Antisocial Personality Disorders and Criminal Behaviors

Research Paper ON Antisocial Personality Disorders and Criminal Behaviors


Of all the personality disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) has been found to have a higher relationship to criminal behavior. This research paper aims to find out why this is the case. The paper achieves this through gaining a deeper understanding of ASPD and its symptoms, thoroughly researching on prison statistics, and digging deeper into the biological factors that lead to this link between ASPD and Criminal behaviors. This paper found that the correctional system is filled with persons diagnosed with ASPD. It also found that their criminal behavior is as a result of the symptoms of the disorder which are deeply rooted in genetics and by far, childhood mistreatment

Antisocial Personality Disorders and Criminal Behaviors

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)

Before going on to demonstrate the relationship between antisocial personality disorders (ASPD) and criminal behaviors, it is essential to understand this personality disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) lists ten personality disorders in three different clusters. Among these disorders is ASPD. Broadly speaking, personality disorders are mental disorders that are mainly characterized by an unhealthy pattern of thinking. Further research reveals more characteristics such as patterns of thinking that are unhealthy and rigid. Relating to situations also becomes difficult for people with a personality disorder. The fact that these are mental disorders raises the question of their relation to mental illnesses. Personality disorders and mental illnesses are commonly confused. A further look at this issue shows that their difference lies in the medical definition of the two terms: disease and disorder. Also, in the context of offenders, those with personality disorders are more likely to re-offend than the mentally ill offenders after discharge from the hospital.

In their book, McMurran and Howard (2009) report personality disorders are associated with violence. They, however, clarify that not all persons with personality disorders are violent (McMurran and Howard, 2009: 6). The relationship between personality disorders and violence is strongly observed in people with ASPD which often translates to criminal behavior. To understand this relationship, one has to understand the very characteristics and criteria that define ASPD.

DSM-5 Criteria for ASPD

People with ASPD tend to disregard and violate the rights of others. This behavior commonly manifests as aggression and hostility to others. Persons with ASPD have also been found to be very manipulative and deceitful. The symptoms of this disorder cannot, however, be generalized as they have been found to vary in severity. They, therefore, range from less harmful to dangerous behavior patterns that are sociopathic or psychopathic. DSM-5 provides criteria that must be met while diagnosing ASPD. One of these criteria is a significant impairment in personality functioning, which can be observed in two ways including impairment in self-functioning and in interpersonal functioning. Persons with ASPD tend to be ego-centric and mainly derive their self-esteem from power, pleasure, and their own personal gain. When it comes to interpersonal functioning, they tend to lack empathy or intimacy. The lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating other people is a major characteristic. Intimidation and coercion become a means of controlling others. DSM-5 further states that antagonism and disinhibition are pathological personal traits that also define ASPD. Antagonism is characterized by deceitfulness, hostility, callousness, and being manipulative. Disinhibition, on the other hand, is characterized by irresponsibility, risk-taking, and impulsivity. It is also essential to note that only persons over the age of 18 can be diagnosed with ASPD (American Psychiatric Association, 2012).

Risk Factors for ASPD

Despite the fact that ASPD can only be diagnosed for persons over the age of 18, the disorder may start to manifest itself at a much younger age during childhood. In such a case, it is diagnosed as a conduct disorder characterized by hostile-aggressive deceitful behaviors. Conduct disorder is considered as a risk factor for ASPD. Other risk factors include having a family history of ASPD or other personality disorders and experiencing a violent and unstable family life during childhood. Children who are subjected to neglect or abuse are also likely to develop ASPD later on in life. The actual causes of ASPD are still being investigated. Numerous studies, though, have found certain genes to play a major role in the development of ASPD in an individual. Changes in the brain during its development have also been found to result in ASPD (Edens, Kelley, Lilienfeld, Skeem, & Douglas, 2015). To further understand the violence in persons with ASPD, it is important to not only look at the risk factors, but also take a closer look at a behavior commonly associated with them. This behavior is the abuse of drugs that calls for research on the link between ASPD and drug use.

ASPD and Drug Addiction

Majority of individuals diagnosed with ASPD have been found to abuse drugs or alcohol. It is therefore not very surprising that almost all these individuals suffer from a comorbid substance addiction. Such behavior only serves to increase their problems socially and even with the law. Addictions that persons with ASPD commonly face include alcohol, opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin, stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines, sedatives, hallucinogens, as well as marijuana. Given that majority of these drugs such as heroin and cocaine are illegal, they become one of the reasons for criminal charges for persons with ASPD. They as well increase their violent behavior.


