Recently, there has been some discussion on Lovefraud about the relationship between antisocial behavior and sociopathy as a disorder. It has been argued that antisocial behaviors are learned by some people and so not all people who are antisocial are sociopaths. The idea is that behavior that is learned may not reflect a person’s underlying personality, and can therefore be unlearned. Many people also believe that personality features such as low empathy indicate sociopathy more than does antisocial behavior.
The above issues are important because if pervasive antisocial behavior is reflective of a deeply rooted personality profile as opposed to “social learning” then there are many more “sociopaths” than if there are a large number of antisocials who are really nice loving people underneath all that nasty behavior.
In the past three months there also has been discussion here about sex differences in violent and antisocial tendencies. These two discussions often become one discussion because there are some who believe our society teaches males to be violent and antisocial and that again “social learning” (as opposed to personality features) accounts for sex differences in antisocial behavior.
I am teaching a university course in “The Psychology of Gender” this semester. Due to the lack of good unbiased texts for the class, I am teaching from original research papers. In that context I discovered one of the most amazing books I have ever read. That book is Sex Differences in Antisocial Behavior, by Dr. Terrie Moffitt and colleagues. Anyone who wants to understand sociopaths/psychopaths should read that book. It is well worth the $20.00 – $25.00 price.
The book is not an opinion driven textbook. It is a report of years of very thorough research — The Dunedin multidisciplinary health and development study which prospectively followed about 1500 men and women born between 4/1/1972 and 3/31/1973 in Dunedin, a provincial capital city on New Zealand’s South Island. The book covers the first 21 years of their lives. These individuals have been studied at age 32 and that data is reported in other sources. I obtained all those other sources and will share them with you.
The study collected comprehensive health data on all subjects; antisocial behavior was just one aspect of the research. They collected information every year or two by interviewing parents and teachers; and as the subjects got old enough they completed self-reports and brought friends and romantic partners in for interview. The researchers also accessed government and school records. The assessment tools used were well established valid instruments. They answered the following questions which also have implications for the etiology of antisocial behavior (ASB):
• Do males show increased ASB in all circumstances and in every antisocial activity?
• Are there sex differences in the developmental course of antisocial behavior?
• What is responsible for observed sex differences?
• Does ASB have different consequences for men and women?
In the next few weeks I will summarize and discuss their results in the context of other recent research. If we accept the 1 percent figure for PCL-R psychopathy in their population, we would expect about 15 psychopaths. Antisocial personality disorder has about a 4 percent prevalence rate so we would expect 60 sociopaths based on that figure. Keep that in mind as I go through the findings.
To give you an idea of this comprehensive study here is an outline of the assessments made:
• Teacher reports done at 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 (Rutter Child Scale)
• Self-reports were done at ages 11, 13, 15, 18, 21 (items included age appropriate antisocial and illegal acts).
• At ages 18 and 21 Study members were asked to nominate a friend or family member who knew them well to answer 4 items (problems with aggression, doing things against the law, alcohol, drug use).
• The smallest sex difference was seen at age 15.
• Sex effect sizes ranged from d=.15 to d=.48 and indicated a small to moderate sex difference.
• The largest age difference in antisocial behavior was at age 21.
• Official records revealed a significant difference between males and females for every variable examined.
• Drug and alcohol use was most similar, but was still more common in males.
When they pooled the data on antisocial behavior they got results similar to those reported by psychopathy researchers including Dr. Robert Hare. These researchers say that “psychopaths” are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violent and property crime in our society. In the Dunedin study most juveniles had broken the law but only a small number of juveniles were responsible for the majority of offending for both males and females. 50% of 64,062 “offenses” in 21 y/o males were reported by only 41 men (8%). 50% of the 23,613 offenses in women were reported by only 27 women (6%). The most active females were less prolific than their male counterparts.
There are several take-home messages given by the researchers:
• Males’ antisocial behavior is more often serious and is more likely to be sanctioned.
• Throughout the first two decades of life males consistently emerge as more antisocial than females with two exceptions.
• Males and females are most similar at age 15.
• Males and females are most similar in alcohol and drug use patterns.
To summarize then the Dunedin study identified a group of antisocial males and females whose pattern of antisocial behavior, beginning early in life resembles that of “psychopaths.” Most psychopathy researchers say that the disorder begins in childhood. The number of antisocial males and females identified by the researchers is very close to the number predicted, but was larger than expected. The researchers also collected personality profiles of all participants, data on intimate partner violence perpetration and data on whether subjects qualified for the diagnosis of conduct disorder. Kids with conduct disorder are considered to be “psychopaths in the making.” I will share those results with you in the next weeks.