Antisocial behavior can generally be characterized as an overall lack of adherence to the social mores and standards that allow members of a society to co-exist peaceably. Many people who display this type of behavior may seem charming, but often cause harm to others and show little remorse for their actions. Antisocial behavior can be part of a larger conduct disorder, or personality disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder, and is seen in men more commonly than women.
A person who displays antisocial behavior might appear to be charismatic and outgoing at first, but this can hide the fact that such people tend to be extremely selfish and self-centered. The person's lack of concern with other people's opinions can seem liberating to others who might feel trapped inside the roles of society. Activities suggested by someone with a behavior disorder that at first seem to be daring and fun may soon become dangerous or give no thought to the well-being of others, however. People with antisocial personalities are also more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
Antisocial behavior often includes hostility and aggression, which may take the form of verbal or physical abuse. Some people may angrily refuse to follow the rules of a situation, or actively defy the authority of a parent, teacher, or employer. Both children and adults may lie and steal to get what they want or simply to hurt others.
People of any age can display antisocial behaviors. When children exhibit this behavior, it's generally referred to as "conduct disorder." Researchers have linked certain factors to conduct disorders in children, finding both environmental and genetic components. While the genetic factor is not yet well understood, some studies suggest that a specific variant of a gene that transports serotonin may be a possible predictor of antisocial behavior in children. In addition, a child's personality and temperament may affect how he reacts to his environment, as can conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
Children with conduct disorders are often victims of abuse or have been exposed to environments where harsh punishments are common. Many of these children grew up with parents whose inconsistent behavior ranged from excessive leniency to excessive punishment. Such inconsistency can cause a child to not know how to react to a challenging situation, causing him to become angry and lash out when he doesn't get his way. The child of a parent with an antisocial personality disorder may learn through example that aggression and a disregard for the needs of others is normal behavior.
According to research, conduct disorders that develop prior to puberty are more likely to continue into adulthood, while a child who develops antisocial behavior later, at or after puberty, has a better chance of the behavior not continuing into adulthood. Many teens develop behavioral issues during puberty, and although they can be severe, most grow out of them. In addition, the longer antisocial behavior persists, the more difficult it is to change. The worst cases, as seen in adult criminals such as murderers, can usually be traced back to earlier conduct disorders as children.
In adults, antisocial behavior can be part of a larger personality disorder, most notably, antisocial personality disorder. Someone with this disorder might be called a sociopath, although that term is mostly used for people with a very severe form. This is a chronic mental illness that often prevents sufferers from forming healthy relationships, holding down a regular job, and staying out of trouble with the law.
Antisocial personality disorder is usually grouped with other, related personality disorders: borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic. These disorders are linked by overemotional or dramatic thinking and behavior. Some experts also believe that antisocial personality disorder is closely connected to psychopathy, in which a person has no empathy for others at all. Research suggests that many people with a psychopathic personality do not display the same tendency toward violence that many people with antisocial behavior do, however.
Recognizing Antisocial Behavior in Children
Children or adolescents with conduct disorder will typically show three or more of the following signs consistently in their personality traits:
- Behaves impulsively, thoughtlessly jeopardizing the safety of himself and others.
- Is manipulative, and lies or cons his way through situations.
- Does not follow rules, and enjoys breaking the law.
- Borrows money with no intention of repaying it.
- Is overly aggressive, often picking fights.
- Is willing to hurt others emotionally or physically without showing remorse.
- Is arrogant and overly confident.
- Likes to set fires.
- Is cruel to animals.
Antisocial behavior in adults is not easily treated by psychotherapy or medication, and it can be difficult to motivate adults to change. Children exhibiting signs of a conduct disorder can often be treated, however, especially if the behavior is identified early. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help children and adolescents change their moral reasoning, learn empathy, and deal with frustration in positive ways. The longer antisocial behavior is allowed to continue, the more difficult it is to treat.