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Whether someone has intentionally deceived you for their own pleasure or you’ve had a roommate eat the last of the homemade lasagna without apologizing, you’ve experienced sociopathic behavior. Fortunately, your selfish roommate likely isn’t an actual sociopath (though they are rude AF).
Sociopathy, otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), occurs in 1 to 4 percent of the population. Men are 3 to 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASPD (“and all of ’em dated me!”, an edgy Cathy cartoon would say).
Sociopaths have difficulty feeling empathy, often use tactics like lying and manipulation, and feel little to no remorse for any damage that’s left in their wake (“Quit describing my ex-boyfriends!”, edgy Cathy would reply).
Though ASPD can be hard to spot, here are some traits of high-functioning sociopaths and how to deal if you think you have one in your life.
Technically, “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” have no clinical meaning. ASPD is a type of personality disorder, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka, the DSM-5, a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association that’s used to diagnose mental health conditions) doesn’t differentiate between high and low function.
The terms came about to describe the level of severity of the sociopathic behavior. A high-functioning sociopath can mimic emotions and responses and often hide their ASPD tendencies. High-functioning people can hold jobs, be in relationships, and start families.
Low-functioning sociopaths struggle to mimic everyday emotions and connections, so they may come off more overtly angry or manipulative. Though these people can hold down jobs, forming real relationships is far more difficult.
If you’re worried about your partner being a sociopath, know that it’s unlikely. Typically, true sociopaths can’t form lasting relationships. To ease your mind (or to help you find out if your jerk boss is a real sociopath), here are some of the telltale signs.
The biggest symptoms involve not caring about others. And not in an “I don’t care what people think — I’m gonna live my life,” inspirational-meme kind of way. Sociopaths are hostile, manipulative, and self-serving.
People with ASPD do everything for personal gain, have a greatly exaggerated sense of self-worth, and show no remorse for their wrongdoings. In addition to lying, manipulation, and lack of empathy, high-functioning sociopaths are often calculated, narcissistic, secretive, and quick to anger. They’re often impulsive and irresponsible.
This description may make it sound easy to spot a high-functioning sociopath. But people with ASPD can also be charming and highly intelligent. Often, they know how to manipulate people into doing what they want, so they may come across as friendly and outgoing when it’s really all a ruse.
Now here’s a fun question: How can you tell if someone is a high-functioning sociopath or a psychopath?
Technically, there’s no difference — both disorders are considered ASPD. But many psychologists consider psychopaths to be more violent and aggressive, whereas sociopaths are likely to break rules and lack emotion but less likely to go on murderous rampages to Huey Lewis and the News.
If you spot someone with three or more of these tendencies, they might be a high-functioning sociopath (as edgy Jeff Foxworthy would say).
There’s no known cause of ASPD. There’s some proof that the disorder is genetic, but the evidence isn’t clear on whether it’s nature or nurture. A child with sociopathic parents may inherit their biology and develop the disorder, or being raised in an abusive home with high-functioning sociopaths could trigger the disorder.
There is a clear link between ASPD and being male. While being male doesn’t cause someone to become a sociopath, the disorder is much more likely if you own a Y chromosome. Not all men are sociopaths, but almost all sociopaths are men.
The DSM-IV lists several tendencies. To be diagnosed with ASPD, a person must have at least three of these symptoms:
- failure to conform to social norms (i.e, they break the law)
- repeatedly lying or conning others for profit or pleasure
- failure to plan ahead or impulsive behavior
- repeated irritability or aggressiveness (such as always getting into fights)
- recklessly disregarding the safety of themselves or others
- consistent irresponsibility (can’t hold down a job or meet financial obligations)
- lack of remorse (i.e., rationalizes their actions or is indifferent to other people’s feelings)
These basics of sociopathy can help you figure out if someone you know has ASPD. Remember, they don’t need to have all these traits, and some traits might be hidden by a high-functioning sociopath’s frequent lies.
For clinical diagnosis, most psychologists will go by the newer DSM-5 criteria. To meet those, sociopaths must show impairments in self (like egocentrism or an inability to set goals or act within regular societal standards) AND impairments in interpersonal functioning.
That means they can’t feel for others, form intimate relationships, or feel remorse. In addition to those criteria, someone with ASPD will be manipulative, deceitful, callous, hostile, irresponsible, and impulsive and will take large risks.
If a person over 18 has shown these traits consistently and their behavior can’t be attributed to substance use or a different disorder, they will likely be diagnosed as having ASPD.
The DSM-5 description of ASPD is helpful to professionals because it allows them to give a more accurate diagnosis. But for the average person, the DSM-IV version is easier to remember and apply to others to give you an idea if you might be dealing with a sociopath. Either way, you now know all the possible symptoms of sociopathy.
Like many personality disorders, it can be tough to diagnose. You can’t just take a test that says “I’m 100% That Sociopath.” There are high-functioning sociopath tests online that are based on the DSM-5 criteria, but they’re not a replacement for a professional opinion.
Even if you’d love to diagnose your jerk boss as a sociopath, you can’t do that unless you’re a trained psychologist. But you can know the symptoms and be better prepared if you’re dealing with someone with ASPD.
There’s no cure for sociopathy, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that it can be treated. Often, sociopaths don’t seek help because they don’t think there’s anything wrong with their behavior. If a sociopath does seek help, psychotherapy seems to be the best option.
A 2010 review found that cognitive behavioral therapy wasn’t very helpful for treating the disorder itself but did help people stop certain behaviors. They might not really develop empathy or learn to feel bad about what they did, but they could learn to stop eating their roommate’s lasagna (I’ll never forget that, Joe!).
A small 2014 study found that the drug clozapine led to reduced symptoms in violent people with ASPD. The drug especially helped with impulse control and anger. Still, more research is needed before these results can be applied to high-functioning sociopaths overall.
If you suspect someone of having high-functioning ASPD, the best thing to do is get away. But that isn’t always possible. If it’s your boss or a relative, you might not be able to cut ties, but you can learn how to deal with their sociopathic behavior.
First, trust your instincts. A person doesn’t need a DSM diagnosis to be a manipulative a-hole who’s causing you harm. If they don’t care about your feelings, repeatedly lie to you, and manipulate your emotions for their pleasure, they aren’t someone you should be around — ASPD or no.
Secondly, remember that you cannot change this person. They may not realize that what they’re doing is abnormal, and they definitely don’t care if it hurts you. Let go of any illusions that you can get them to be better.
As you try to distance yourself, this person might try to make deals with you. Don’t go along with it. They don’t care about your feelings and don’t obey rules, so they won’t honor any deal you make. And they might try to make you think you’re the one who ruined the deal. So, just avoid it all together.
If you’re not sure how to distance yourself from this person or you want other tools to deal with them, talk to a therapist. They’re better able to spot the true tendencies of a sociopath and can help you learn how to set boundaries or remove yourself from the situation. They’ll also help you cope with the harm the sociopath inflicted.
If the person seems like they’ll cause extreme harm to themselves or others, you can call an emergency mental health line like SAMHSA (1-800-662-4357). If you’re ever in physical danger, call 911.
Even if your roommate is annoying or your boss doesn’t always care what you think, they probably aren’t a true sociopath. But if you’re dealing with manipulation and lack of remorse on a regular basis, you now know how to spot a high-functioning sociopath and, hopefully, get away from them forever.