Antisocial Personality

Antisocial personality is a condition characterized by a failure to follow normal moral codes and cultural norms. People with the condition often engage in manipulative, harmful behavior.

What Are the Symptoms of Antisocial Personality?

The term "antisocial personality disorder” originated in the 1980s as an alternative to the term psychopathy. New studies, however, are beginning to draw some distinctions between psychopathy and antisocial personality. The criminal justice system continues to use the term psychopath to describe people who appear unable to behave ethically, and among the general public, people diagnosed with antisocial personality are frequently referred to as sociopaths.

People with antisocial personality appear to understand moral codes, as demonstrated by their ability to hide their behavior and manipulate others, but are unable to obey moral norms and may struggle with empathy. Symptoms include:

  • Setting fires or exhibiting cruelty to animals, particularly in childhood.
  • Strong ability to flatter and manipulate others.
  • Impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors.
  • Repeated brushes with the law not caused by addiction or other factors.
  • Frequent lying and stealing.
  • Inability to show or experience remorse.
  • Inability to empathize with others; may enjoy the suffering of others.

What Are the Causes?

The root cause for the development of antisocial personality is still not well understood among mental health and medical professionals, though it is believed to be a combination of early environment and genetics. Children exposed to trauma and violence, or those whose parents display antisocial personality characteristics may be more likely to develop the condition. According to neurological findings, antisocial personality traits may be linked to deficits in the area of the prefrontal cortex.

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Nearly 8 million Americans are identified as having antisocial personality, and people who are affected tend to be between the ages of 25 and 44. The condition is far more common among men than women, affecting about 5.5% of men and less than 2% of women overall. Among inmate populations, personality disorders are very common and often comorbid, with antisocial personality being the most prevalent. Estimates vary widely, but research tends to suggest that at least 20% and perhaps as many as 50% of inmates have antisocial personality.

Is the Condition Treatable?

Antisocial personality disorder is extremely difficult to treat. Treatment tends to focus on modifying antisocial behaviors and reducing criminal recidivism, as well as treating any coexisting conditions, such as substance abuse. Therapy that emphasizes behavior modifications along with the consequences of illegal or dangerous behavior show the most promise. People rarely seek treatment for the condition itself, though they may come to therapy for other mental health concerns or as part of a court-ordered sentence. People with antisocial personality may be more likely to drop out of treatment and to lie to or manipulate their therapists.

Antisocial Personality in Popular Culture

The study of sociopathy and related conditions is an extremely popular topic in pop psychology books. The book The Sociopath Next Door, for example, was a popular bestseller. The Showtime series Dexter follows a man who appears to meet the criteria for antisocial personality as he exercises his violent urges by killing serial killers.


  1. 301.7 antisocial personality disorder. (2011). Capitola: Timely Data Resources, Inc. Retrieved from
  2. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  3. Hatchett, G. T. (2015). Treatment guidelines for clients with antisocial personality disorder. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 37(1), 15-27. Retrieved from
  4. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Rotter, M., Way, B., Steinbacher, M., Sawyer, D., & Smith, H. (2002). Personality disorders in prison: Aren't they all antisocial? Psychiatric Quarterly, 73(4), 337-49. doi:


Last updated: 07-03-2015

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