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Causes of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy

While research into the causes of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy is still at a very early stage, there is evidence that a variety of biological, psychological and social factors are responsible for bringing about these disorders.

Genetics of Psychopathy and Antisocial Behaviors

The callous and unemotional traits (lack of empathy, lack of guilt, shallow emotions) characteristic of Psychopathy (which are also referred to as aggressive narcissism) seem to constitute a core set of features that is highly heritable and genetically-transmitted [ref]. It seems that from a very young age, children with antisocial behaviors (violence, stealing, violation of others' rights) can be divided into those who also have these callous and unemotional traits, versus those who do not have these traits. When these traits are present, the antisocial behaviors seem also to be due to strong genetic factors, but when these traits are absent, the antisocial behaviors seem to be influenced much less by genetic factors and more by external, environmental factors [ref].

Neurological and Hormonal Factors Associated with Antisocial Behaviors

Antisocial and psychopathic individuals tend to be impulsive, aggressive, and to seek-out extreme and highly stimulating experiences that usually involve an element of danger. Studies have linked these character traits with overall low levels of serotonin activity in the brain [ref].

Altered functioning of the brain's frontal lobes and limbic system have also been shown to underlie a tendency for people to commit aggressive and violent acts, though in these cases the aggressive acts tend not to be premeditated but are instead sudden and impulsive reactions to outside frustrating events [ref].

Elevated thyroid hormone (T3) levels, and elevated testosterone levels, have been associated with criminal behavior, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Psychopathy [ref].

Some studies have shown that when people with Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy are faced with stressful or threatening situations, they do not experience as much of an increase in heart rate and sweating (skin conductance) as do most people [ref]. This phenomenon is known as underarousal or low autonomic activity, and suggests that these individuals may have an ability to remain calm and cool in these stressful situations. This may also imply that they need to have more intense experiences in order to feel any strong emotions (which could lead to a pattern of sensation-seeking).

Psychological and Social Roots of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy

People who were physically or sexually abused in childhood[ref], or who grew up in families where there is a lot of chaos, where they lacked attention and warmth from their parents and felt insecurely bonded to them, are at higher risk of developing antisocial behaviors [ref]. Having parents who have antisocial traits and who are depressed can also lead to Antisocial Personality Disorder [ref].


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Course & Prevalence