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 current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which involves a longstanding pattern of inner experiences and behaviour that includes 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
For a diagnosis of ASPD, there must be a consistent pattern of these symptoms over time and across contexts. The general criteria for a personality disorder must also be met. 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 may occur in up to 3% of the population, and it’s six times more common among males than among females.
Sometimes, people will use the term sociopath to refer to someone with ASPD, although sociopath isn’t a diagnostic term in the DSM-5. Psychopathy isn’t in the DSM-5 either, but ASPD would be its closest equivalent. However, not everyone with ASPD is a psychopath, and vice versa. This post on psychopathy looks more closely at that.
The opposite of antisociality is prosocial behaviour, which involves effective communication and interaction to benefit others. Following socially defined rules, such as the rules of the road, is considered prosocial, benefiting both ourselves and others. Greater empathy is linked to prosocial behaviour. Parental modelling during childhood is an important influence on prosocial behaviour later on.
Asociality can stem from a lack of motivation for, or interest in, social engagement. It’s not a disorder, although it can be present in certain mental disorders. It can also relate to personality; for example, people with high levels of introversion may not experience rewards in social situations, and they may withdraw as a result. However, not everyone who is introverted is asocial. Many introverted people desire social contact, but in a more low-key manner compared to what energizes extraverts.
Other mental illnesses can tend to make people asocial during periods of illness. Depression and schizophrenia can reduce the desire for social interaction and motivate people to isolate themselves. People with social anxiety disorder may use avoidance in an attempt to cope with their disorder; they may actually have a strong desire for social connection, but they avoid social situations because of the associated anxiety.
As for myself, I’m capable of prosocial behaviour, but I’m much more comfortable living a fairly asocial existence.
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.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.