Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms and Treatments

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According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 7.6 million American adults are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (APD). People who have antisocial personality disorder have little or no regard for right or wrong. They antagonize and often act insensitively or in an unfeeling manner. Individuals with this disorder may lie, engage in aggressive or violent behavior, and participate in criminal activity.

According to some critics, the DSM diagnostic criteria are too focused on behaviors related to criminal actions. Because of this, it is possible that the prevalence of this disorder has been overstated.

Regardless of this possibility, these behaviors often lead to major difficulties in many life areas, including work and personal relationships and the disorder is often linked to criminal behavior.

Symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder

Individuals with antisocial personality disorder:

  • May begin displaying symptoms during childhood. Such behaviors include fire setting, cruelty to animals, and difficulty with authority.
  • Often have legal problems resulting from failures to conform to social norms and a lack of concern for the rights of others.
  • Often act out impulsively and fail to consider the consequences of their actions.
  • Display aggressiveness and irritability that often lead to physical assaults.
  • Have difficulty feeling empathy for others. This inability to consider the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of other people can lead to disregard for others.
  • Display a lack of remorse for damaging behavior.
  • Often have poor or abusive relationships with others and are more likely to abuse or neglect their children.
  • Frequently lies and deceives others for personal gain.

The disorder often begins during childhood although it is often not diagnosed until later in life. As children, those who develop this disorder often experience violent bursts of anger, are cruel to animals and are often described as bullies by their peers.

As adults, the disorder can be destructive to both the person suffering and those who come into contact with the individual. People with antisocial personality disorder are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, dangerous activities, and criminal acts. Those with the disorder are often described as having no conscience and feel no regret or remorse for their harmful actions.

Causes

The exact causes of antisocial personality disorder are not known. Personality is shaped by a variety of forces including nature and nurture. Genetics are thought to play a role in the development of antisocial behavior. However, upbringing can also have an important influence. Many researchers believe that APD is likely strongly linked to inheritance and that environmental influences probably exacerbate its development.

A number of factors have been found to increase the risk of the disorder including smoking during pregnancy and abnormal brain function. Research suggests that individuals with APD have differences in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that plays a role in planning and judgment. People with the disorder also tend to require greater stimulation and may seek out dangerous or even illegal activities to raise their arousal to an optimal level.

Childhood abuse and neglect have also been linked to the onset of APD. If a child's parents are abusive and dysfunctional, children may learn such behavioral patterns and later display them with their own kids. Kids who grow up in disorganized and neglectful homes also lack the opportunities to develop a strong sense of discipline, self-control, and empathy for others.

Treatments

Those with antisocial personality disorder rarely seek out treatment on their own. Individuals generally receive treatment only after some type of altercation with the legal system.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be useful in helping individuals gain insight into their behaviors and to change maladaptive thought patterns. Effective results usually occur only after long-term treatment.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institutes of Health. Landmark survey reports the prevalence of personality disorders in the United States. August 2004.

  2. Patrick CJ. (Editor). Handbook of psychopathy (2nd Edition). The Guilford Press. 2018.

  3. US National Library of Medicine. Antisocial personality disorder. Updated July 2018.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Antisocial personality disorder. Published March 2019.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. How is antisocial personality disorder treated?. Updated November 2017.

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.