Antisocial Personalities: The Unbridled Aggressive Pattern

In last week’s post I presented a general outline of the various sub-types of aggressive personalities (see: Aggressive Personalities:  The Sub-Types).   And among these sub-types, perhaps the type most researched and written about has been the type that I prefer to label the “unbridled aggressive.”  Historically, such individuals have been referred to as antisocial personalities.  And for years there has been an official category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association for Antisocial Personality Disorder.  Unfortunately, the term “anti-social” is misunderstood by many because it is so often colloquially used inappropriately to describe individuals who shy away from social interaction or do not seem to enjoy mingling with others.  It would actually be more appropriate to label folks who lack the normal desire for human contact as “asocial.”  The term antisocial (literally, “against society”) is really meant to describe those individuals who deliberately and habitually pit themselves against the social order, violating the generally accepted norms for social conduct.  Such folks are not at all adverse to superficial socializing (indeed, many can do that quite well). Rather, despite their acute awareness of the rules, limits, and structures society needs to function, they remain steadfastly opposed to subordinating themselves to the authorities and rules to which most of us willingly submit.  Unbridled aggressive personalities frequently find themselves in conflict with authorities, commit criminal acts, and many spend a good deal of their lives incarcerated.  And despite repeated social sanction, these folks often persist in their aggressive posture.  As I mention in Character Disturbance, they are the irrational, indiscriminate, and unrestrained fighters among us, which is why I think the label “unbridled aggressive” captures the core dynamics of their personality.

For the most part, unbridled aggressives:

  • view the world in “me against the rest of you” terms, and live their lives in a state of constant war.
  • resist submitting themselves to any higher power or authority.  They have little respect for rules, limits or boundaries and take pride in their ability to defy these constraints.
  • can and do expend energy on their own behalf, but they vehemently resist what others would call legitimate work or labors of love.  W-O-R-K is for them truly a four-letter word.  That’s primarily because they hate to feel obligated to anyone or anything.  Accepting obligation feels too much like submission – a position they detest.  As a result, they shirk the typical burdens of a responsible life and generally lead socially parasitic lifestyles.
  • have irascible temperaments and low frustration tolerance. It takes very little to get them upset, and they will not subject themselves for very long to anything they find distasteful or unpleasant.
  • are remarkably sensation-seeking and risk-taking.  Hedonistic and living life on a very primitive pleasure principle, they are prone to “chasing highs.”
  • have a remarkable imperturbability built into their temperament. They will do things most of us would get anxious or hesitant about and will persist in their behavior unshaken despite numerous adverse consequences.
  • are unwilling to delay gratification or to temper their impulses.  They want what they want, when they want it and act without restraint.  They act first, and think later.
  • lack the internal self-monitoring mechanisms self-governing mechanisms most people have.  They are uninhibited (i.e. lack internal “brakes”).
  • like all the other aggressive personalities, are narcissistic characters, so they have not only an unwarranted high opinion of themselves (despite the mess they’ve typically made of their lives) but also a sense of entitlement to do as they please without compunction.  They care primarily about themselves and their own desires and have little regard for others.

As is true of individuals with significant character disturbance, unbridled aggressives are persons of highly deficient conscience, which only compounds the difficulties with their internal self-monitoring and self-governing mechanisms.  For most of us, these mechanisms propel us to do right and to refrain from doing wrong.  But these unbridled aggressive personalities neither feel particularly apprehensive about doing wrong nor are they particularly motivated to do anything pro-social.  As a result, they consistently do things that hurt others.  And while they might have some practical, after-the-fact regret for some of the problems they cause themselves as a result of their undisciplined lifestyle, they rarely experience genuine remorse for the injury they inflict on others.

