Psychological Disorders

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basic features of antisocial personality disorder and its etiology

Most human beings live in accordance with a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. Most individuals learn at a very young age that there are certain things that should not be done. We learn that we should not lie or cheat. We are taught that it is wrong to take things that do not belong to us, and that it is wrong to exploit others for personal gain. We also learn the importance of living up to our responsibilities, of doing what we say we will do. People with antisocial , however, do not seem to have a moral compass. These individuals act as though they neither have a sense of nor care about right or wrong. Not surprisingly, these people represent a serious problem for others and for society in general.

According to the DSM-5, the individual with (sometimes referred to as psychopathy) shows no regard at all for other people’s rights or feelings. This lack of regard is exhibited a number of ways and can include repeatedly performing illegal acts, lying to or conning others, impulsivity and recklessness, irritability and aggressiveness toward others, and failure to act in a responsible way (e.g., leaving debts unpaid) (APA, 2013). The worst part about antisocial personality disorder, however, is that people with this disorder have no remorse over one’s misdeeds; these people will hurt, manipulate, exploit, and abuse others and not feel any guilt. Signs of this disorder can emerge early in life; however, a person must be at least 18 years old to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

People with antisocial personality disorder seem to view the world as self-serving and unkind. They seem to think that they should use whatever means necessary to get by in life. They tend to view others not as living, thinking, feeling beings, but rather as pawns to be used or abused for a specific purpose. They often have an over-inflated sense of themselves and can appear extremely arrogant. They frequently display superficial charm; for example, without really meaning it they might say exactly what they think another person wants to hear. They lack empathy: they are incapable of understanding the emotional point-of-view of others. People with this disorder may become involved in illegal enterprises, show cruelty toward others, leave their jobs with no plans to obtain another job, have multiple sexual partners, repeatedly get into fights with others, and show reckless disregard for themselves and others (e.g., repeated arrests for driving while intoxicated) (APA, 2013).

A useful way to conceptualize antisocial personality disorder is boiling the diagnosis down to three major concepts: disinhibition, boldness, and meanness (Patrick, Fowles, & Krueger, 2009). Disinhibition is a propensity toward impulse control problems, lack of planning and forethought, insistence on immediate gratification, and inability to restrain behavior. Boldness describes a tendency to remain calm in threatening situations, high self-assurance, a sense of dominance, and a tendency toward thrill-seeking. Meanness is defined as “aggressive resource seeking without regard for others,” and is signaled by a lack of empathy, disdain for and lack of close relationships with others, and a tendency to accomplish goals through cruelty (Patrick et al., 2009, p. 913).

Risk Factors for Antisocial Personality Disorder

Antisocial personality disorder is observed in about 3.6% of the population; the disorder is much more common among males, with a 3 to 1 ratio of men to women, and it is more likely to occur in men who are younger, widowed, separated, divorced, of lower socioeconomic status, who live in urban areas, and who live in the western United States (Compton, Conway, Stinson, Colliver, & Grant, 2005). Compared to men with antisocial personality disorder, women with the disorder are more likely to have experienced emotional neglect and sexual abuse during childhood, and they are more likely to have had parents who abused substances and who engaged in antisocial behaviors themselves (Alegria et al., 2013).

The table below shows some of the differences in the specific types of antisocial behaviors that men and women with antisocial personality disorder exhibit (Alegria et al., 2013).

Table 1. Gender Differences in Antisocial Personality Disorder
Men with antisocial personality disorder are more likely than women with antisocial personality disorder to Women with antisocial personality disorder are more likely than men with antisocial personality to
  • do things that could easily hurt themselves or others
  • receive three or more traffic tickets for reckless driving
  • have their driver’s license suspended
  • destroy others’ property
  • start a fire on purpose
  • make money illegally
  • do anything that could lead to arrest
  • hit someone hard enough to injure them
  • hurt an animal on purpose
  • run away from home overnight
  • frequently miss school or work
  • lie frequently
  • forge someone’s signature
  • get into a fight that comes to blows with an intimate partner
  • live with others besides the family for at least one month
  • harass, threaten, or blackmail someone

