Sociopaths: Are They Born or Does a Person Become One?

Think you’re dealing with a sociopath in your life? If so, you’ve probably seen the indisputable signs they display on a daily basis. But have you ever wondered just how a person becomes a sociopath in the first place?

Known as antisocial personality disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, sociopathy is a complex disorder in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. Additionally, MedlinePlus says the exact cause of antisocial personality disorder is unknown, though there are certain factors medical professionals think play a role. To make things more complicated, reaching a diagnosis is difficult because sociopaths are often charming, manipulative, and controlled.

It basically comes down to nature versus nurture. Interestingly enough, both schools of thought claim risk factors of their own. Here’s a look at both.

Genetic factors

Brain lobes in different colors

X-ray of a brain | iStock.com/alex-mit

Genetics often play a role in the developing sociopathic behaviors, and people with an antisocial or alcoholic parent are at an increased risk, the MedlinePlus article says. But whether a sociopath is born or made is still up for debate, as reaching a diagnosis depends on the individual in question.

One Psychology Today article takes a look at former Harvard professor Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door for some more insight. The research shows as much as 50% of causes are based on genetics. The remaining percentage, then, is left up to environmental effects we don’t really understand. What is certain, though, is that being dealt genes that lend themselves to sociopathy really can make a difference.

Environmental factors

father and son talking

Father sternly speaking to his son | iStock.com

Like several mental health conditions, antisocial personality disorder can develop from environmental factors during a person’s upbringing. How often do you hear of people sitting on a therapist’s couch talking about mommy or daddy issues? Well, according to HealthyPlace, a person’s background can indeed lead them to become a sociopath. “Early life experiences or trauma, such as extreme poverty, abuse, rejection, and other adverse conditions can, if the biological nature allows, be part of the causes of sociopathy,” the story reads.

Furthermore, Newsweek discusses how a lack of connecting with other people makes a huge difference. Because of this, psychologists have worked hard to develop interventions for children with early signs. Treatment  focuses on connecting the child with their peers and parents to strengthen the bonds that can make a difference between an adult who is a violent offender and someone who’s simply a bit colder than the average person. Even for those who think the disorder is predetermined by genetics, it’s hard to dispute evidence of such life-changing results early intervention could have on a child headed toward sociopathy.

What if the treatment wasn’t effective?

boy in jail

Teenage boy behind bars | iStock.com/lilly3

The subject of early intervention brings us to our next topic. MedlinePlus explains conduct disorder, which is diagnosed in children and teens, is often a huge risk factor for sociopaths because it can lead to personality disorders in adulthood, particularly antisocial personality disorder. And for an adult to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder in the first place, he or she must have had conduct disorder during childhood.

If intervention occurs early enough in children with conduct disorder, treatment can be effective. However, kids who have severe symptoms and don’t complete treatment have the poorest outlook, and could be destined for a sociopath diagnosis once they hit the age of 18.

And just because a person wasn’t diagnosed with conduct disorder during childhood doesn’t mean they never had it. A person could very well be a sociopath without the official label from a professional. Sounds like a good reason to keep your mental health in check throughout your life, wouldn’t you say?