Research studies have found that some biologically-based predisposing factors contribute to the development of the characteristics described above. Indeed, there appears even to be a genetically-based predisposition toward anti-sociality per se. That is not to say, however, that antisocial characters are simply born the way they are. There are constitutional predispositions for sure, but environment and learning play roles, too.  It’s also not correct to assume that these personalities are necessarily a product of a bad environment. For a long time, it was commonly believed by professionals as well as the general public that adverse rearing conditions (abuse, conflict, abandonment, poverty, etc.) were the main causes of this type of personality development. We now know that some of the most antisocial characters among us were actually well cared for as children, and had opportunities afforded them.  Still, they seemed to prefer the pitting themselves against society.  That’s why, as far as contributing factors to personality development go, you can be fairly sure that both nature and nurture play roles, and the degree to which either plays the stronger role varies from individual to individual.  One of the most respected authorities on criminal personalities (antisocials or unbridled aggressives who led lives of crime) once commented that of all the various factors he had studied over many years in working with so many unsavory characters from all sorts of different backgrounds, the only consistent quality any of them displayed was a genuine fondness for breaking the rules and/or committing crime.  In other words, the bottom line is: these folks really enjoy fighting the system.

In my many years working with disordered characters, I found the aggressive personalities to be among the most difficult.  Of course, it was virtually impossible to work with them and foster any meaningful change using traditional methods.  That’s because, by and large, on the neurosis vs. character disturbed scale, they mostly fall on the character disturbed end.  True, there were a few whose behavior represented a genuine acting-out of unresolved and unconscious emotional conflicts stemming from early childhood trauma.  Yes, “neurotic” antisocials actually do exist, although they’re extremely rare.  But even in the cases where significant neurosis was present, the traditional methods were fairly ineffective.  And it wasn’t until I refined my own style of cognitive-behavioral therapy that I found a way to foster genuine change in such individuals. Eventually, I was even able to fashion programs that were adopted in several settings in which unbridled aggressive personalities were abundant (e.g., prisons, probation programs, etc.).  And I know of many instances where individuals completing such programs have truly turned their lives around.

The most difficult aspect of the early stages of working with these individuals was that despite the fact that even they had to agree that their lives were a true shipwreck, they persisted in the same old behaviors that got them into trouble time after time.  Traditionally, professionals thought the reason these disturbed characters failed to learn what we all hoped they might learn from their life’s experiences, was that they simply lacked good insight capacity.  And for this reason, insight-oriented therapies always attempted to help these folks “see” the error of their ways.  But I learned quickly that these folks already “saw” things quite clearly, even though their awareness didn’t change their mindset or behavioral predisposition.  As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, when it comes to disturbed characters, insight is not what they really lack or need.  And what really began making a difference in my work with these characters was when I began singling out and focusing directly on their overly aggressive behavioral predisposition and the other core characteristics of their personality that I outlined above.  Asking questions like:  “How much of your life would you say has been a shipwreck because you simply let yourself fight too much, too often, even when you knew you shouldn’t have?” or  “What’s it been like for you to go through life with such defective brakes?” got a much different type of encounter going in sessions.  And when I focused more attention on their problematic attitudes, thinking patterns, and the behaviors that stemmed from those, things really got interesting.   How these disturbed characters responded to this different approach was startling.  Finally, it seemed, someone was directly confronting the heart of their pathology — their uninhibited aggressive style — and that made a very big difference.  It also helped develop a level of trust most professionals and theorists thought simply impossible to build between a therapist trying to foster corrective thinking and behavior and a deeply disturbed character who, for most of his/her life, resisted authoritative guidance or direction from anyone else.  Instant respect seemed to come along with nailing things squarely on the head.  And hope was not far around the corner, once the folks I was working with accepted the notion that their most ingrained tendencies could be overcome and modified over time, given proper attention and reinforcement.

Next week we’ll be talking about the channeled aggressive personality.  And you certainly won’t want to miss the upcoming article on predatory aggressives (psychopaths) because it will be filled with examples borrowed from some high profile cases that have been in the news of late, one of which is currently capturing a lot of public attention.  So stay tuned!

As always, I want to invite questions on the topic under discussion.  It’s impossible to say everything that needs to be said in a single article.  But with folks providing examples, sharing experiences, and especially, asking questions to clarify or expand, we can hopefully provide a lot more helpful information about these most disturbed characters among us.


