Harvard Health Publications

Antisocial Personality Disorder

What Is It?

Antisocial personality disorder, like other personality disorders, is a longstanding pattern of behavior and experience that impairs functioning and causes distress.

By definition, people with antisocial personality disorder don't follow society's norms, are deceitful and intimidating in relationships, and are inconsiderate of the rights of others. People with this type of personality may take part in criminal activity, but if they do, they are not sorry for their hurtful deeds. They can be impulsive, reckless and sometimes violent. This disorder is far more common and more apparent in men than women.

People with antisocial personality disorder generally do not value "playing by the rules" -- they do so only if they are threatened with punishment. This attitude leads to a tendency to exploit others. They take advantage of the fairness or softheartedness of others, and they feel indifferent toward or even contemptuous of their victims. A person with this disorder has little, if any, ability to be intimate with another person. Any lasting relationships are likely to involve some degree of abuse or neglect. Yet people with this disorder are sometimes charming and can be good actors who use lies and distortion to keep relationships going. Some with antisocial personality disorder have no goal beyond the pleasure of deceiving or harming others.

People with antisocial personality disorder appear to care for no one but themselves. They may be able to understand the emotions of others, but they don't suffer any shame or guilt about the pain they may be causing. Instead, they use their knowledge of others' weaknesses to gain favors or to manipulate an outcome. A person with this disorder usually does not take responsibility for any of his or her own suffering. He or she will blame others when things go badly. Many with this disorder do suffer, because they can be self-defeating, and never get to enjoy the many pleasures that come to people who are better able to have mutual and satisfying relationships.

People with this personality disorder can also have problems such as chronic boredom or irritability, psychosomatic symptoms, pathological gambling, alcohol and substance abuse, and a variety of mood or anxiety disorders. They have a higher risk of suicide. A significant number have had behavior problems or attention deficit disorder as children.

Antisocial personality disorder is probably caused by a combination of factors. Having any of these characteristics does not necessarily mean that a person has antisocial personality disorder.

  • Influences from the environment. A chaotic family life contributes to the development of this personality disorder, especially where there has been little supervision from parents or other adult role models. The disorder also may be more common where the community is not supportive or provides little reward for positive behavior. In some situations, there may even be reinforcement for sociopathic behavior.

  • Genetic (inherited) or biological factors. Researchers have found certain physiological responses that may occur more frequently in people with antisocial personality disorder. For example, they have a comparatively flat response to stress. They seem to get less anxious than the average person. They seem to have a harder time maintaining daytime arousal. They also have a weak "startle reflex," the involuntary response to loud noises. This relative insensitivity may affect their ability to learn from reward and punishment.

  • The frontal lobe, the area of the brain that governs judgment and planning, also appears to be different in people with antisocial personality disorder. Some researchers have found changes in the volume of brain structures that mediate violent behavior. People with this kind of brain function may thus have more difficulty restraining their impulses, which may account for the tendency toward more aggressive behavior. Neurobiologists cannot say with certainty that these variations in brain structure are a cause of antisocial personality. The variations could easily be the result of life experiences that are more common in people with this personality disorder rather than a cause.

Symptoms

People with antisocial personality disorder tend to have few symptoms. Rather, they cause discomfort or distress to others through socially unacceptable behavior and by being:

  • Deceitful

  • Impulsive

  • Aggressive or irritable

  • Reckless

  • Irresponsible

  • Remorseless

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is made on the basis of a person's history, usually by a mental health professional. There are no laboratory tests to assist in diagnosing this disorder. Other psychiatric disorders, such as a mood or anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, or substance abuse, may also be present.

Expected Duration

All personality disorders are lifelong patterns.

Prevention

There is no way to prevent this disorder. It is conceivable that a general improvement in social conditions could reduce the incidence of antisocial personality disorder. An improvement in a person's social environment may reduce the severity of the problem, especially if changes are made early in life.

Treatment

Many psychotherapy techniques have been proposed for treating antisocial personality disorder. Unfortunately, research does not indicate that any of the current treatments is particularly helpful for treating the personality disorder itself. As a result, the choice of treatment can be guided by a person's specific circumstances. In younger people, family or group psychotherapy may help to change destructive patterns of behavior, teach new vocational and relationship skills, and reinforce a person's social support. Psychotherapy also may help a person with this disorder learn to be more sensitive to the feelings of others and encourage new, socially acceptable and productive ways of thinking about one's goals and aims. Cognitive therapy attempts to change sociopathic ways of thinking. Behavior therapy uses reward and punishment to promote good behavior.

In some cases, symptoms can be treated with medication, although again there is no specific medication that is considered best for all people with this disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), may decrease aggressiveness and irritability. These drugs are useful if either anxiety or depression are present, or if the person is using substances to self-medicate for anxiety or low mood.

There are many questions about how helpful any of these interventions can be in an illness where, by definition, people who are affected do not recognize that they have a problem. Treatment is more likely to be successful if it is started earlier in life, but it is difficult to change long-entrenched patterns of thinking and behavior. Also, the longer a person lives with this personality style, the less he or she may be interested in taking responsibility for change. For some people, the tendency toward aggression and irritability decreases with age, but some personality characteristics may persist.

Often the only thing that can protect victims of antisocial behavior is the criminal justice system. In rare instances, corrections systems (jails and prisons) provide opportunities for treatment or rehabilitation, but often these environments, with their abundance of antisocial individuals, only promote antisocial behavior.

When To Call a Professional

People with antisocial personality disorder generally do not acknowledge that they have a problem that requires treatment. When a pattern of antisocial behavior is noted, others can recommend or encourage treatment. However, treatment may only occur when a court imposes it.

Prognosis

The long-term outlook for antisocial personality disorder is highly variable. Although treatment can sometimes be successful, change is not likely to be rapid when antisocial behavior is severe. In such cases, resources of time and energy may be better spent in getting help for potential victims, especially those, such as spouses or family members, who live in close proximity to the person with the disorder.

External resources

National Institute of Mental Health
Office of Communications
6001 Executive Blvd.
Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Phone: 301-443-4513
Toll-Free: 1-866-615-6464
TTY: 301-443-8431
Fax: 301-443-4279
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-3042
Phone: 703-524-7600
Toll-Free: 1-800-950-6264
TTY: 703-516-7227
Fax: 703-524-9094
http://www.nami.org/

Mental Health America
2000 N. Beauregard St., 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 703-684-7722
Toll-Free: 1-800-969-6642
TTY: 1-800-433-5959
Fax: 703-684-5968
http://www.nmha.org/

American Psychiatric Association
1000 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 1825
Arlington, VA 22209-3901
Phone: 703-907-7300
Toll-Free: 1-888-357-7924
Web site: http://www.psych.org/
Public information site: http://www.healthyminds.org/

American Psychological Association
750 First St., NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242
Phone: 202-336-5510
Toll-Free: 1-800-374-2721
TTY: 202-336-6123
http://www.apa.org/


Disclaimer: This content should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of a call or visit to a health professional. Use of this content is subject to specific Terms of Use & Medical Disclaimers.

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