Antisocial Behavior


Antisocial behavior is defined as behavior that persistently and repetitively (Weiner, 2010) disregards or violates the basic rights of others (DSM-5). Antisocial behavior manifests as aggressive behaviors like physical assault and property damage, as well as more insidious, covert amoral behaviors including duplicity, theft, recklessness, deceit, manipulation and violation of the law (Calkins, 2009).

Financial violations and fraud committed by people of elite social classes are also considered antisocial behavior (Weiner, 2010). Excessive antisocial behavior is considered psychopathy, sociopathy or as a dyssocial personality (DSM-5).

To contrast, prosocial behavior enhances the quality of life of self and others by enhancing basic rights through overt action aligned with internal values and principals. Prosocial behavior is intentionally positive behavior for which the motivation is something other than altruism. Altruism is distinct under prosocial behavior due to the motivation to help others and be seen helping others. (Eisenberg, 1982). 

Basic human rights are defined here as they are in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by the United States in 1977. Human rights serve to preserve inherent human dignity by ensuring civil and political freedom, as well as freedom from want or fear. Regardless of residential status, age, sex, race, skin color, language, religion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, as humans we have a right to (OHCHR, 1977):

  • Live free of the degrading or cruel behaviors of others.
  • Live free from providing forced labor.
  • Live with freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  • Live within a family that is recognized as a natural and fundamental group unit of society.
  • Not be arbitrarily deprived of life.
  • Not be arbitrarily detained and not detained solely due to an inability to fulfill a contractual obligation. If detained, a human has the right to be notified of why they are being detained and a right to be brought before a judge promptly.
  • Be able to move and travel freely throughout their state and internationally in accordance with the law.
  • Assemble peacefully with the freedom of association with others including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of personal interests.

Signs and Symptoms of Antisocial Behavior

In children, antisocial behavior begins as aggression and destructive behavior (MFMER, 2019). In adolescents, the behavior takes on the form of delinquency, marked by lying and indifference to others (Calkins, 2009). Antisocial behavior in youths may or may not be marked by personality traits including shallow emotions, development of charm and wit as manipulation strategies, inability to feel guilt or shame, low anxiety and increased sensation seeking (Weiner, 2010). Young adults demonstrate versatility in their use of behavior to achieve their goals, and typically at this age move from offending as a group, to acting individually (Shepherd, 2003).

Chronic antisocial behavior manifests as callousness, cynicism, arrogance, irresponsibility, impulsiveness, recklessness, irritability, agitation, aggression, a lack of empathy or remorse, and a willingness to exploit others. A person with antisocial behavior may emphasize the development of charm and confidence to facilitate cooperation. They may have brief, unhealthy relationships and often experience social rejection or job loss as a result of their behavior (MFMER, 2019).

People with antisocial behavior may use manipulative techniques to get close to others that include forced teaming, loan sharking, oversharing, future language (including promises), exaggeration language (always/never), typecasting/negging, interviewing, or otherwise create situations where someone else must justify, argue, defend or explain themselves (De Becker, 2021).

Those who engage in antisocial behaviors intentionally trigger the flight/fight/freeze/fawn response in others. Within that conflict antisocial people undergo a decrease in the stimulation of the autonomic nervous system. They typically make less stress hormones like cortisol and have a blunted response to such stress hormones. This results in a lower heart rate and reduced reactivity to stressful stimuli (Weiner, 2010).

Put another way, someone engaging in antisocial behaviors can actively feel soothed by successfully arousing a predictable stress response in others.

When an antisocial person is confronted about their behavior, it is common for them to deny the behavior occurred, attack the person who is confronting them, and then reverse the roles of victim and offender. This process, called DARVO, allows the antisocial person to deflect blame and manipulate the opinion of others so they can both discredit their target and access the sympathy and understanding of outside observers (Freyd, 2021).

How Antisocial Behavior Develops

Antisocial behavior is found in people of every culture, of every life stage beyond infancy, and in both men and women. Men participate in antisocial behavior significantly more often, however over the last 30 years, instances of women demonstrating antisocial behavior have increased. Antisocial and aggressive behavior in adults is associated with social deprivation, including low social status and poverty (Weiner, 2010). This behavior is thought to exist on a spectrum, with prosocial behavior on one end and antisocial personality disorder on the other (Svrakic, 1991). 

Individuals who engage in antisocial behavior most often have a reward-dominant response style, which is focused on what is gained from acting a certain way over what is lost in terms of social or physical punishments. It is also typical for such individuals to score lower on intelligence tests and demonstrate less social cognition. This leads to errors in reading social cues, a reduced capacity for resolving social conflict, and an increase in perceived positive outcomes from aggressive behaviors (Weiner, 2010).