38 thoughts on “Antisocial Personalities: The Unbridled Aggressive Pattern

  1. Dr Simon, I just read a book (Columbus and Other Cannibals) that speaks of similar characters (within a Native thought-framework) calling bullies and users of various sorts so prevalent nowadays wetikos (“cannibals” — people who use and use up other people’s lives as suits them). The author (a Lenape) thinks that this “wetiko psychosis” is highly contagious, as the wetikos corrupt others.

    I am wondering if you have thought about this aspect of the problem, and if you’ve seen people getting infected?

    1. In fact, the causes are much more insidious and often subtle. Character disturbance is neither a psychosis nor a disease that can be caught. It is the natural result of the deterioration of the standards, structures, consequences, etc. that for centuries helped civilize humankind.

      1. Well, I been turning it over in my head since I left the query, and I recall that the wily CA I lived with for many years delighted not only in breaking down my boundaries, but also, worse, in corrupting me morally. I still remember his gleeful laughter when, after working on me for a long time, I finally I broke and called him names, as he was doing to me. There were a number of other moments like that, where I was pressured to give up a principle… and sometimes I did. It was horribly demoralizing, and I still have remorse about some of those things I did.

        In addition, the culture we live in also demoralizes like that, not only by the “just do it” propaganda everywhere, but also via our complicity in indirect damage we do — and doing nothing about it. We (you and I) are “cannibalizing” those Indians in the Amazon who are destroyed by the march of “civilization” we profit by, as surely as our ancestors here “devoured” the Indians, while stealing their land.

        So… not infectious like an illness, but… what about all those people who plunder via economic means because, well, if they don’t, they won’t get ahead and someone else will get the advantage… and I don’t mean here illegal activities. Aren’t they infected in another sense? To some extent, the complicity corrupts us all.

        1. Saw your other comment, Vera, after posting mine.

          Toxic systems enable moral degradation. I don’t mean to sound intellectual, because I’m not that far, but this is what I understand we should take into account and spread. Help others understand how to reduce sociocultural influences that enable malice, egomania, dissolution of boundaries(moral, identity, etc.), just to mention some.

          As terrifying as in 1984-like nation it would be to live in a kind of a world, where limitations are viewed as jokes with entitlement and corruption running amok.

        2. One huge enabling factor is denial. It’s like with other undesirable outcomes: They sneak up on us. It’s first gradual, then sudden. We look away until we can’t.

          What if there were ways to lower the threshold for acknowledging painful and troubling facts? To spread the message “Look away until you notice I’ve never gone away”?

    2. Scary that some person, otherwise decent, could have flaws in his/her character that then widen into huge gaps and eat away at the rest of their integrity. If I understand you correctly, you mean someone’s character could erode after contact with another person of vile, base or extremely subpar character.

      1. I am saying my character eroded. Under constant onslaught… not that I am making excuses. Like steady slow water undermining a bank… there was so many tricks he used, that I just began to crumble over the years.

        None of us are perfect, you know? We all have weaknesses, and when you live with a person who knows how to take advantage, and keep pushing his agenda, well…

        I didn’t do crime. He was not criminal minded anyways. But I did some stuff that still pains me.

        1. Just read a quote recently. It said “You become like the 5 people you spend the most time with. Choose carefully.” Another famous quote “bad association spoils useful habits”. We definitely can be affected by who we spend time with for good or for bad. None of us are above that. That’s why we need to get away from people that erode our morals and positive thinking abilities. That’s why I agree with you Vera. CA’s can and do affect us if we spend enough time with them. So we need to stay away!!!

  2. Dr Simon, I am wondering how you determine that the backgrounds and childhoods don’t shape the large majority of the character disturbances. Someone obviously can’t rely on the character deficient person to give an accurate picture.

