Sociopaths, Psychopaths, and Bipolar Disorder

Are people with bipolar disorder likely to be sociopaths?

Sociopathic young man
Charming and possibly sociopathic young man. / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Both psychopaths and sociopaths are defined as someone who is suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder. Both groups show a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights and feelings of others. There are, however, subtle differences between the two groups.

While psychopaths are literally people with no conscience, sociopaths do have limited ability to feel empathy and remorse. While psychopaths can and do follow social conventions when it suits their desires and needs, sociopaths are more likely to fly off the handle and behave violently.

It may be the case the psychopathy is usually genetic, while sociopathy is the result of extremely negative experience.

While it's common to think of sociopaths as criminals, even killers, such behavior isn't essential to the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Psychopaths and sociopaths may also be extraordinarily manipulative - willing to gain others' trust for the sole purpose of gain, with no feelings of guilt or remorse.

Example: Glenn told Marie he was a top executive at a major company, and exercised his charm to get her to fall in love with him. During their engagement, though, he told her he had serious tax problems and couldn't marry her without obtaining more money. Marie sold off her investments to help him pay these mythical taxes. Shortly afterward, the sociopathic Glenn disappeared, taking her money with him. He went on to do the same thing to three other women before he was actually arrested for attempted murder of a woman who checked into his background and confronted him about it.

Diagnosing a Sociopath

The Diagnostic Manual (DSM) lists ten separate personality disorders, of which sociopathy is one. Here's a look at the personality traits that psychiatrists consider when diagnosing this condition (diagnostic traits did not change when the DSM 5 replaced the DSM-IV in 2013):

1. Required: Self-functioning that is:

  • Egocentric, getting self-esteem from power, personal gain or pleasure; and/or
  • Sets goals based on personal gratification, without regard to whether achieving those goals is legal or ethical.

2. Required: Interpersonal functioning that:

  • Lacks empathy - doesn't care about hurting others; and/or
  • Can't have true emotionally intimate relationships because relates by exploitation that may be by:
    • Deceit
    • Coercion
    • Control by dominance
    • Control by intimidation

More Required for Diagnosis

In addition, diagnosis depends on these present behaviors:

  • Manipulating others, such as pretending to be deeply interested in someone in order to achieve a goal;
  • Being deceitful, such as a man who says he is a decorated war hero when in fact he has never even served in the military;
  • Having a callousness that could be shown by not caring about others' feelings, having no remorse when actions harm others, being aggressive, or being sadistic;

Showing hostility easily. This could be shown by things like:

  1. Repeated fights or assaults
  2. Irresponsibility regarding commitments (e.g., financial obligations), agreements and promises.
  3. Making spur-of-the-moment decisions without thinking about how they might turn out; and/or finding it hard to make or follow plans.
  1. Taking risks that might result in self-damage for no particular reason, even though the consequences could be self-harming; being easily bored and doing thoughtless and risky things to fight boredom; ignoring personal limitations and denying that activities could be dangerous.

What Causes Sociopathy?

Sociopathy is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A person may be born with a susceptibility to the disorder, and treatment and experiences during childhood and adolescence may trigger the onset of antisocial personality disorder. It isn't known how often genetics are involved in developing the condition.

Are Bipolar People Sociopaths?

Bipolar disorder is considered to be a mood disorder rather than a personality disorder. They may experience periods of time when they are self-aggrandizing and narcissistic -- but this does not mean that they are sociopathic. In fact, there is no reason to believe that a person with bipolar disorder is less moral - or has less of a conscience - than anyone else.


"Antisocial Personality Disorder (Dyssocial Personality Disorder)." APA DSM-5 Development. American Psychiatric Association, 4 2012. Web. 28 Nov 2012.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Antisocial Personality Disorder. Mayo Clinic, 10 October 2010. 

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