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):
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
Understand that sociopaths are hard to deal with, and it is better to cut them out of your life. If you cannot do it for some reason, be sure to avoid them as much as possible. This is usually the only solution when the sociopath is your senior at work or worse, your child, parent, or sibling. It is even more important if you have a sensitive type personality because a sociopath will always try to manipulate you.
When you know you are around a sociopath, it is important that you do not talk about anything that makes you happy or upset, as this will make you emotionally more vulnerable and they can easily take advantage of it. Understand that a sociopath would come as a friend but they will never do anything to fix something that makes you feel upset. In fact, they will take advantage of that weakness, so it is better to not share your emotional side with them.
When you are around sociopaths, you should always be skeptical about what they say. They can hit in a way that would trigger your anger. It is important to stay calm around those people and this will make it difficult for them to manipulate you.
It is important to not involve emotionally in what the sociopath says about anything. It is also important to have a neutral conversation and ensure that you do not let the sociopath take the liberty to do all the talking. It is okay to agree to them in complimentary ways, but do not give them an opportunity to catch you off-guard. Also, ensure that the topic is safe and neutral, like sports, weather, etc. While having a conversation, be sure to change the subjects continuously. Having long moments of silence would give them a chance to affect you in a negative way.
Even when you cannot avoid a sociopath, it does not mean you should give them any of your personal information to get out of a conversation. No matter what, just do not talk about your friends, family, finances, business, goals, dreams, and so on. They would use that information to hurt you in a bad way. If they are after your money, it is important to protect your financial information and it is even better to behave as if you have nothing in your account. If they want to be around you to feel more powerful, you should behave as if you are not well-connected. Be aware of the situation and act accordingly.