    1. Studies that have gotten verified data from multiple family sources about history bear out that the more character disturbed the person is the more they overstate any victimization they suffered and understate the victimization they inflicted on others. There’s other research as well. And there are also plenty of individual case studies in which histories were verified. You’re correct that you simply cant take the character-impaired person’s self-report, which is what we used to do back in the day. Now, all this is not to say that there aren’t folks who don’t have abuse/neglect issues in their history. The problem is, however, that when you look hard at all the data, there are plenty of abuse/neglect survivors who don’t become disturbed characters and plenty of disturbed characters who were abundantly blessed in their nurturing. Then there are the studies that look at other siblings raised in the same environment, etc. Suffice it to say that when all is considered, it’s just not as simple as we used to think, namely that impoverishment, abuse, neglect, trauma, etc. is what makes a disturbed character.

      1. The CA I was referring to above grew up in above average circumstances, amidst plenty and adoration and support. I wished I had a family as nice as his folks.

      2. I call shenanigans. I am borderline and am able to remember the one moment in time where I decided not to trust anyone… my father was hitting me, I complained to my mother… she told me it was my imagination. That was all it took. I was very young although cannot name the age, but I do remember screaming I’m Never Trusting Anyone Ever Again! And I never did. It isn’t about the quality of the abuse, but the timing in the young child’s development when he or she is making hard-coded decisions about how to think and behave. For all I know had the same thing happened a year later I would not have borderline. There was other psychological invalidation as well, but that one first moment in time was the cause beyond a reasonable doubt to me, plain as day.

  3. The other thing I find myself wondering about is if some of these people had been exposed to alcohol or drugs or even cigarette use in utero. The only way to know if someone was exposed to alcohol before they were born is if the mother self reports the use and it’s my guess that there are many women who would not admit to it. There are those who even question whether or not the fathers use of alcohol could have an effect on the make up of a child.

  4. Alot of what you described in this blog post can describe opportunistic hedonists on the internet. Essentially engaging in violations of personal boundaries that intrude upon negative liberty and positive liberty.

    Tactics: Smear-campaigns that infringe upon the reputation of another so that person is more likely to be ostracized based on what personal attack Y says. Social engineering as a tool to extract information and disseminate it based on a pretense of friendship.

    The internet can be a hotbed for charlatans in a sense of criminal versatility using malicious tricks. Essentially mind games, dirty tricks, and shame campaigns that involve reduxes of libel and slander.

  5. Team dynamics can have personalities viewed as “aggressive” or “antisocial” that are contingent on gaslighting. Essentially a milieu of deception and confusion to polarize others for malicious purposes. Of course, this involves the aggressor knowing how to undermine the morale of the team. This tends to erect others as scapegoats leading to psychological harm.

    At best, these are shady tactics relying on uncertainty of the person peddling the behavior. It’s unhealthy to say the least. The following context I described actually did happen. The team was corrupted and their was a significance in cynicism due to dishonest and incompetence on the frontier in a kangaroo court.

  6. Political ideologies like “anarchism” can breed these kinds of personalities when you put perspective into it. It be a hotbed for a naive young crowd that relies on coercion and sabotage to make a point instead of figuring out how to be diplomatic about various quagmires in the system.

    E.g. smashing windows and deliberately getting into physical brawls instead of getting together and contacting congress on potential remedies to the problem.

    1. If we’re not careful, we may end up as a bunch of base animals following primal instincts and fighting.

      As for treating quagmires in a system, what about other political ideologies?

  7. I definitely agree that nature-nurture play an important role in the development of these personalities. Specifically environmental factors interacting with the person to influence the fitness of their actions and beliefs.

  8. Dr. Simon, please accept my grateful thanks for your work. Your book In Sheep’s Clothing has been so very helpful in fending off some of these people. I have been wishing for a book that details characteristics of mentally ill and mentally disordered people so that I could try to identify them up front in my business (clothing alterations)in order to fend them off. And lo, you wrote the book, I’ve ordered it, had it spiral bound for easier studying, have also recommended it to several of my customers (psychiatrist, high school principal, bank manager), so again, THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH.