Young children who engage in aggressive and destructive behavior are likely to maintain those patterns into adulthood without intervention. Risk factors for antisocial behavior in children include experiencing violence, abuse or neglect from the family unit, or unstable housing (MFMER, 2019). Physically aggressive punishments, punishments that are harsh or inconsistent, poor monitoring of the child’s friends and activities, and coercive family processes are also risk factors (Weiner, 2010).

Self regulation is a learned skill, ideally conveyed from parent to child during the formative years. When self regulation is mastered, an individual will engage in effortful control of self arousal when faced with internal or external stressors (King, 2012). When stressed, those with antisocial behavior have difficulty self regulating emotional responses, cognitive processes like memory or perception, and biological processes including sensation and level of awareness (Calkins, 2009). 

Where self regulation acts to mitigate the body's response to stressors, lack of self regulation and altered perceptions can cause someone who is prone to antisocial behavior to take increasingly drastic and amoral action when confronted with a real or perceived problem (Myers, 2020).

Antisocial Disorders in the United States

The prevalence of childhood antisocial behaviors that meet the DSM-5 criteria for a conduct disorder range from 2% to 16% for boys and 1.5% to 15.8% for girls. The median onset age for a conduct disorder is 11.6 years old (Weiner, 2010). 

If the criteria for a diagnosis of conduct disorder is met before the age of 18, and the individual engages in disruptive, inflexible and persistent behavior that violates the rights of others into adulthood, they are considered to have antisocial personality disorder (DSM-5). Approximately 25% of children with conduct disorder are later diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (Calkins, 2009). In the United States, there is a lifetime prevalence of antisocial personality disorder of between 1% and 4% (Werner, 2015). 

Antisocial personality disorder is one of eleven personality disorders listed in the DSM-5. A personality disorder is defined as a pattern of inflexible, pervasive thinking and behavior that causes impairment or distress due to significant deviations from cultural expectations (DSM-5).

Impact of Antisocial Behavior on the Self 

Social exclusion is a natural consequence of antisocial behavior, which has far reaching impacts on development, growth, quality of life and longevity well into late adulthood (Shepherd, 2003).

Antisocial behavior is associated with increased risk of income loss from job disruption, costs associated with legal difficulties, property loss, and medical bills (Calkins, 2009). Antisocial individuals have an increased risk of smoking, increased risk of excessive alcohol consumption and of concurrent drug and alcohol use, as well as an increase in irresponsible and isolative behaviors. This lifestyle also often involves reckless driving and sexual promiscuity, which are health risks that may lead to injury or require medical treatments (Shepherd, 2003).

Impact of Antisocial Behavior on the Community

The impact of antisocial behavior on the community is insidious and pervasive. Victims of criminal and sub-criminal acts of violence, threats, road rage, drunk drivers, theft, parasitism, harassment, and other antisocial behavior report experiencing feelings of dread, apprehension, fear, stress, anxiety, shame, guilt, depression, and suicidal ideations after the encounter. It is not uncommon for those victims to require clinical interventions and treatments to address the resulting psychological harm (Heap, 2020). 

Even though the impact of antisocial behavior on others is clear, little research into the impact on victims has been conducted. One reason is that the United States and other western nations track deviant behavior through crime statistics, and so without a formal charge and legal judgment, certain antisocial behavior may not be identified. Even when a victim seeks support from the authorities when experiencing antisocial behavior from others, the offender will not encounter law enforcement unless the legal system becomes involved (Heap, 2020). 

Beyond the psychological impact of antisocial behavior on others, those who engage in antisocial behavior are at a high risk of incarceration (Potter, 2020). In 2017, it is estimated that the United States collectively spent $182 billion dollars on the Prison Policy Initiative, which was used to staff prisons and meet the needs of over 2 million people who are presently detained due to alleged acts of antisocial behavior (Kuhn, 2021).

There is suffering that comes from the loss of freedom and physical violence experienced by those who are incarcerated, as well as the psychological and financial toll on each member of their family unit.

Strategies to Overcome Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial behavior is known to develop from trauma, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences. Altering antisocial behavior involves working with each member of the family unit as well as the community in which the family lives (Armelius, 2007).

Studies have shown that positive reinforcement is better than punishment at preventing future antisocial behavior (NICE, 2013). Mental health professionals approach antisocial behavior with strategies aimed at identification and prevention. This includes outpatient therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (Shepherd, 2003).

