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Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of a disregard for other people’s rights, often crossing the line and violating those rights. It usually begins in childhood or as a teen and continues into their adult lives.

Antisocial personality disorder is often referred to as psychopathy or sociopathy in popular culture. However, neither psychopathy nor sociopathy are recognized professional labels used for diagnosis.

Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder frequently lack empathy and tend to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others. They may have an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal (e.g., feel that ordinary work is beneath them or lack a realistic concern about their current problems or their future) and may be excessively opinionated, self-assured, or cocky. They may display a glib, superficial charm and can be quite voluble and verbally facile (e.g., using technical terms or jargon that might impress someone who is unfamiliar with the topic).

Lack of empathy, inflated self-appraisal, and superficial charm are features that have been commonly included in traditional conceptions of psychopathy and may be particularly distinguishing of Antisocial Personality Disorder in prison or forensic settings where criminal, delinquent, or aggressive acts are likely to be nonspecific. These individuals may also be irresponsible and exploitative in their sexual relationships.

A personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates from the norm of the individual’s culture. The pattern is seen in two or more of the following areas: cognition; affect; interpersonal functioning; or impulse control. The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations. It typically leads to significant distress or impairment in social, work or other areas of functioning. The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back to early adulthood or adolescence.

Symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder

Antisocial personality disorder is diagnosed when a person’s pattern of antisocial behavior has occurred since age 15 (although only adults 18 years or older can be diagnosed with this disorder) and consists of the majority of these symptoms:

  • Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
  • Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
  • Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
  • Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  • Reckless disregard for safety of self or others
  • Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
  • Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

There should also be evidence of Conduct Disorder in the individual as a child, whether or not it was ever formally diagnosed by a professional.

Because personality disorders describe long-standing and enduring patterns of behavior, they are most often diagnosed in adulthood. It is uncommon for them to be diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, because a child or teen is under constant development, personality changes and maturation. According to the DSM-5, antisocial personality disorder cannot be diagnosed in people younger than 18 years old.

Antisocial personality disorder is 70 percent more prevalent in males than females. The 12-month prevalence rate of this disorder is between 0.2 and 3.3 percent.

Like most personality disorders, antisocial personality disorder typically will decrease in intensity with age, with many people experiencing few of the most extreme symptoms by the time they are in the 40s or 50s.

How is Antisocial Personality Disorder Diagnosed?

Personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder are typically diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Family physicians and general practitioners are generally not trained or well-equipped to make this type of psychological diagnosis. So while you can initially consult a family physician about this problem, they should refer you to a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. There are no laboratory, blood or genetic tests that are used to diagnose antisocial personality disorder.

Many people with antisocial personality disorder don’t seek out treatment. People with personality disorders, in general, do not often seek out treatment until the disorder starts to significantly interfere or otherwise impact a person’s life. This most often happens when a person’s coping resources are stretched too thin to deal with stress or other life events.

A diagnosis for antisocial personality disorder is made by a mental health professional comparing your symptoms and life history with those listed here. They will make a determination whether your symptoms meet the criteria necessary for a personality disorder diagnosis.

Causes of Antisocial Personality Disorder

Researchers today don’t know what causes antisocial personality disorder. There are many theories, however, about the possible causes of antisocial personality disorder. Most professionals subscribe to a biopsychosocial model of causation — that is, the causes of are likely due to biological and genetic factors, social factors (such as how a person interacts in their early development with their family and friends and other children), and psychological factors (the individual’s personality and temperament, shaped by their environment and learned coping skills to deal with stress). This suggests that no single factor is responsible — rather, it is the complex and likely intertwined nature of all three factors that are important. If a person has this personality disorder, research suggests that there is a slightly increased risk for this disorder to be “passed down” to their children.

Treatment of Antisocial Personality Disorder

As with most personality disorders, individuals with this disorder rarely seek treatment on their own, without being mandated to therapy by a court or significant other. Court referrals for assessment and treatment for this disorder are likely the most common referral source. A careful and thorough assessment will ensure that the person that the person has antisocial personality disorder. This can often be confused with simple criminal activity (all criminals do not have this disorder), adult antisocial behavior, and other activities which do not justify the personality disorder diagnosis. As with a thorough assessment of any suspected personality disorder, formal psychological testing should be considered invaluable.

Because many people who suffer from this disorder will be mandated to therapy, sometimes in a forensic or jail setting, motivation on the patient's part may be difficult to find. In a confined setting, it may be nearly impossible and therapy should then focus on alternative life issues, such as goals for when they are released from custody, improvement in social or family relationships, learning new coping skills, etc. In an outpatient setting, the focus of therapy can also be on these types of issues, but a part of the therapy should be devoted to discussing the antisocial behavior and feelings (or lack thereof). Common in the population who suffer from antisocial personality disorder is the lack of connections between feelings and behaviors. Helping the client draw those lines between the two may be beneficial.

Threats are never an appropriate motivating factor in any sort of treatment, and least of all with this disorder. If the only way to motivate the patient is to threaten to report their noncompliance with therapy to the courts or warden, it is highly unlikely the clinician will make any type of gains within therapy anyway. It is appropriate, however, to try and help the individual with this disorder find good reasons that they may want to work on this problem further. For instance, ensuring that they not come into contact with the court system again, be incarcerated, have to submit themselves to additional psychological examinations, etc.