    My experience with these CA people(one every 2 years or so) starts out with an over the top compliment from them to me, then slowly trying to worm their way into my life, then sooner or later they will try to get me to compromise my principles. Sometimes I pretend to be just a dumb seamstress — it’s possible to learn a great deal if you are “naive.” What these people don’t realize is that 1. I’ve been reading psychology for almost 50 years because my “family” was extremely dysfunctional, and 2. I am one of Dr. Robert Bramson’s “bulldozer” people (see in the book Coping with Difficult People, ch. 7) and I am not kindly disposed to those who seem to think that I could not possibly have managed all these years without their guidance.

    To those others who commented before me, asking about whether parents who smoked or drank excess amounts of alcohol, probably they did somewhat influence the child. Go to Google, search for epigenetics Scandinavian valley. Go to, search for epigenetics — there are quite a few short articles which explain why we are what our grandparents ate. These articles are mostly devoted to physical diseases which result from eating poorly; I don’t recall any offhand that mention mental illness or mental disorders as results.

    Another wonderful resource is a book by Melvyn Wersbach, M.D. titled Nutritional influences on illness; a sourcebook of clinical research, 2d ed., c. 1996. If you don’t want to buy it, perhaps your local library could borrow it for you through Interlibrary Loan.

    One more resource is, where you can subscribe (free) to a monthly small magazine called Brain in the News. There are also links there to many other brain related sites.

    One last resource for those days when you feel a bit down, google for “victim or victor” by Ralph Marston. Be sure to use the quotation marks as I have shown, otherwise you will get many thousands of hits.

    Again, Dr. Simon, my everlasting thanks for all your work.

    1. Elva, there is all kinds of evidence that drinking when pregnant can and most likely will affect the baby. Like I said, the only way to know FOR SURE what the mother ingested during her pregnancy is to ask her and she very easily could take that dirty little secret to her grave. It can have severe affects, physically, mentally, emotionally. Some say that there are actually way more children affected by alcohol use in utero than anyone will ever know because they have no outward physical tell tale symptoms such as facial abnormalities. The damage is there neurologically none the less. It’s the number one preventable birth defect and they think that the numbers are greater than all other birth defects combined!! Could that not be a reason the numbers of disturbed characters is increasing?

      1. It’s certainly part of the equation. But perhaps the most insidious factors are the things that are necessary for character development but which don’t come into play in the lives of so many. None of us is naturally endowed with good character. It has to be developed carefully not only with attentive, loving guidance but also with much socio-cultural reinforcement. In the absence of this, most of us (except for those precious few who seem to be specially constitutionally endowed) would simply be savages. And unfortunately, as you point out, because there are also neurobiological and other impairments that can make the socialization process even more challenging than usual for some, in the absence of sound character-fostering influences, those disadvantaged souls are even more likely to end up significantly character disturbed.

      2. Puddle, it doesn’t seem to add up… people used to drink to excess far more in the past… if you look up the history of alcohol in the U.S you will be amazed. And of course people did not know then it could damage the fetus… I don’t think it’s biology, it’s culture. For example, even if all populations have some psychopaths, the incidence in Taiwan is far far less than here. In some cultures, they have to be very careful… and behave perhaps despite themselves. In this culture where anything goes, well…

        1. Right Vera. That’s kind of going with my point maybe. In Tiwan, there isn’t near the amount of women who drink like in the US. AND….back in history people drank a lot, yes. However, the women didn’t drink anywhere near the amount that the men did, just like in India, Tiwan, etc…..there women don’t drink like the US. That will/ is be changing as other cultures become more westernized.
          One of the areas that is affected by in utero alcohol use is the area that has been seen to be deficient in socio/psychopaths….the area responsible for empathy.

          1. “One of the areas that is affected by in utero alcohol use is the area that has been seen to be deficient in socio/psychopaths….the area responsible for empathy.”

            Interesting. Do you have a link on that connection?

          2. Not quite as simple as “an area for empathy” but rather areas involved in emotion and the integration of emotion with situations and things generally associated by most folks with an emotional response. And in fact, the areas most affected are also those associated with inhibition and self-control. I’ll try to find some appropriate links.

