How to Tell If Your Character Has Antisocial Personality Disorder

There’s antisocial and then there’s antisocial personality disorder—and the distinction is very important. Do you know the difference?

Personality disorders litter the pages of books. Physiological disorders are one thing, but getting inside the mind of a character—in this case, a mind that isn’t like other people’s—is something that can make writers and readers a little giddy.

One tool psychologists use to diagnose mental disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (otherwise known as the DSM-5). This manual lists criteria that must be met for someone to be diagnosed with a particular mental disorder. Within the DSM-5 are five sections, each called an Axis, with personality disorders falling under Axis II. There are ten personality disorders in all, which are separated into ‘clusters’.

For the next few posts, Psychology & Storycraft will be taking a closer look at the personality disorders in Cluster B: antisocial, histrionic, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. People with these disorders are emotional, dramatic, erratic—and very interesting to write about. Excited yet? Then let’s jump straight in with the first!

To Keep in Mind:

The information in this post comes from the DSM-5 (see ‘Further Reading’). Please do not use it to diagnose yourself or others. It isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional advice so do consult a qualified clinical professional if you have any questions about the diagnosis criteria. Feel free to use this information to diagnose your characters, however.

Having an antisocial personality disorder (APD) doesn’t mean someone is unsociable or uninterested in being around other people. Rather, it means they hold societal rules in contempt and don’t follow them.

Antisocial personality disorder isn’t the same as psychopathy or sociopathy either. All psychopaths and sociopaths can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, but not all people with antisocial personality disorder are psychopaths or sociopaths. (If it helps, consider the analogy that not all frogs are toads, but all toads are frogs.)

Specifically, people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder violate and disregard others’ rights. They can be charming on the outside, but remorseless, impulsive and reckless on the inside. Often, they’ll lie, steal, get into fights and generally commit unlawful acts, which is one reason why antisocial personality disorder is associated with criminality (though this isn’t always the case).

How Is Antisocial Personality Disorder Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with APD, your character must meet the following:

Criterion A:

They show disregard for and violation of the rights of others. It’s a pervasive pattern of behaviour that’s been happening since they were 15 years old, as indicated by three or more of the following:

  1. Fails to conform to social norms regarding lawful behaviour, demonstrated by repeatedly carrying out actions that they could be arrested for.
  2. Is deceitful, indicated by frequent lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Is impulsive and fails to plan ahead.
  4. Is irritable and aggressive, demonstrated by repeatedly getting into physical fights or assaults.
  5. Shows reckless disregard for the safety of themselves or others.
  6. Is consistently irresponsible, indicated by the repeated failure to keep up regular work behaviour or honour financial obligations.
  7. Lacks remorse, indicated by their indifference to or rationalisation of having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another person.
Criterion B:

They are at least 18 years old.

Criterion C:

There’s evidence of conduct disorder that began before 15 years of age.

Criterion D:

Their antisocial behaviour doesn’t occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

For a personality disorder to be diagnosed, these criteria must be displayed over long periods of time (it’s no good this behaviour only showing up for a few days then disappearing again) and in different personal and social situations (it has to be present in lots of different circumstances, not just one or two).

Looking Beyond Criminality

As I mentioned previously, antisocial personality disorder is common among criminals, but that doesn’t mean to say that all people with antisocial tendencies behave in illegal ways. For those less criminally inclined, the same thrill-seeking need can be satisfied through high risk and exciting jobs and hobbies, such as race car driving and bungee jumping.