Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial Behavior Definition

Antisocial behavior refers to actions that violate social norms in ways that reflect disregard for others or that reflect the violation of others’ rights. The major reason to study antisocial behavior is that it is harmful to people. Also, it raises issues of whether people are inherently prone to be harmful to others and whether harmful, reckless people can be cured.

Distinctions and Examples of Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial BehaviorAntisocial behavior encompasses a wide range of behaviors, such as initiating physical fights, bullying, lying to others for personal gain, being reckless toward others, and even engaging in unlawful acts that do not directly hurt others but indirectly affect others in a negative way (such as stealing or vandalizing personal property). One distinction among various antisocial acts is whether the acts are overt versus covert—that is, whether the acts are hidden from others. A second distinction is whether the behavior is destructive—that is, whether the behavior directly harms another person. For example, destructive overt acts include physical or verbal aggression, bullying, fighting, threatening, being spiteful, cruel, and rejecting or ostracizing another person. Examples of nondestructive overt acts include arguing, stubbornness, and having a bad temper with others. Examples of destructive covert acts include stealing, lying, cheating, and destroying property, whereas nondestructive covert acts might include truancy, substance use, and swearing. When considering the most versus least harm to others, overt destructive acts are most severe, followed by covert destructive acts, overt nondestructive acts, and finally nondestructive covert acts.

Boys and men are more often perpetrators of antisocial behavior than are girls and women, and they differ in what they do. Males are more likely to engage in criminal activity and overt aggression; females are more likely to engage in relational aggression or harm caused by damaging a peer’s reputation (e.g., spreading rumors, excluding them from the peer group).

Antisocial Behavior Prevalence and Persistence

The majority of men who engage in antisocial acts do so only during their adolescent years. Antisocial behavior is so common during adolescence that a majority of men do something antisocial, such as having police contact for an infringement; roughly one third of boys are labeled delinquent at some point during their adolescence. However, most of them cease their antisocial ways by their mid-20s. Terrie Moffitt termed this adolescence-limited antisocial behavior. In contrast, she suggests that Life-course-persistent antisocial behavior is committed only by a minority of people. These men show antisocial tendencies and traits as children (even during infancy). These tendencies persist throughout their lives, even if the behaviors per se cease during mid to late adulthood. They typically are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, which means they show a persistent pattern of frequent antisocial behavior as adults. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published in 1994 by the American Psychiatric Association, describes the characteristics that lead to this diagnosis. In short, while many people engage in antisocial behavior once or occasionally during adolescence, many fewer people show a persistent antisocial behavior pattern that begins early in life and continues into adulthood.

Antisocial Behavior Causes and Treatment

Because antisocial behaviors have obvious negative consequences for victims, especially, but also for perpetrators (e.g., prison), substantial research has gone toward understanding what causes antisocial behavior and how it can be stopped.

Theory and research to understand who is likely to engage in antisocial behavior have resulted in two different views, resurrecting the nature versus nurture debate. One view is that biological factors present at birth, such as genes and inherent personality traits, are most important in determining antisocial behavior. The other view emphasizes environmental factors, such as parenting style (e.g., ineffective responses to child aggression, poor communication, weak family bonds, child neglect and/or abuse), peer relationships (e.g., being around others who are antisocial, being rejected by peers, social isolation), poverty, and lack of education.

The distinction between adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior is relevant to understanding causes. When this distinction is omitted, analyses that integrate information from many studies (meta-analyses) suggest that 40% to 50% of examined instances of antisocial behavior may be due to genetic influences rather than environmental influences. However, studies do not capture all instances of antisocial behavior and likely overrepresent people whose antisocial tendencies are persistent over time. People whose antisocial acts persist throughout the life course are more likely to have brains that are programmed toward antisocial behavior that, when combined with the right environmental factors and expectations from others, trigger antisocial behavior. People whose antisocial acts are limited to adolescence may suffer from being emotionally or socially immature (relative to their biological age), and as such, they are vulnerable to the influence of persistent antisocial peers and models. Moreover, the heritability of antisocial behavior depends on the act being examined; property crimes show a greater genetic influence than violent crimes.

If antisocial behavior cannot be effectively prevented, it becomes important to stop it. In general, interventions to stop life-course-persistent antisocial behavior have had only limited to no success. Even medical treatments are ineffective. Moreover, these individuals are reluctant to seek help and typically are court-ordered into treatment. Interventions on those who engage in adolescence-limited antisocial behavior have been more successful, particularly treatments based on teaching behavioral skills (rather than counseling-based treatments).

Antisocial Behavior Implications

Ultimately researchers study the nature, causes, and limits of antisocial behavior to understand whether people are innately reckless or harmful toward others and whether such people can be stopped. Although there has been progress in identifying causes, the issue of predicting with certainty who will engage in antisocial behavior remains unresolved. Moreover, effective treatment for persistent antisocial behavior is in its infancy and stands to be developed further.


  1. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.
  2. Stoff, D. M., Breiling, J., & Maser, J. D. (1997). Handbook of antisocial behavior. New York: Wiley.