The Talented Mr. Ripley, Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, or lago in Shakespeare’s Othello—are fictional characters, but they’re drawn from real life templates. If they ever visited a psychiatrist, they’d be diagnosed with a sociopathic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. They share certain unmistakable symptoms and traits that mark this personality disorder.
The sociopathic personality disorder is a category of mental disorders that are identified by distinctly harmful and maladjusted patterns of behavior, cognition, and inner life that deviate from the person’s culture. People suffering from these disorders experience disruption and deviation in their personal, social, and professional life.
Antisocial personality disorder
People affected by this condition display consistent behavior patterns that usually involves difficulty in differentiating between right and wrong. They show no awareness, sensitivity, or empathy for the feelings of the people they interact with.
Their interpersonal dealings are conducted with either indifference or disregard for emotions. There is no feeling of guilt or remorse when they hurt people. For this reason, many of them end up becoming criminals and they are unable to fulfill normal roles in the family, society, or at work.
These behavior patterns generally emerge in childhood and develop through adolescence and adulthood, where it affects the person’s quality of life and functioning.
There are different categories of sociopathic personality disorder. They are classified under three main categories:
Each of these categories has its own cluster of behavioral traits. Psychiatrists and psychologists also use many other classifications to distinguish one type of antisocial personality disorder from another.
Common traits may include aggressive/cruel behavior towards vulnerable people/children/animals, deceit/theft/lying, disregard for rules, destruction of property, etc. Some may be narcissistic, obsessed with wealth acquisition, feel that they are self-important, can easily change demeanor to suit the occasion, and don’t take responsibility for their actions.
The character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the blockbuster Catch Me If You Can, where he portrays the real-life con-man Frank Abagnale is a typical antisocial personality—a charming, but an unscrupulous sociopath who is shrewd to take unimaginable risks and almost gets away with them.
The antisocial personality disorder is detected over a period of time, but symptoms may arise quite early. Though there are no tests or clinical signs, the symptoms include:
- Decisions always made on personal needs
- Exploitative relationships
- Use of domination/intimidation in relationships
- Lack of integrity or commitment
- Highly manipulative in relationships with the use of charm, verbal ability etc
- Not bound by rules
- Inordinate hostility/aggression/rage to small obstacles, failures
These symptoms/traits appear in most people momentarily on different occasions, or as a response to certain events. But when they form a consistent pattern over a long period of time, they impact the person’s life and it is categorized as a disorder.
Diagnosis is performed via personality assessment, personal/family/medical history, comparison with symptoms listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5.
Risk factors and causes
There is an ongoing debate on Nature vs Nurture in the development of personality. Today it’s generally considered to be a combination of both, with some factors playing a more dominant role. There could be a certain genetic predisposition and chemical changes in the brain during the fetal stage that contributes to personality disorders. Males are more vulnerable than females.
Childhood abuse and neglect are common factors in most cases. Violence, instability, and family history of personality disorders are identified as passive causes. Low socioeconomic status can contribute to a more hardened attitude toward others, against laws in general and self-centered, opportunistic behavior patterns that become consistent over a period. Not having good parental role models is a significant factor, especially lack of maternal bonding.
Impact on life
Criminal activities, inability to maintain/sustain relationships and career, drug or alcohol abuse, social/economic problems, gang-participation/imprisonment, physical/verbal abuse or neglect of spouse and children, early death due to criminal activities and gang participation are some of the ways in which antisocial personality disorder affects life.
Though there is no specific cure for this condition, early diagnosis and intervention can help reduce the symptoms and its impact. Mental healthcare professionals perform the following treatments.
- Group, Family and/or Individual Psychotherapy
- Medications for associated symptoms like hyperactivity, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, aggression etc. (However, medication has to be carefully monitored as there are strong chances of violence being involved)
Literature and films are two things that hold up a mirror to all that happens around us. A sociopathic/antisocial personality disorder can be identified during early stages and appropriate behavior modification/psychotherapy can be provided.
If you feel that you or someone you know is displaying the above-mentioned symptoms, please make sure you consult a healthcare professional immediately.