What Are the Cognitive and Social Mechanisms Underlying Antisocial Behaviour?
The research of determinants of antisocial behavior is aimed to bring light and, if possible, the resolution to one of the most common issues of social structures. Antisocial behavior leads to numerous conflicts and harmful consequences, ranging from a simple individual inability to building healthy social relationships to serious crimes. While currently there is no clear consensus on the mechanisms behind the antisocial behavior, there are multiple approaches and directions of scientific study. Two of the most successful perspectives are cognitive and social, as they try to explain the issue through entirely different determinants: internal cognitive processes and external social influence respectively. There is a need to analyze the nature of antisocial behavior and review the argumentation of both of the above perspectives.
Defining antisocial behavior
Antisocial behavior is a broad term that describes aggressive, selfish, manipulative, and other behavioral patterns that may profoundly disturb individual’s social interactions and engagement. The studies and definitions of antisocial behavior vary, depending on whether the subject is a child or an adult. For children, this behavior is associated with “aggression, stealing, lying, truancy, firesetting, and other actions that reflect major social rule violations” (Kazdin, Bass, Siegel & Thomas, 1989). However, throughout an individual’s development, these types of behavior often lead to more severe and harmful actions during adulthood. Such measures include criminal behavior, alcoholism, drug abuse, antisocial disorders.
Moreover, there are even suggestions that antisocial behavior is a trait that could be transmitted to further generation (Kazdin, Bass, Siegel & Thomas, 1989). Therefore, understanding of the determinants of antisocial behavior is an important step not only to improve the quality of one’s social engagement, but it is also a significant scientific direction that could serve to create a community with fewer crimes, conflicts, and their consequences. Although this scientific field is rich in paradigms and trends, the two most fundamental approaches have emerged throughout the last couple of decades. These approaches are cognitive, concentrating on brain’s activity that stimulates antisocial behavior, and social, which emphasizes the importance of socialization and environment of an individual in explanation of his or her antisocial activities.
Cognitive explanations of antisocial behavior
Cognitive perspective to antisocial behavior views an individual’s inner genetically determined qualities as the primary sources of his or her behavioral patterns. This approach emphasizes various brain activities and brain structure and their consequences (e.g., learning abilities, empathy skills) as the most influential factors of an individual’s likelihood to engage in antisocial behavior.
Cognitive approach is comprehensive, as it includes studies of different brain parts and learning abilities that describe antisocial behavior from various angles. One way to understand how cognition influences our antisocial behavior is to use neuro-imagery technologies to understand how brain work and structures differ in people who have been practicing antisocial behavior compared to those who have to such record. For example, high level of aggression (even up to committing murder) is associated with low metabolism of glucose and blood flow in prefrontal and orbitofrontal areas of the brain (Raine & Yang, 2006). Another important factor may lie in temporal lobe volume. Dolan and his colleagues have concluded that a lower amount of temporal lobe leads to a higher risk of aggressive and destructive behavior (Dolan, Deakin, Roberts & Anderson, 2002). Other significant parts of the brain that are associated with more aggressive behavior are “parietal lobe (particularly the angular gyrus) and anterior/posterior cingulate gyrus” (Raine & Yang, 2006). The irregularities in these regions’ work and structure influence an individual’s predisposition to engage in violent behavior and commit acts of aggression toward other people. Of course, antisocial behavior is a complex term that may change in various contexts, but such neurobiological approach reaches to the most basic conditions that play a huge role in the intensification of particular types of behavior and stimulus.
Another significant term within the cognitive approach is empathy and human ability to produce empathetic and sympathetic behavior. Understanding refers to the human ability to understand the feelings of other people and predict the consequences of one’s action on people around him or her. Cognitive determinants directly influence individuals empathy potential, meaning that our brain activity drives our ability to engage in empathy. A study by Miller and Eisenberg suggests that understanding highly correlates with aggressive and antisocial behavior, meaning that the more an individual is capable of understanding, the less likelihood of his or her engagement in antisocial behavior is (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). Therefore, our inability to feel socially-connected emotions and understand them may be one of the most significant cognitive determinants of antisocial and aggressive behavior.
Cognitive perspective also uses a problem-solving approach to explain the origins of antisocial behavior. According to this approach, people (especially children) struggle to understand how to solve daily issues, including the need to face small defeats, react to conflicts with parents, peers, and supervisors. Because of individual’s cognitive lack of problem-solving skills, he or she acts to such issues in aggressive, antisocial, and deviant ways, both expecting the problems to be solved in this expressive way and due to inability to face the frustration and anger. Kazdin and his colleagues have concluded that problem-solving skills training (PSST) technique used to help antisocial children turned out to be more effective than the more traditional relationship therapy (RT), which emphasizes the empathetic component in the treatment of antisocial behavior (Kazdin, Bass, Siegel & Thomas, 1989). Therefore, from this perspective, one of the primary cognitive mechanisms behind antisocial behavior lies in low ability to solve problems. To increase an individual’s social engagement and acceptance, one needs to develop and train the problem-solving skills, from the most uncomplicated causal training to more complex social conflicts.
Cognitive approach presents an essential view on antisocial behavior, proposing most deeply situated processes as explanations for such an unlikely phenomenon. While this perspective has led to a deeper understanding of the subject, it does not include the complexity of social contexts and factors that emerge during individual development and interaction with the world outside of our body. To see another angle of determination of antisocial behavior, there is a need to focus on environmental and external factors, which are presented in a social perspective.
Social determinants of antisocial behavior
The social perspective views antisocial behavior as a result of the environment of an individual, who is highly influenced by his or her social interactions and experience. Sometimes this approach is referred to as a developmental perspective because it emphasizes the circumstances in which an individual develops.