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ASPD and Criminality

ASPD in Prisons

In a study by Lang et al., (2015) that used a Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS), it was found that the short-term prisoners with ASPD scored significantly higher marks on the BIS scale than the prisoners without ASPD (Lang, Otte, Vasic, Jäger, & Dudeck, 2015). BIS is used widely as a measure of impulsiveness and is divided into first-order and second-order factors. Such factors include self-control, motor, attention, non-planning impulsiveness, among several others. It has been very significant in shaping theories of impulse control (Reise, Moore, Sabb, Brown, & London, 2013). In yet another research done in various prisons in twelve different western countries, it was found that the prevalence of ASPD among prisoners was very high. 65% of male prisoners and 42% of the female prisoners were found to be suffering from a personality disorder. Of these cases, ASPD accounted for 47% of the males and 21% for the females (Fazel & Danesh, 2002). The rate of recidivism was also found to be very high for offenders diagnosed with ASPD as compared to that of offenders without ASPD (Shepherd, Campbell, & Ogloff, 2016). McMurran & Howard, (2009) state that a half of the people diagnosed with ASPD have a criminal record. Another study involving 320 newly incarcerated offenders, found that 35.3 % of them had ASPD. It was also found that most of these offenders with ASPD were younger, they were moody, anxious, abused substances, and also had a higher suicide rate (Black, Gunter, Loveless, Allen, Sieleni, 2010). It is therefore clear that persons suffering from ASPD are very likely to end up in prisons. The big question, therefore, is why they end up in prisons. Which are the crimes that they are likely to be convicted of?

Crimes Committed by Individuals diagnosed with ASPD

Due to the aggressive nature of persons with ASPD, they are mostly convicted of crimes relating to violence. This can range from domestic violence to devastating crimes such as murders involving mass shootings. In fact, several of the serial killers in history were diagnosed with ASPD. Their crimes were so gruesome that they can be described as completely inhumane. Robert Black, for instance, was a Scottish serial killer as well as a pedophile convicted of the kidnap, rape, and murder of for girls between the young ages of 5 to 11. In this case where a person commits such heinous acts, then they are referred to as psychopaths. It is therefore important to note that not all persons diagnosed with ASPD are capable of being serial killers. This, therefore, calls for a closer look at the distinction between psychopathy and ASPD. Other than cases related to violence, such people are also likely to be convicted of illegal drug abuse as well as cases of theft (Black et al., 2010).

Psychopathy and ASPD

According to Verona and Patrick (2015), psychopathy, also referred to as psychopathic personality is a condition related to ASPD. However, a major difference lies in their definition. Primarily, ASPD is defined in terms of aggressiveness, impulsive, and illicit behaviors. On the other hand, psychopathy entails impulsive-antisocial behavior combined with emotional insensitivity, cruelty, and a forceful social style (Veronica and Patrick, 2015). In a different study, it was found that the two words are commonly used synonymously which is incorrect. This study describes psychopathy as containing all the characteristics of ASPD. Psychopaths thus fall under the DSM-5 criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder. On top of that, psychopaths unlike persons with ASPD will use cold-blooded violence to attain their ends if necessary (LaBrode, 2007). Using these descriptions, then it is correct to sum it up that all individuals with Psychopathy have ASPD but not all those with ASPD are psychopathic. Furthermore, Veronica and Patrick (2015), further explain that different instruments are applied for the two disorders. In the case of psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is the instrument that has dominated contemporary research in this field of psychopathy. ASPD on the other hand mainly utilizes the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS).

Understanding why Individuals with ASPD possess criminal behaviors

So far, this research has established that indeed, ASPD is linked to criminality. The statistics from studies conducted in prisons are a clear indication of this fact. Also, the DSM-5 criteria for ASPD list behavior that is likely to lead to criminal acts. It has also been determined that persons suffering from ASPD are likely to abuse multiple types of dangerous drugs that further increase their likelihood of committing a crime. On top of this knowledge, to completely understanding why people with ASPD commit a crime, it is imperative that one understands the biology behind the criminal behavior. It has already been stated that one of the causes of ASPD is genetics and hence this requires more scrutiny.

