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Don't Say You're "Anti-Social"

"Anti-social" means you're cruel and lack remorse.

You or a friend might say “I’m antisocial,” meaning that you'd like to spend time alone that day—or most of the time.

But when psychologists use the term “antisocial,” they don’t mean loners. To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, you need to treat others badly, breaking trust and rules without remorse.

Our personalities arise from both genes and our experiences. Having a parent with antisocial personality disorder or alcoholism increases a child’s risk of developing the disorder, showing a lifelong pattern of criminality, impulsivity, irritability, and remorselessness. The signs start young, when boys set fires or are cruel to animals. Girls can have antisocial traits as well, but the disorder is far more common in males.

In children, rule-breaking behavior is called conduct disorder. The earlier the problems begin and the more severe they are, the more likely the child will be an antisocial adult. People with antisocial personality disorder often grow up in families full of conflict and suffer from harsh, inconsistent parenting. Poor children may end up in foster care or be adopted or live in group homes. They often skip school, join gangs, and abuse drugs. That pattern leads to unemployment, poor and unstable housing, and rocky adult relationships. Antisocial adults break the law, lie, and get into fights, attacking people, including their wives and girlfriends. They drive drunk, and can't keep a job. Many end up in prison or die young because of their recklessness.

If people with antisocial personality disorder are better protected as children, they may be successful in areas of their life. They may be witty and charming when they want to be. They can flatter and manipulate people, playing cleverly on emotions to disguise their own goals. But inconsistencies show up when they fly into rages or demonstrate arrogance.

Someone with a lifelong disorder doesn’t learn from his mistakes and demonstrates no guilt or remorse when he hurts people. If you complain, you’ll get resistance, from criticism to revenge.

The more extreme behavior is called sociopathic or psychopathic. Less extreme or more calculated behavior is called narcissistic. The bottom line is that their hearts are cold.

According to Stanton Samenow, PT blogger, clinical psychologist, and author of Inside the Criminal Mind, the main difference between a narcissist and an antisocial person is that narcissists don’t get caught when they break the law.

Most of us have known someone, he writes, who is “incredibly self-centered and self-aggrandizing, who is untruthful and cannot be trusted, who fails to see things from any point of view other than his own, and who is able to eliminate fear (and conscience) long enough to pursue any means to an end. Invariably, others are betrayed, deceived, and emotionally (perhaps financially) injured. The narcissist may not commit an act that is illegal, but the damage he does may be devastating.”

There is no reliable treatment for antisocial personality disorder. In 2014, the first report appeared of success with the antipsychotic medication Clozapine, which lessened symptoms among men in a high-security British prison. But people with this disorder rarely seek out treatment and tend to get care only under a court mandate.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.