Medically, sociopathy is termed as antisocial personality disorder. It is defined as "a mental health condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others."
The exact cause of sociopathy is not known. However, it is believed to result from complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors (e.g. child abuse, alcoholic parents). Sociopathy is much more common in men as compared to women.
Various hallmark sociopath traits are listed below. It is important to note that not all traits will be present in all the "sociopaths".
According to ICD-10 criteria, presence of 3 or more of the following qualifies for the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (~sociopathy):
- Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
- Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, and obligations.
- Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.
- Very low tolerance to frustration, a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
- Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
- Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalization for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) is another widely used tool for the diagnosis and it defines sociopath traits as:
A) Pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
- Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
- Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
- Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead
- Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
- Reckless disregard for safety of self or others
- Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
- Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
Sociopathy vs. Psychopathy vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder
There is often confusion between these terminologies because of wide overlapping of the features. Sociopathy is nearly synonymous with antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is a medical diagnosis which is commonly termed as sociopathy. However, some people may have some features of sociopathy which may not be suffice to meet the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder. They may also be called (albeit wrongly) sociopaths.
Some people consider psychopathy synonymous with sociopathy. However, psychopathy is a more severe form of sociopathy. Psychopathy is not a defined diagnosis in the widely used DSM-IV criteria for the diagnosis of mental disorders. Most of psychopaths will meet the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder, however vice versa is not true and only 1/3rd of the sociopaths will meet the criteria for psychopathy.
High Functioning Sociopath
High functioning sociopath is term used to describe people with sociopath traits that also happen to have a very high intelligence quotient. They are likely to be highly successful in the field they endeavor (politics, business, etc.). They plan very meticulously and the presence of sociopathic traits like lack of empathy, lack of remorse, deceptiveness, shallow emotions, etc. makes it very difficult for "normal" people to compete with them.
Sociopath Traits in Children
Antisocial personality disorder (~Sociopathy) is only diagnosed in adults (age >18 years). In children and teenagers (age <18 years), the "sociopathy traits" are diagnosed as conduct disorder. Conduct disorder diagnosis is changed to antisocial personality disorder if the traits persist even after attaining the age of 18 years.
MacDonald Triad or the "triad of sociopathy" comprises of cruelty towards animals, obsession with fire setting and bed wetting. These features might be present during the childhood of sociopaths. Cruelty towards animals, obsession with fire setting, lying and stealing are some of the most important features of conduct disorders in children and teenagers.