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Sociopathic Personality Characteristics

By Beth Campbell ; Updated October 25, 2017

“Always let your conscience be your guide,” Jiminy Cricket soundly advises Pinocchio in the classic Walt Disney movie. But those words of wisdom hold no personal meaning for sociopaths -- individuals with a personality disorder that deprives them of a normal conscience. Lacking the capacity for the “social emotions” of love, empathy, guilt, shame and remorse, sociopaths see other people as objects to be manipulated for their personal gain and sense of power.

Diagnostic Description

When clinically diagnosed, sociopaths fall into the category of antisocial personality disorder as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," 4th Edition (DSM-IV). In previous manuals it was termed “sociopathic personality disturbance” and “psychopathic personality.” According to DSM-IV, symptoms of antisocial personality disorder include disregard for right and wrong and for others’ feelings, habitual lying, deceitful and manipulative behavior, absence of remorse, rationalizing or blaming others for one’s own mistakes, repeated lawbreaking, irresponsibility in work and finances, unconcern for one’s own safety or that of others, impulsivity, and aggressive behaviors such as fighting.

Sociopaths in Society

Diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder most often occurs through the criminal justice system when sociopaths commit crimes. People often think of serial killers or other violent criminals when they hear the word “sociopath.” However, researchers such as retired Shippensburg University psychology professor Dr. C. George Boeree and Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author Dr. Martha Stout believe many sociopaths are not violent, avoid committing crimes, and live in society with their disorder unnoticed except by the people they harm.

Traits

In her book “The Sociopath Next Door,” Stout describes sociopaths as outwardly charming predators, possessing a keen ability to discern what others want to hear and using that to manipulate others for their own gain, with no remorse for any harm they cause. Because they are aware of the emotions they'd be expected to feel in various situations, they become adept at faking them when necessary and thus appear normal. Sociopaths use charm and flattery to draw others into their confidence and ferret out their weaknesses, desires and goals, says psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Kapuchinski. Believing everyone is corruptible, they seek to compromise their victims’ values and control them, and then blame their victims for bringing about whatever harm results.

Treatment

Because sociopaths don’t believe there is anything wrong with them, they are very difficult to treat, says Stout, who notes that psychiatry cannot instill a conscience where none exists. Sociopaths seldom seek treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, when therapy is mandated by the courts it usually focuses on anger management and skills for coping with stress, with antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or mood stabilizers prescribed when appropriate.

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