In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s terms are antisocial and asocial.
For some reason, I have a very clear memory of a moment shortly after my nursing career began. I was at work and was saying something about being antisocial. One of the psychiatrists looked at me and asked if I meant asocial. I looked at him quizzically, not realizing there was a difference. It turns out, there’s a very big difference!
In general conversation, asocial and antisocial are often used synonymously. Merriam-Webster defines asocial as:
not social: such as: a) rejecting or lacking the capacity for social interaction, b) antisocial
In psychology and psychiatry, however, the terms have distinct meanings. Antisocial behaviour violates the basic rights of others, causing harm or disruption in some way. Asociality involves withdrawing from others, while antisociality involves negative acting out towards others.
So, when people talk about being antisocial, chances are they actually mean asocial. Antisociality probably isn’t a crown that most people actually want to wear.
Antisocial personality disorder
The DSM-5 includes a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which involves a longstanding pattern of inner experiences and behaviour that include disregard for others, impulsivity, and irresponsibility. Often there are run-ins with the law. People with this disorder may anger easily and tend to manipulate others.
Antisocial personality disorder symptoms include:
- Repeated law-breaking behaviours
- Irritability/aggressiveness, often with repeated fights/assaults
- reckless disregard for own/others’ safety
- irresponsibility, failure to meet basic obligations
- lack of remorse
Sometimes people will use the term sociopath to refer to someone with ASPD, although sociopath isn’t a formal diagnostic term. Psychopath isn’t a diagnostic term in the DSM-5 either, but ASPD would be its closest equivalent. However, not everyone with ASPD is a psychopath.
The DSM states that ASPD can’t be diagnosed until age 18, but there is a strong correlation between childhood aggressiveness and antisocial behaviour as a young adult. Factors related to the family of origin have a significant impact on the development of antisociality. Peer groups can also play a role, as can genetics. ASPD is more common in males than in females.
The opposite of antisociality is prosocial behaviour, which involves effective communication and interaction to benefits others. Following socially defined rules, such as the rules of the road, is considered prosocial and benefits both us and others. Greater empathy is linked to prosocial behaviour. Parental modelling during childhood is an important influence on prosocial behaviour later on.
Asociality can involve a lack of motivation for, or interest in, social engagement. It can show up to some extent in introverts, or to a greater extent in the context of mental illness. Schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, depression, social anxiety disorder, and “cluster A” personality disorders (paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal) can all contribute to asociality. Asociality isn’t a disorder, and really only becomes a problem if it’s causing distress to the person experiencing it.
As for myself, I’m capable of prosocial behaviour, but I’m much more comfortable living a fairly asocial existence. I can think of a few examples that got somewhere near the border of mildly antisocial behaviour, but certainly nothing substantial.
What are your thoughts on antisociality and asociality?
- Merck Manual: Antisocial personality disorder
- Wikipedia: Anti-social behaviour | Asociality | Prosocial behaviour
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.