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The Antisocial Personality

The antisocial personality goes by two other names as well: the psychopath or sociopath. The syndrome is remarkably consistent and often inspires a shock of recognition in students, because this type of person is intelligent, not superficially crazy, and exists on college campuses among other places.

Many criminals are antisocial person­alities, but many antisocial personalities are not criminals. Sometimes they are very successful people, because they often have charismatic personalities and win the trust of others. They may seem irresistible to potential lovers, to whom they are rarely faithful.

What are characteristics of the antisocial personality, and what are two other names for it?

The classic description of a psychopathic or sociopathic type appears in Cleckley's book The Mask of Sanity, first published in 1941 and reprinted many times. Cleck­ley lists these characteristics of psycho­paths:

1. Superficial charm and good intelligence

2. Poise, rationality, absence of neurotic anxiety

3. Lack of sense of personal responsibility

4. Untruthfulness, insincerity, callousness, manipulativeness

5. Antisocial behavior without regret or shame

6. Poor judgment and failure to learn from experience

7. Incapacity to establish lasting, close relationships with others

8. Lack of insight into his or her own personal motivations

While antisocial people do not have themselves "psyched out" (Cleckley's last item) they are often good readers of other people, adept at exploitation. They excuse and rationalize their own behav­ior, putting the blame for their problems on other people.

What are the two "primary symptoms" of the antisocial personality?

Primary symptoms of the antisocial personality are amorality (lack of ethical standards and consistent moral judgment) and impulsiveness. They typically have a hunger for stimulation and a lack of responsiveness to social controls.

The sociopath will commit the same crimes or antisocial behavior repeatedly, even if caught and punished. When caught red-handed, a sociopath makes charming apologies and talks of how life will be different from now on.

But he or she feels no true remorse and, if the opportunity is presented, slides back into the same bad patterns. There is little effort to conceal wrongdoing; if caught, the sociopath freely confesses and tries to make everything OK with personal charm.

A sociopath lacks empathy and shows no real regrets over hurting people or breaking rules. Apologies come almost too readily because they are totally insincere, a means of minimizing the consequences of being caught rather than expressing remorse.

Why can a sociopath often pass a lie detector test despite being guilty?

Research suggests there may be a biological component to the sociopath's fearlessness. Sociopaths are remark­ably tolerant of electric shock (Hare, 1978).

Under tense conditions they show heart rate acceleration but few other signs of stress–no sweaty palms, for example. They typically pass a lie detector test even if they are lying.

Ability to pass a lie detector test is part of the FBI's profile for murderers who mutilate their victims. This type of per­son is usually an antisocial personality.

What is Lykken's theory about the sociopathic type?

Lykken (1982) offered an interesting theory that certain heroic types such as astronauts, mountain climbers, and world leaders might come from the same biological type as antisocial personal­ities. They are all fearless, willing to take on situations that would cause normal people excessive worry.

This is not a bad thing. We need fear­less people to explore new frontiers and take on risky challenges. Lykken cites cases in which sociopathic teenagers grew into responsible adults.

Lykken also worked with Bouchard on the Minnesota Study of twins reared apart, and he helped compile a registry of all twins born in Minnesota between 1936 and 1955. They found several cases of identical twins in which one member of the pair was diagnosed as a sociopath or antisocial type, while the other was not.

Although the size of the sample was small, this indicated that an antisocial personality is not somehow program­med into DNA. It is probably influenced by learning.

What role does Lykken hypothesize for child-rearing styles, in the rearing of an antisocial personality type?

Lykken believes "the hero and the psychopath are twigs from the same branch." Although data on parental styles are lacking, he speculates that child-rearing practices of the parents are critical to determining which branch a child will take.

Parents who emphasize punishment are likely to rear a sociopath, given the bio­logically fearless type. A fearless child does not care about punishment, so there is nothing to hold the child back from bad behavior.

Parents who use positive incentives, set­ting a good example and emphasizing love as a reward for good behavior, might raise a hero, given the same baby. Even a potential psychopath can learn to value social reinforcers such as love and approval.

Are you the fearless type?

Lykken devised a test to determine a person's level of fearfulness. The test involves pairs of alternative situations.

One situation is frightening or embar­rassing, the other is merely unpleasant. The person who takes the test must pick the lesser of two evils.

Here are some choices adapted from Lykken (1982). After examining each pair of situations, which one would you be more willing to do?

1a: Clean up your house after floodwaters have filled it with mud.
1b: Make a parachute jump.

2a: Walk around all day on a blistered foot.
2b: Camp out in an area where rattlesnakes have been reported.

3a: Be in a bank when three masked men burst in with guns and make people raise their hands
3b: Sit through a two-hour concert of bad music.

4a: Stay in bed all day with the flu and a headache.
4b: Be at a party where somebody teases you and makes your face burn and hands tremble.

5a: Finding out people have been gossiping about you.
5b: Working all day in the hot sun.

6a: Washing a car.
6b: Driving a car at 90 miles per hour.

7a: Trying to tell a story in a group of people and having nobody listen to you.
7b: Returning to your parked car and finding a dent in it.

8a: Asking someone to pay some money owed to you.
8b: Sleeping all night on the floor.

9a: Working a week in the fields digging potatoes.
9b: Having a pilot announce there is engine trouble and make an emergency landing.

10a: Being at a circus when sudden­ly two lions get loose down in the ring.
10b: Arriving at the circus and discovering you have forgotten your tickets.

What sorts of answers will a potential "antisocial personality" pick?

It should be fairly obvious which answers reflect fearfulness: 1B, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5A, 6B, 7A, 8A, 9B, and 10A. Those are the answers a fearful person will avoid. However, a sociopath–or potential hero–will prefer those choices.

Lykken (1982) tells the story of a friend of his, an antisocial personality as a child, who "spent his early years in reform school, then in prison." Lykken continued:

Along the way he learned one of the construction trades and became very skillful. When he completed his last prison term, in his early 30s, he was able to start his own contracting business, which flourished. He took up flying and was good at that, too, soon qualifying for a commercial license.

One fine summer day, I accepted an invitation to go flying with him, suppressing my suspicion that he might scare me to death with wild acrobatics. The suspicion was groundless; it was like flying with a senior airline captain.

He even had me read off the items on a checklist he routinely went through as the engine warmed up. He regarded himself as a highly skilled professional and disdained the hotshot pilots who do tricks to impress their girlfriends.

On the other hand, should something go wrong–the weather close in or equipment malfunction–my friend could keep his cool and do what was needed. I could not have been in safer hands.

Psychopaths are said to burn out in their 30s or 40s; my friend simply developed a self-esteem based on an image of himself–successful businessman, self-taught intellectual, skillful pilot–that was incompatible with his former behavior. (Lykken, 1982)


Cleckley, H. M. (1941). The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify some issues about the so-called Psychopathic Personality. Saint Louis: C.V. Mosby Co.

Hare, R. D. (1978) Electrodermal and cardiovascular correlates of psychopathy. In R.D. Hare & D. Schalling (Eds.), Psychopathic behavior: Approaches to research. Chichester: Wiley. (pp.107-144).

Lykken, D. (1982, September). Fearlessness: Its carefree charm and deadly risks. Psychology Today, pp.20-28.

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