CBT is a series of mental exercises that aid in identifying unhelpful thoughts, values, images of self and others, and personally held beliefs that influence the way we see the world and behave within it. The tool helps us create alternative trains of thought that better align with our positive or neutral values and beliefs we can use in moments of stress. For access to CBT methodologies, click here.

CBT for antisocial behaviors is often combined with training on moral reasoning strategies, social skills development, and aggression and anger management techniques. Positive long term outcomes are attainable. Practicing prosocial behaviors in a home or community environment works to reinforce the mental effort (Armelius, 2007). 

Residential treatment at an institution may be required to prevent harm to others. However, the influence of peer behavior on those with antisocial behavior appears to exaggerate negative outcomes that may overshadow treatment progress. Associating with antisocial peers in residential treatment centers can increase such behaviors (Armelius, 2007).

When considering how to manage antisocial behaviors long term, the use of a journal may aid in identifying situations that trigger antisocial behavior as well as the thoughts and feelings that come up during those situations. This type of experience tracking enhances the effectiveness of CBT by linking unhelpful thinking patterns to the events and outcomes of daily life.

Coping with an Antisocial Person

There are people who act in an antisocial manner to the point it becomes a part of their personality. People like this may frequently engage in ruthless behavior without consideration of others, or worse, with the intention of hurting others. They may be motivated by the desire for power or control, and place their personal gain above all else (Shonk, 2019).

When someone close to us engages in antisocial behavior, it is important to understand that the individual may have a limited ability to maintain stable interpersonal relationships and have a reduced capacity to learn from their experiences. They do not often place value on the consequences of their actions, and are focused on themselves at the near complete exclusion of the needs and emotions of others (NICE, 2013).

For those who are kind and empathetic by nature, it can be easy to project prosocial beliefs and values on those who use antisocial behavior. This may make it easier to fall victim to the manipulation, selfishness and dishonesty of those who are experienced in using such tools.

It has been shown that the most effective first step in supporting those who engage in antisocial behavior is to build trust. This is done by acting in a manner consistent with expressed values and beliefs, demonstrating reliability and confidence. Create an open, engaging environment and try to withhold judgment (NICE, 2013).

Similar to the solid object theory, we can lead by example when we ourselves demonstrate prosocial values. We show that being prosocial is an effective tool, and reaffirm that we have a strong sense of self that will not be shaken by the emotional influence of others.

Prior to an interaction with this type of personality, it can help to think about boundaries and exit strategies, and ensure all physical, emotional and safety needs are met. We then focus on the goals of the interaction when communicating while remaining aware of our emotional state to prevent their behavior from causing us harm.

Attempt to withhold the emotional provocation that the individual is hoping for. If the conversation goes awry, attempt to redirect them to a more neutral topic related to your mutual goals. Repeat yourself to reaffirm your statements and reduce mental load, and only respond to the more reasonable statements and behavior. It may help to repeat calm directives in a soothing tone.

If being manipulated, taken advantage of, or otherwise hurt by the person engaging in such behavior, disengage emotionally, leave the situation, or seek outside support. This approach allows us to maintain our own self worth while showing the person we are working with that antisocial behavior is not a tool that will be effective with us. We're demonstrating that behavior will not get their needs met. Remember, boundaries aren't meant to stop the behavior of others, they are meant to insulate us from the impact of that behavior. For more on boundaries, click here.

To break away from conflicts, verbally acknowledge that all parties can revisit the subject when calm is restored, and repeat that statement as necessary. Again, reinforcing we will not be emotionally influenced by the antisocial person and that antisocial behavior is not effective.

When the conversation is later revisited, disengage from previous antisocial behavior and focus on statements or behavior that was aimed at conflict resolution. Do not attempt to argue, as that may be taken as an invitation to continue and escalate the conflict. We are not obligated to justify, explain, or defend ourselves from verbal attacks. Stating "I'm not willing to engage with you right now." and walking away is a reasonable response.

There are treatment options available that are proven to reduce antisocial behavior, and so there is good reason to be optimistic and hopeful. Growing that optimism within ourselves, sharing it with others impacted, and sharing it with the person who engages in antisocial behavior can be beneficial (NICE, 2013).

Please consider the physical, emotional and psychological harm that comes from being exposed to antisocial behavior long term. There is power in telling our story and naming the pain that we have experienced, Creating a narrative helps us move forward and overcome our pain (Heap, 2020). This can be accomplished by writing our story out in online support forums, by visiting a therapist or counselor, or by attending a local or online support group. Support group ideas are available by clicking here.