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, antisocial has a distinct meaning. Antisocial behaviour violates the basic rights of others, causing harm or disruption in some way. While being asocial involves a withdrawal from others, antisocial behaviour is acted out negatively towards others.
So, when people talk about being antisocial, chances are they actually mean asocial. Antisocial 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 maladaptive inner experiences and behaviour. Key features of ASPD 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.
ASPD is sometimes used synonymously with sociopathy, 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 antisocial tendencies. 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 be seen 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 mildly antisocial behaviour, but nothing really substantial.
What are your thoughts on antisociality and asociality?
- Merck Manual: Antisocial personality disorder
- Wikipedia: Anti-social behaviour
Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis aims to cut through the misunderstanding and stigma, drawing on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and guest narratives to present mental illness as it really is. It’s available on Amazon.
For other books by Ashley L. Peterson, visit the Mental Health @ Home Books page.