Family, twin, and adoption studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors influence the development of antisocial personality disorder, as well as general antisocial behavior (criminality, violence, aggressiveness) (Baker, Bezdjian, & Raine, 2006). Personality and temperament dimensions that are related to this disorder, including fearlessness, impulsive antisociality, and callousness, have a substantial genetic influence (Livesley & Jang, 2008). Adoption studies clearly demonstrate that the development of antisocial behavior is determined by the interaction of genetic factors and adverse environmental circumstances (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). For example, one investigation found that adoptees of biological parents with antisocial personality disorder were more likely to exhibit adolescent and adult antisocial behaviors if they were raised in adverse adoptive family environments (e.g., adoptive parents had marital problems, were divorced, used drugs, and had legal problems) than if they were raised in a more normal adoptive environment (Cadoret, Yates, Ed, Woodworth, & Stewart, 1995).

Researchers who are interested in the importance of environment in the development of antisocial personality disorder have directed their attention to such factors as the community, the structure and functioning of the family, and peer groups. Each of these factors influences the likelihood of antisocial behavior. One longitudinal investigation of more than 800 Seattle-area youth measured risk factors for violence at 10, 14, 16, and 18 years of age (Herrenkohl et al., 2000). The risk factors examined included those involving the family, peers, and community. A portion of the findings from this study are provided in Figure 1.

A table is titled “risk factors during adolescence that predict later violence.” Risk factors are matched to age groups of “age 10 predictor (elementary school),” “age 14 predictor (middle school),” and “age 16 predictor (high school).” In the “family” category, “parental violence” is marked for age 14, “parent criminality” for ages 14 and 16, “poor family management” for ages 14 and 16, “family conflict” for ages 14 and 16, “parental attitudes favorable to violence” for age 10, and “residential mobility” for age 16. In the “peer” category, “peer delinquency” is marked for ages 10, 14, and 16; “gang membership” is marked for ages 14 and 16. In the “community” category, “economic deprivation” is marked for ages 10 and 16, “community disorganization” is marked for ages 14 and 16, “availability of drugs” is marked for ages 10, 14, and 16, and “neighborhood adults involved in crime” is marked for ages 14 and 16.
Figure 1. Longitudinal studies have helped to identify risk factors for predicting violent behavior.

Those with antisocial tendencies do not seem to experience emotions the way most other people do. These individuals fail to show fear in response to environment cues that signal punishment, pain, or noxious stimulation. For instance, they show less skin conductance (sweatiness on hands) in anticipation of electric shock than do people without antisocial tendencies (Hare, 1965). Skin conductance is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and is used to assess autonomic nervous system functioning. When the sympathetic nervous system is active, people become aroused and anxious, and sweat gland activity increases. Thus, increased sweat gland activity, as assessed through skin conductance, is taken as a sign of arousal or anxiety. For those with antisocial personality disorder, a lack of skin conductance may indicate the presence of characteristics such as emotional deficits and impulsivity that underlie the propensity for antisocial behavior and negative social relationships (Fung et al., 2005).

While emotional deficits may contribute to antisocial personality disorder, so too might an inability to relate to others’ pain. In a recent study, 80 prisoners were shown photos of people being intentionally hurt by others (e.g., someone crushing a person’s hand in an automobile door) while undergoing brain imaging (Decety, Skelly, & Kiehl, 2013). Prisoners who scored high on a test of antisocial tendencies showed significantly less activation in brain regions involved in the experience of empathy and feeling concerned for others than did prisoners with low scores on the antisocial test. Notably, the prisoners who scored high on the antisocial test showed greater activation in a brain area involved self-awareness, cognitive function, and interpersonal experience. The investigators suggested that the heightened activation in this region when watching social interactions involving one person harming another may reflect a propensity or desire for this kind of behavior.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

General Psychology by OpenStax and Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book