likely to have ASPD if you have a family history of the disorder or you experienced something traumatic while growing up. You are also more likely to have it if you are male, had behavioral problems as a child, or grew up in an unstable environment. Many people are unaware of the disorder and may never be diagnosed. 

The word sociopath (and its cousin, psychopath) carries a lot of stigma and misconceptions. Popular movies and books tend to show sociopaths as cruel and heartless. As a result, people often think that those with ASPD are always criminals, but this isn’t true. These stereotypes make it hard for people with ASPD and their families to identify the condition and seek help.

To avoid stigmatizing people with the disorder, it is best to avoid calling someone a sociopath or psychopath. In casual conversation, focus on a person’s problematic behaviors, such as lying or illegal behavior, rather than labeling them a sociopath. When talking about the clinical disorder, say "person with ASPD." These simple changes lower the shame around the disorder so that people feel more comfortable getting a diagnosis and seeking treatment.

High-functioning sociopath

This is an outdated, non-clinical term that refers to people who have mild ASPD traits or are good at hiding them. As a result, they can be successful in everyday activities like working or going to school. Some may hold highly respected careers, such as a businessperson. They might seem charismatic or charming but are actually manipulative. They might excel in their profession by using or manipulating others. The same can be true in their personal life. 

It’s harder to tell when someone has high-functioning ASPD, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Their insincerity and lying can still hurt the people around them.

Low-functioning sociopath 

This is also an outdated, non-clinical term informally used to describe people who struggle to hide their ASPD traits. They might not have the social skills to quietly manipulate and deceive. Instead, they might rely on threats or violence to get what they want. They may also engage in illegal behavior, and they often have other harmful conditions like addiction. ASPD can also be part of another serious mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder.

Borderline sociopath

There is no such thing as a borderline sociopath. ASPD is often confused with a similar condition called borderline personality disorder (BPD). Both are part of a family of disorders called cluster B personality disorders. These tend to cause emotional, unpredictable, and dramatic behavior. People with BPD have mood swings driven by stress, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment. It's common for people with ASPD to also be diagnosed with BPD.

People often confuse the terms sociopath and psychopath and use them interchangeably. They aren’t different in the clinical sense -- neither is an official diagnosis. They both refer to someone who has ASPD. You can think of psychopathy as a subset of ASPD with it's own set of behaviors that set it apart from sociopathy. On the ASPD spectrum, psychopathy is generally seen as a more severe form of ASPD than sociopathy. 

According to research, psychopathy has a stronger genetic association. Scientists think that parts of the brain involved in emotions don't fully develop. Although sociopathy can also be inherited, abuse and trauma in childhood are more common causes.

 

It is important to realize that people have many personality traits. Someone may exhibit selfishness or act aggressively, but that doesn't mean they have ASPD. Since many people who have ASPD don't recognize these traits as a problem, watching for consistent behavior patterns is necessary.

These are some common signs of ASPD:

  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Attempting to control others with threats or aggression
  • Using intelligence, charm, or charisma to manipulate others
  • Not learning from mistakes or punishment
  • Lying for personal gain
  • Showing a tendency toward physical violence and fights
  • Generally superficial relationships
  • Sometimes, stealing or committing other crimes
  • Threatening suicide to manipulate without the intention of actually doing it
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Trouble with responsibilities such as a job, paying bills, etc.

Common things people with ASPD say

People with ASPD can be very manipulative. Some may use outright threats, whereas others hide their intentions with charm or passive-aggressiveness. 

Manipulation can sound like:

  • "It wasn’t my fault." Instead of accepting blame, manipulators might lie about or downplay their role in a conflict. This might make you feel sympathetic. 
  • "That’s not true." People with ASPD often lie to get what they want. 
  • "I’ve never met someone as kind as you." Flattery is used to get your support, and later, favors. 
  • "At least you don’t have it as bad as me." People might use this phrase to invalidate your feelings so you can focus on them instead.
  • "Just kidding!" Some people use sarcasm to hide mean remarks.
  • "You're so sensitive." People with ASPD might say this to make you feel like you're overreacting to something hurtful they've said or done.
  • "I did it for you." This pins the blame on you, not the speaker.
  • "If you really loved me, you would do this." Manipulators might take advantage of your feelings to get their way.
  • "If you break up with me, I’ll kill myself." Manipulators use threats to force you to do what they want.
  • "You’re imagining things." This form of manipulation is called gaslighting. It makes you doubt yourself and your sanity.

The most important thing when you're dealing with someone with ASPD is to protect yourself. Even though it might be a friend or loved one with the disorder, you have to put your well-being first. Although your first thought might be to help them get treatment, that can be very difficult. People with ASPD are unlikely to seek professional help or even realize they have a problem. 

To protect yourself, take these steps:

Maintain your boundaries. Keep your interactions with them short and to the point. Avoid engaging with them emotionally, and do not give them any personal information or sensitive details. 

Seek support and guidance. Turn to trusted friends and family members for emotional support. If possible, consult with a mental health professional for further guidance on how to deal with the person with ASPD.

Educate yourself. Learn the signs of ASPD so that you can spot the behaviors and understand their tendencies and motivations.

Avoid confrontation. The situation can quickly escalate and become unsafe. Remain neutral and composed when dealing with someone with ASPD. Showing emotion can leave you vulnerable to manipulation.

Do not try to change them. People with ASPD do not see that they have a problem and it can be very difficult to change their view. It may also cause them to become more enraged, violent, and manipulative. 

If someone you love has ASPD, it can be very isolating. You can get help from a therapist or find a support group. You won't be able to change your loved one's behavior, but you can learn ways to understand and cope, or ways to set boundaries and protect yourself.

If you have experienced anxiety and depression as a result, support groups or therapy can help you. Having someone to talk to can make things easier. 

People with ASPD aren’t evil -- they have a condition that makes it hard for them to empathize with others or act according to social and societal norms. If you or someone you know has ASPD, talk with a mental health professional. They can provide information about possible treatments or strategies to address manipulative behaviors.

Can people with ASPD love their children? 

People with ASPD can love close family members, but they might struggle to connect with anyone else.

What upsets someone with ASPD? 

Many people with ASPD crave love and connection. However, they struggle to empathize with those around them, which makes it hard for them to form meaningful relationships.

What is someone with ASPD's weakness? 

It is difficult for people with ASPD to control their impulsive and thrill-seeking behavior. This can cause a lot of frustration as well as dangerous outcomes.