Antisocial Personality Disorder

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is the difference between antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy?

Psychopathy, although not a mental-health disorder formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, is considered to be a more severe form of antisocial personality disorder. Specifically, in order to be considered a psychopath, also called a sociopath, a person must have a lack of remorse or guilt about their actions in addition to demonstrating antisocial behaviors. Other core symptoms of this condition are thought to include a severe lack of caring for others, a lack of emotion, overconfidence, selfishness and a higher propensity for aggression compared to other people with antisocial personality disorder. While statistics indicate that 50%-80% of incarcerated individuals have been found to have antisocial personality disorder, only 15% of those convicted criminals have been shown to have the more severe antisocial personality disorder type of psychopathy.

Psychopaths tend to be highly suspicious or paranoid, even compared to people with antisocial personality disorder. The implications of this suspicious stance can be dire, in that paranoid thoughts (ideations) tend to lead the psychopathic person to interpret all aggressive behaviors toward them, even those that are justified, as being arbitrary and unfair. A televised case study of a psychopath provided a vivid illustration of the resulting psychopathic anger. Specifically, the criminal featured in the story apparently abducted a girl and sexually abused her over the course of a number of days in an attempt to prove to investigating authorities that his stepdaughter's allegations that he sexually abused her were false.

What are causes and risk factors of antisocial personality disorder?

One of the most frequently asked questions about antisocial personality disorder by both professionals and laypeople is whether or not it is genetic. Many wonder if it is hereditary, just as much as hair, eye, or skin color; if this were the case, children of antisocial people would be highly expected to become antisocial themselves, whether or not they live with the antisocial parent. Fortunately, human beings are just not that simple. Like all personality disorders, and most mental disorders, antisocial personality disorder tends to be the result of a combination of biologic/genetic and environmental factors.

Although there are no clear biological causes for this disorder, studies on the possible biologic risk factors for developing antisocial personality disorder reveal that, in those with the illness, the part of the brain that is primarily responsible for learning from one's mistakes and for responding to sad and fearful facial expressions (the amygdala) tends to be smaller and respond less robustly to the happy, sad, or fearful facial expressions of others. That lack of response may have something to do with the lack of empathy that antisocial individuals tend to have with the feelings, rights, and suffering of others. While some individuals may be more vulnerable to developing antisocial personality disorder as a result of their particular genetic background, that is thought to be a factor only when the person is also exposed to life events such as abuse or neglect that tend to put the person at risk for development of the disorder. Similarly, while there are some theories about the role of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and other hormonal fluctuations in the development of antisocial personality disorder, the disorder can, so far, not be explained as the direct result of such problems.

Other conditions that are thought to be risk factors for antisocial personality disorder include substance abuse, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reading disorder, or conduct disorder, which is diagnosed in children. People who experience a temporary or permanent brain dysfunction, often also called organic brain damage, are at risk for developing violent or otherwise criminal behaviors. Theories about the life experiences that increase the risk for developing antisocial symptoms in teenagers and adults provide important clues for its prevention. Examples of such life experiences include a history of prenatal drug exposure or malnutrition, childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; neglect; deprivation or abandonment; associating with peers who engage in antisocial behavior; or a parent who is either antisocial or alcoholic.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/16/2016

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