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This is part of a series of posts exploring the similarities and differences among three personality disorders with some shared characteristics (Narcissism, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Sociopathy). Teasing out which you are dealing with will help inform the decisions you make about how to take care of yourself.

What is a Sociopath? What is a Psychopath?

Sometimes sociopath and psychopath are used interchangeably, and there is a cultural perspective that sociopaths are less dangerous and violently criminal than psychopaths. The personality structure is basically the same but the behaviors differ by a matter of degrees. Some call everyone with this set of issues sociopaths, some say that they have anti-social personality disorder, some say there's a difference between sociopaths and psychopaths. For your purposes of discerning what might be going on in a troubled relationship, the debate over labeling probably doesn't matter - you just need to know the basics of what to look.

A sociopath is a narcissist with a twist. The twist is deviousness (or malice); a devious narcissist. A narcissist tends to be unaware of his/her self-serving orientation, while a sociopath is quite aware of being self-serving, exploitative and manipulative. Narcissistic traits are an element of sociopathy, so it can be confusing to figure out what problem you are confronting.

First let’s look at the similarities - like a Narcissist, a Sociopath:

  • charms people, can be highly charismatic
  • lacks empathy 
  • is grandiose
  • takes credit and deflects blame
  • is self-serving and entitled
  • mimics behavior observed in other people (but does so knowingly for manipulative purposes, while a narcissist isn't aware)
  • has shallow emotions and has chameleon like ability to adapt to people and circumstances
  • generally unable to form close social bonds and tends to have relationships that are troubled and don't last (although what is known as "successful sociopaths" can learn to moderate their behavior to maintain long-term bonds). 

In addition to those narcissistic traits, a Sociopath: 

  • is obsessed with power, winning, appeasing boredom and seeking pleasure
  • craves stimulation
  • prefers to skirt around work
  • is a highly rational decision maker seeking to maximize his/her own self interest
  • finds you uninteresting if you are of little value or little threat
  • is knowingly and purposefully conning and manipulative, knowingly uses people
  • is not deterred by the threat of punishment, sees it as just something to work around
  • is relatively immune from negative emotions; only feels shame if has been outplayed
  • is focused on "winning" however s/he defines it
  • is impulsive and can become fixated to exclusion of all else
  • is unpredictable
  • is aggressive, both reactively and calculated
  • is not self-revealing, IS only curious about other people for purposes of info gathering for later manipulation
  • will lie repeatedly even when unnecessary for minor reasons
  • lacks remorse when cause harm to others
  • ruins people for fun, entertainment, enjoyment
  • blames victims for their own misfortune
  • doesn't like being seen, prefers to be the one doing the looking
  • is sexually fluid and promiscuous
  • craves fear of others that lets her/him know who's in charge
  • is likely to rage when doubted or challenged
  • prefers organizations with fewer rules
  • does have a sense of right vs. wrong but chooses not to follow the social rules in favor of short term gains
  • drops a person when they are no longer useful
  • tends to move to a whole new location  when a long episode of conning has played out
  • seeks approval and "love" as means to an end, not for connection
  • highly aware of being different from other people; uses people's 'irrational emotions' to play them

There is general consensus that sociopathy is not treatable. Possibly more than the other disorders, there seems to be a strong genetic component – it is clear that sociopathy can be passed down through generations (but it can also exist without that). As sociopaths age, some of them may develop brakes on their more destructive patterns in recognition that long term relationships serve them.

In the next post, I’ll look describe people with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Good resources on Sociopathy: