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Understanding Antisocial Behavior

Understanding Antisocial Behavior

Introduction to antisocial behavior (AB):

In common layman terms, an individual characterized as antisocial, or exhibiting antisocial behavior, tends to be excessively introverted or recluse. They tend to avoid social settings and interactions, and much prefer to be alone. However, this is an incorrect definition of the antisocial behavior, and trying to understand it from this trajectory will prove to be unproductive.

In the field of social psychology, antisocial behavior is defined as “actions that violate social norms in ways that reflect disregard for others or that reflect the violation of others’ rights” (Antisocial Behavior, n.d.). In other words, it is an umbrella term for norm-violating behaviors, which can be violent or non-violent in nature. Examples of such behaviors include starting physical confrontations or fights, deception for purpose of personal gain, engaging in law-breaking activities that harms others, theft, and bullying.

A chronic and pervasive pattern of antisocial behavior in individuals may be indicative of personality disorders such as conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), behaviors common in conduct disorder is broken down into four categories (aggression, property, deceit, rule violation), with diagnosis requiring 3 or more of such behaviors in the past 12 months. This is reflected in the table below.

Aggression1)      Often bullies

2)      Often fights

3)      Weapon use

4)      Cruel to people

5)      Cruel to animals

6)      Stolen with confrontation

7)      Forced sexual activity

Property1)      Fire setting

2)      Destroys property

Deceit/Theft1)      Broken into house/building/car

2)      Often lies

3)      Steals without confrontation

Rule Violation1)      Often stays out late (before 13 years old)

2)      Runs away from home

3)      Often truant from school (before 13 years old)


Moving forward, let us adopt the use of the biopsychosocial model (integration of biological, psychological, and social factors) to understand the prevalence and onset of antisocial behaviors.

Biological Factors

In genetic studies, the monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) gene has been extensively researched and linked to the prevalence of antisocial behaviors in individuals. This gene is responsible for regulating neurotransmitters involved in impulse control, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In human studies, a research was conducted to analyze 4 generations of males in a Dutch family who have shown consistent impulsive-aggressive behavior. The common factor revealed a defective gene that encodes for MAO-A (Brunner et al, 1993). In animal studies, mice with the MAO-A gene knocked out were abnormally aggressive and exhibited rougher mating behaviors (Shih & Chen, 1999).

However, it is indefinite and incorrect to simply conclude that low, or defective MAO-A gene in individuals will lead to antisocial behavior, as Caspi and her colleagues found in 2002. Their study showed that there is no direct effect of MAO-A on antisocial behavior, prompting researchers to investigate possible interaction effects between low MAO-A count and other psychosocial factors. A recent study then investigated the relationship of low MAO-A count with maltreatment via a meta-analysis of several studies and have since established a significant interaction effect in males (Byrd & Manuck, 2014). More specifically, a low MAO-A activity coupled with severe childhood maltreatment was associated with the highest degree of antisocial behavior.

Understanding Antisocial Behavior

Psychosocial Factors

Research has found that offenders of antisocial behavior have generally lower IQ (Wilson & Hernstein, 1985). Specifically, verbal deficits, in comparison to spatial deficits, are more highly associated with antisocial behavior. While the relationship has been established, it is important to ascertain if low verbal IQ leads to antisocial behavior. This is what a study aimed to achieve, which found that low IQ at age 5 predicts relatively higher antisocial behavior later, at age 7, after controlled for antisocial behavior exhibited at age 5 (Koenen et al., 2006). However, despite the evidence, we are unable to determine the true relationship between low IQ and antisocial behavior, as the experiments conducted do not meet the ‘gold standard’ of experiments that aim to determine causality. As previously mentioned, we should also account for other factors that may predict the onset of antisocial behavior, such as biological factors.

Conversely, a study that was keen on discovering if high IQ could protect against the development of antisocial behavior found some interesting results. The results revealed that high IQ may protect against antisocial behavior, in high-risk contexts. After examining the outcomes of boys whose fathers were criminals (with at least 1 prison sentence served, or serving), the boys were found to be almost 6 times as likely to be criminals if their fathers were criminals (Kandel et al., 1988). However, sons with higher IQ were also more likely to be non-criminals. This indicates an interaction effect between high IQ and risk, where in high-risk contexts, individuals with high IQ are less prone to engaging in antisocial behavior.


As per discussed earlier, antisocial behavior has been found to be contributed by the environment and genetic influence, and the interaction of both. This indicates that people who engage in persistent antisocial behaviors may have a biologically ingrained predisposition, while being exposed to environmental factors that trigger such behaviors. It is thus crucial to introduce interventions to curb such behaviors before they cause grievous harm to others or themselves.

For antisocial personality disorder, treatment is focused on counseling, or psychotherapy. Psychotherapy consists of both cognitive and behavior aspects, which attempts to alter the thinking and behavioral patterns of individuals with the disorder. Some individuals have even found success for group and family therapy, as it allows for family members to better understand the individual. In general, medication is not often used to treat the disorder, but is effective in stabilizing moods and treating symptoms of the disorder, like violent aggressiveness (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.).


Antisocial behavior. (n.d.). Social Psychology. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from

Brunner, H. G., Nelen, M., Breakefield, X. O., Ropers, H. H., & Van Oost, B. A. (1993). Abnormal behavior associated with a point mutation in the structural gene for monoamine oxidase A. Science, 262(5133), 578–580.

Byrd, A. L., & Manuck, S. B. (2014). MAOA, childhood maltreatment, and antisocial behavior: meta-analysis of a gene-environment interaction. Biological psychiatry, 75(1), 9–17.

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., Taylor, A.,  & Poulton, R. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297(5582), 851-854. https:/

Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Antisocial personality disorder: management and treatment. Retrieved January 26, 2020, from

Kandel, E., Mednick, S. A., Kirkegaard-Sorensen, L., Hutchings, B., Knop, J., Rosenberg, R., & Schulsinger, F. (1988). IQ as a protective factor for subjects at high risk for antisocial behavior. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 56(2), 224.

Koenen, K. C., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Rijsdijk, F., & Taylor, A. (2006). Genetic influences on the overlap between low IQ and antisocial behavior in young children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115(4), 787.

Shih, J. C., & Chen, K. (1999). MAO-A and-B gene knock-out mice exhibit distinctly different behavior. Neurobiology, 7(2), 235-246.

Wilson, J. Q., & Herrnstein, R. J. (1985). Crime and human nature. New York: Simon and Schuster.