Genetics as a Cause of Criminal Behavior in Persons with ASPD.

When it comes to genetics, it has been found that the MAOA gene is highly linked to children with Conduct Disorder and Adults with ASPD. The MAOA gene is responsible for encoding the Monoamine oxidase A enzyme (MAO-A). Children who are mistreated and possess a low activity of the allele of the MAOA gene are likely to develop ASPD and consequently violent behavior as adults (McMurran & Howard, 2009). It has also been discovered that there are differences in structure and function of persons with the low activity of the allele of MAOA gene. Such people also exhibit diminished activity in parts of their brains that are known to regulate emotional responses. These areas include the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal regions of the cortex. They also display excess activity in the limbic and paralimbic areas including the amygdala and insula (Denson, Dobson-Stone, Ronay, von Hippel, & Schira, 2014).

The MAO-A enzyme, encoded by the MAOA gene, is one of the mitochondrial enzymes that catalyze the oxidative deamination of amines (Denson et al., 2014). Examples of such amines include norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These three substances have different functions in the body. Norepinephrine has the general function of mobilizing the brain as well as the body in general for action. This response is commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight response. Dopamine has several functions in the body. Other than being a neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a major functional role in reward-motivated behavior. Finally, serotonin is a major contributor to the feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Given the important functions of these substances, it is clear to see why persons with ASPD are likely to behave aggressively. Low levels of serotonin have been found to result in impulsive and reactive violence (Lang et al., 2015).

Another gene relevant in persons with ASPD is the 5-HTT gene. This gene is also known as the serotonin-transporter given that it transports serotonin. The short variant of this gene leads to a decreased uptake of serotonin (Palma-Gudiel & Fañanás, 2017). The result is the likelihood of development of depression. This offers one of the explanations on why persons with ASPD are likely to abuse drugs such as alcohol and cocaine to counter their feelings of depression. Multiple studies are conclusive that the serotonergic system is heavily involved in reactive impulsive violence (McMurran & Howard, 2009). Although certain people are born with these genetic conditions of the 5-HTT and MAOA gene, this is not the case always. It has been found that in some cases, such genetic changes might take place during early childhood growth. For instance, when a child faces abuse and other forms of mistreatment, they may develop these genetic changes that are characteristic of conduct disorder and later on ASPD (Lang et al., 2015).

McMurran and Howard (2009) argue that persons with such disorder in serotonin tend to be chronically hyper-reactive towards their environments (McMurran & Howard, 2009). They also tend to views others as hostile hence violence is a response to a feeling of being threatened. It is however of significance to note that the causes of ASPD and its related violence are not clear yet and are mainly hypothesis. This means that causes vary from one individual to another. People with ASPD with also not react the same in a given situation. Some may react more violence than others. Despite the differences, their aggression and impulsiveness culminate in criminal behaviors that result in them being convicted.


Antisocial Personality disorder has a strong link to criminal behaviors. Persons with ASPD possess traits such as callousness, deceitfulness, hostility, impulsivity, a lack of remorse among other characteristics that lead them to commit a crime. although the law may not recognize their crime as a result of a disorder, the truth is that it is not entirely their fault, rather it is a combination of genetic and childhood mistreatment factors which leads them to develop ASPD and consequently venture into a life of crime.


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Denson, T. F., Dobson-Stone, C., Ronay, R., von Hippel, W., & Schira, M. M. (2014). A functional polymorphism of the MAOA gene is associated with neural responses to induced anger control. Journal of cognitive neuroscience26(7), 1418-1427.

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Palma-Gudiel, H., & Fañanás, L. (2017). An integrative review of methylation at the serotonin transporter gene and its dialogue with environmental risk factors, psychopathology and 5-HTTLPR. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews72, 190-209.

Reise, S. P., Moore, T. M., Sabb, F. W., Brown, A. K., & London, E. D. (2013). The Barratt Impulsiveness Scale–11: Reassessment of its structure in a community sample. Psychological assessment25(2), 631.

Shepherd, S. M., Campbell, R. E., & Ogloff, J. R. (2016). Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and reconviction in an Australian sample of forensic patients. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 0306624X16653193.

Verona, E., & Patrick, C. J. (2015). Psychobiological aspects of antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and violence. Psychiatric Times32


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