Social mechanisms that underlie antisocial behavior are mainly various socialization agents, which include family relations, peers, school, media, referential group. Socialization refers to the assumption that both “normative and deviant behaviors are learned social behaviors, products of the interaction of social, psychological, and cultural characteristics” (Oetting & Donnermeyer, 1998). Therefore, antisocial behavior is a direct consequence of socialization agents’ influence, which shapes an individual throughout the entire life course, but especially during the earliest age. To understand the connection between these agents’ influence, it is better to analyze their actions in chronological order – from individual’s earliest years to adulthood.
Family relations are significant in the context of antisocial behavior. Parenting style affects a child’s understanding of basic principles and patterns of interaction with other people. If aggressive, conflicting, strict, and even abusive behavior prevails in parents’ communication with each other and their offspring, the child is more likely to learn it and use it in his or her daily social interaction (Snyder, Schrepferman & St. Peter, 1997). Inconsistent discipline and lack of positive reinforcement from parents may influence an individual’s the communication with peers, as children of abusive and aggressive families transmit this behavior into school and other institutions, which affects other children and their process of learning to cooperate. Bullying, constant peer pressure, and lack of one’s engagement with other children originally come from poor parenting and only reinforce the perspective of antisocial behavior in younger age. With time, antisocial children engage in more serious deviant activities, especially those connected to minor criminal acts and drug use. People who start to engage in such activities earlier in the adolescent period are more likely to continue this behavior in adulthood (Hawkins, 1996). Negative attitude from teachers, parents, and other peers only reinforce individual’s self-perception as a bad, immoral, and irresponsible person, which makes him or her even more likely to accept and continue antisocial behavior patterns. In this way, family’s influence gradually leads to peer influence that reinforces the antisocial potential of an individual. During the adolescence, affiliation with antisocial peers and susceptibility to peer influence are the key social mechanisms that stimulate antisocial behavior, as individuals find peer groups and subcultures that value and appraise such behavior (Monahan, Steinberg & Cauffman, 2009). These people are highly more likely to commit crimes, get arrested, and get into prison. After experiencing imprisonment, they are less likely to have successful careers and fulfilling families of their own, making their situation even more at risk of individual’s alienation, drug, and alcohol abuse.
According to a social perspective, the above destructive environmental mechanisms that influence an individual throughout his or her development may lead to more severe psychological issues that only disrupt an individual’s social engagement. Adults who demonstrate antisocial behavior often developmental disorders, like schizophrenia, drug abuse, depression, which stimulate their deprivation from strong and caring relationships with other people, their issues with building successful careers and reaching comfortable environment for starting a family. Moreover, these people get stigmatized in media discourse and often receive little respect from more successful individuals, only intensifying the antisocial motivations.
Therefore, social mechanisms that underlie the antisocial behavior compose a complex and interconnected system of factors which influence an individual’s actions, thoughts, and values. These mechanisms, including, family, peers, social institutions, media, and much more can gradually lead to quite unpleasant results, forming an individual who has no easy and beneficial social engagement, no ability to communicate with other people successfully, build a career, etc. Social factors are among the highly essential subjects to include when talking about the reasons antisocial and destructive behavior.
Antisocial behavior is an issue that includes various types of destructive and harmful activities. This behavior reflects the aggressiveness, violence, as well as engagement in crime and drug abuse, making it not only an issue of specific individuals but a phenomenon which aggravates the relations within the whole society and the inclusivity of each in it. Cognitive and social perspectives are the most prominent and well-studied directions of explaining the origins of antisocial behavior. Cognitive perspective focuses on the internal determinants of antisocial activity, concentrating on our brain work and structure. This approach claims that, first, variations in specific brain part structures and actions lead to more likelihood of the aggressive and harmful behavior. Second, it views human learning skills and abilities to feel empathy as significant factors that influence individual predisposition to antisocial behavior. Social, or developmental, perspective views aggressive and antisocial behavior as a result of the social environment in which an individual develops and exists. From this approach, relationships with parents, peers, and other socialization agents directly influence and teach individual specific types of values, behavior and communication skills. If the environment is aggressive and full of conflicts, the individual is more likely to engage in antisocial activities. Both of the explanations – cognitive and social – have impressive theoretical and empirical background, as well as weak points. While the cognitive approach lacks understanding of external context that shapes specific communication patterns, the social approach seems to leave aside biological determinants of human actions. Despite such differences, both perspectives play a significant role in understanding and solving the issue of antisocial behavior, complementing one another and stimulating future scientific research in this field.
Dolan, M., Deakin, W., Roberts, N., & Anderson, I. (2002). Serotonergic and cognitive impairment in impulsive aggressive personality disordered offenders: are their implications for treatment?. Psychological Medicine, 32(01). http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s0033291701004688
Hawkins, J. (1996). Delinquency and crime. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kazdin, A., Bass, D., Siegel, T., & Thomas, C. (1989). Cognitive-behavioral therapy and relationship therapy in the treatment of children referred for antisocial behavior. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, 57(4), 522-535. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.57.4.522
Miller, P., & Eisenberg, N. (1988). The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103(3), 324-344. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0033-2909.103.3.324
Monahan, K., Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (2009). Affiliation with antisocial peers, susceptibility to peer influence, and antisocial behavior during the transition to adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1520-1530. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0017417
Oetting, E., & Donnermeyer, J. (1998). Primary Socialization Theory: The Etiology of Drug Use and Deviance. I. Substance Use & Misuse, 33(4), 995-1026. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/10826089809056252
Raine, A., & Yang, Y. (2006). Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior. Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, 1(3), 203-213. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsl033