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Introverts can often feel antisocial, but they are not always the same thing. In fact, psychologists found that they have great differences in their brain’s structure and function.

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Introverts can often feel antisocial — at least, in a way. They can feel pretty ‘anti’ being social, preferring to end a long week by doing their own thing instead of living it up at a big party.

But when psychologists talk about being antisocial, that’s not really what they mean. Instead, they’re referring to behaviors like manipulation, deceitfulness, and recklessness. In other words, someone isn’t avoiding social interactions; they’re engaging in negative ones.

And when those behaviors become a primary part of someone’s personality, they might be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, or ASPD. It’s one of the most easily misunderstood conditions out there, and it’s often easy to portray someone with it as heartless. But that’s totally not true.

Here’s what’s really going on. ASPD affects around 1 to 3% of the population, and according to the DSM-V, the latest version of the handbook doctors use to make diagnoses, it requires a few key symptoms. First, individuals have to show impairments in regulating their own behavior.

That could look like being strongly self-centered or having trouble conforming to laws or ethical norms. They also have to show impairments in interacting with others, like by exploiting people as their main way into relationships, or by not having remorse after hurting someone. And they should frequently show so-called antagonistic or disinhibited personality traits, which include things like manipulation, hostility, risk-taking, and impulsivity.

Finally, these impairments should all be stable over time and in different situations, and shouldn’t be better explained by things like medication, or someone’s social and cultural environment. It’s also important to point out that, although they often get lumped together, some psychologists don’t consider ASPD to be the same as psychopathy, another disorder not included in the DSM. It’s an ongoing debate, but they argue that, while these conditions share a lot of common characteristics and often happen at the same time, they don’t overlap completely.

So there’s a lot that goes into ASPD, and the things that cause it seem to be equally complex. From what researchers can tell, the disorder has a strong genetic component, but also an environmental one. One 2010 meta-analysis suggested that around 56% of the variation in symptoms can be attributed to genetics.

But studies looking at how the condition develops show us that’s not the whole story. Multiple papers have found that factors like abuse or neglect during childhood can make someone more likely to develop ASPD, especially if one of their parents was diagnosed with it. That could be because the stress in those environments can influence gene activity, which can ultimately affect brain functioning.

But that doesn’t mean everyone with the disorder had a rough childhood, either. Figuring out exactly what triggers this condition has been tricky, because it’s probably not just one thing. Besides investigating where ASPD comes from, other researchers have also studied what it looks like in the brain.

And they’ve found that many of those with this disorder have various atypicalities in their brain’s structure and function. For example, a 2013 meta-analysis looked at 12 studies involving brain scans of roughly 300 individuals with antisocial behavior and almost 250 controls. It found that those with antisocial behavior tended to have less gray matter in three areas involved with emotional processing.

Gray matter is the type of tissue that contains most of the brain’s cell bodies and synapses. This suggests that those with ASPD aren’t just disinterested in other people’s emotions. Their brains actually have structural differences that make it really tricky to fully understand them.

This idea was supported by another study in 2016, which looked at 83 people who had commited crimes. It found that participants with ASPD had more trouble visualizing the mental states of others. That likely explains why many people with this disorder become involved with things like crime or illicit drugs.

If someone can’t easily picture other people’s reaction to their behavior, it could make those kinds of activities seem less harmful. Thanks to its symptoms, it can be really easy to think ASPD makes someone totally incapable of having close relationships — or that someone with it would even want them. But that isn’t true.

Many will love and appreciate a select handful of close family or friends, and their symptoms might even be less severe around them. But outside of that inner circle, the condition make it much harder to have empathy or feelings towards others. Still, many with ASPD will hide their diagnosis purely because of the stigma attached to it — which is never a good thing.

Like with any personality disorder, it’s important to remember that, even if someone’s brain works differently… well, that just means it works differently. It doesn’t mean they’re a lesser person because of it. For psychologists, the next big steps in research are to learn more about what causes the disorder, and also how to treat it, since these symptoms often disrupt someone’s quality of life.

That said, treatment options are pretty limited right now. Some studies suggest that methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is designed to change negative thought patterns and behaviors, may help. But other studies showed no effect.

The good news is, we are getting better at treating conditions like this in general. In the past, psychologists concluded that personality disorders just can’t be addressed with treatment. But that idea has recently begun to change, and we’re starting to see more effective therapies for other personality disorders.

So, maybe in the future, we’ll see some reliable treatment options for this one, too. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! We believe psychology is all about understanding what makes us human, and we’re really thankful for our patrons on Patreon who help us keep making episodes like this.

If you want to support free psychology education online and help us explore more of what makes us tick, you can go to [ ♪OUTRO ].