Effective psychotherapy treatment for this disorder is limited. It is likely, though, that intensive, psychoanalytic approaches are inappropriate for this population. Approaches the reinforce appropriate behaviors and attempting to make connections between the person's actions and their feelings may be more beneficial. Emotions are usually a key aspect of treatment of this disorder. Patients often have had little or no significant emotionally-rewarding relationships in their lives. The therapeutic relationship, therefore, can be one of the first ones. This can be very scary for the client, initially, and it may become intolerable. A close therapeutic relationship can only occur when a good and solid rapport has been established with the client and he or she can trust the therapist implicitly.

Trust brings up the issue of confidentiality, since often the patient with antisocial personality disorder is mandated to therapy. This means that the clinician may have to occasionally report on the patient's progress in therapy. While this can usually be done in a very general way which reveals no significant details of the content of therapy, it is still an important issue for the client. He or she may be suspicious and distrustful of the clinician at first, since it will be unclear as to who has the highest priority -- the patient or the court. This fear can only be alleviated with an honest disclosure as to what the therapist will reveal to the courts, and with time, as the client learns that what he says in the therapy session does not become common knowledge. The limitations of therapy should be discussed with the patient up-front, in a clear and matter-of-fact manner, so there are no misunderstandings later.

The content of therapy should focus on the patient's emotions (or lack thereof). As the individual learns to experience various emotional states, one of the first may be depression. The client will likely be unfamiliar with the feelings associated with depression, and so it is beneficial for the clinician to be supportive and empathetic to the individual during this time. Reinforcing any emotions, outside of anger or frustration, is usually beneficial. Experiencing intense affect is usually a sign of progress in therapy. Staying on "safe issues," and discussing more real-life concerns, while one way of treating this disorder, is not likely to be as effective in long term behavioral change as an approach emphasizing the discovery and labeling of appropriate emotional states.

People who have antisocial personality disorder often experience difficulties with authority figures. The therapist should usually take a neutral stance in this matter, since it is a firmly held belief by the client. The clinician should avoid arguments and taking sides on authority issues and those who hold authority over the client. Their moral and ethical makeup may leave a lot to be desired as well. While this may be an appropriate topic for discussion in therapy, it will also likely be one of little progress. Usually one of the more effective ways for a person with this disorder to learn to change their ineffective behaviors is to have to face up to the consequences of their behavior. This sometimes means dealing with courts and jails, but it can also eventually be a motivating factor in the client's treatment.

Other modalities of psychotherapy, such as group and family therapy, can be helpful. Often people with this disorder find themselves in a group setting, because they aren't given any treatment choices. This is usually not conducive to their treatment, since in most groups, the individual can remain emotionally-closed and has little reason to share with others. It also doesn't help that these groups are often made up of people suffering from a wide range of mental disorders. Groups which are devoted exclusively to this disorder, though rare, are the best choice. In such a group, the patient is given a greater reason to contribute and share with others. Care must be utilized by group leaders to ensure the group doesn't become a "How-to" course in criminal behavior. Family therapy can be helpful to increase education and understanding among family members. Families often misunderstand and are confused about the cause of the antisocial behaviors and the idea that it is a mental disorder. Phillip W. Long, M.D. adds, "This confusion, guilt, the temptation to make restitution for the patient's criminal acts, and the frustrations of working with someone who is seen to be quite ill but who will not be treated should all be discussed openly with family members."

While there are many theories, as with all personality disorders, research has found little significant causative factors.

Rarely is inpatient care appropriate or necessary for this personality disorder. Like most personality disorders, most people will go through their lives with little realization of the difficulty they have. In this case, though, the person is more likely to be seen as a criminal and have a history of difficulties with the law. Loss of freedom may be more of a motivating factor than in other personality disorders, so some specialized treatment facilities have started to treat people with this disorder.

One such program we've read about is the Patuxent Institute, located in Jessup, Maryland in the U.S. This hospital utilizes a strict behavioral approach of placing patients on a token economy based upon their treatment progress. This is a relatively new and radical approach to this sort of disorder and little research has been conducted to confirm its long-term effectiveness.

As with any treatment, the focus on feelings and connecting antisocial behavior to appropriate feeling states is appropriate. Since inpatient programs tend to be more intensive and expensive, they are rarely sought out by the patient themselves. Community followup and support, either by the hospital or professionals, or with the use of self-help support groups, is imperative to maintaining treatment gains.

Medications should only be utilized to treat clear, acute and serious Axis I concurrent diagnoses. No research has suggested that any medication is effective in the treatment of this disorder.

Self-help methods for the treatment of this disorder are often overlooked by the medical profession because very few professionals are involved in them. Groups can be especially helpful for people with this disorder, if they are tailored specifically for antisocial personality disorder. Individuals with this disorder typically feel more at ease in discussing their feelings and behaviors in front of their peers in this type of supportive modality. Leaders of such self-help support groups, though, must be wary of individuals who come to group just to brag about their exploits and who may seek to use the group inappropriately. Usually a group can be very helpful and beneficial to most people with this disorder, once they overcome their initial fears and hesitation to join such a group. Many support groups exist within communities throughout the world which are devoted to helping individuals with this disorder share their commons experiences and feelings.


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