          3. My statement was a fairly loosely worded one. There are various areas of the brain affected by in utero alcohol exposure. My understanding is that it depends on what stage of development the fetus is in when exposed. I have so much info saved about FASD but it’s hard to remember what I saw where.
            There are varying degrees of severity in FASD for sure, from severely deformed and retarded to average or above average intelligence with no outward physical markers. Those with no physical symptoms can and do have behavioral issues, learning disabilities, impulse control problems, memory problems, etc, etc, etc…
            Like I said, it just depends on the individual and how they were affected.

  9. I read about Leonard Berkowirz’ research about weapons effect during senior high. Presence of weapons or other hint related to aggressive behavior encourages aggressive thoughts.

    Now, mindscape of antisocials must either include much similar to weapons effect to keep them in such state and enable them to act aggressively without triggering indeed.

    On the other hand, an antisocial personality and a weapon is an obvious recipe for terrifying consequences.

    Perhaps gun laws need to be tightened due to people lacking controls.

    1. Your last sentence captures the essence of great debate on this issue, J. We’re in the position of having to restrict freedoms simply because people lack controls. And this is an issue on all sorts of fronts, not just gun violence. Still, I worry about where we’re choosing to focus attention. We can ban soft drinks, guns, drugs, smoking in public, etc. and frankly every problem we have with all these things will remain until enough people have enough character to make responsible choices. Now, one can certainly make the argument that it’s a tall order to think we really can turn around all the reasons for character decline in our culture, but the fact is that it’s not possible to make any progress whatsoever on that front until we at least focus our attention on the issue. Focusing elsewhere “enables” further decline because it allows us to think we’re at least doing something and it makes us feel better, but without tackling the real problem at all.

      1. I think that trying to legislate against character damaged people, when done by restricting freedoms of all, hits hardest on those who don’t deserve to be hit. And the CAs? They get past it — they often thumb their noses at such attempts.

        And then, the strictures themselves begin to cause damage out of proportion to any good they can do. Look at the Drug War.

        Figuring out how to restrict the freedoms of the CAs, while not punishing the wrong people, is the way to go, IMO.

        1. Thanks for the comment, Vera. And it echoes the points I make in the concluding chapters of Character Disturbance about the most disturbing megatrends of our times.

  10. @J

    as for political ideologies, i can’t give a solution due to all the deception and confusion in circles like that. Perhaps we’ll have to educate ourselves outside politics rather than let our credulity in politics lead us to such acts of antagonism.

    *this caveat can be taken at face-value*

  11. Dr Simon,
    I greatly appreciate the insight you are providing. I have found it to be very helpful. I am hoping you might consider writing one or more articles about how to help young children and teens deal with the manipulation, being exposed to someone’s socially inappropriate behavior, etc. I have a better handle on how to better deal with it myself, but am having a lot of difficulty doing damage control with the kids, such as in situations where they catch the close relative in lies (and are still lied to when they confront the person), are the target of hurtful or emotionally abusive comments, witness disrespect or contemptful comments directed at the other parent (and ask the person to stop), hear derogatory comments (filled with contempt) that law enforcement are (expletives) and do not deserve respect, hear explanations why the laws are not fair or ways to circumvent them, witness things or discussions about things that may be illegal, etc. If the manipulative/aggressive person is a parent, their children will be affected by their behavior and it’s really important for parents to learn how to effectively/appropriately deal with it. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the comment and suggestion, which I think has great merit. I’ll do my best to remember to put an article about this topic on the docket in the near future, but if you don’t see something appear in the next few months, you might wish to remind me again.

      Once again, thanks for the suggestion.

  12. Its not from childhood abuse.. its from child abuse in which the child is aware he or she does not deserve it. Big difference. It means even a small transgression by a parent without explanation results in a personality disorder. When the world that should be safest suddenly makes no sense… the mind must compensate or adapt.

    The big load of bunk is thinking that the families of the personality disordered would give any more an accurate telling of abuse or non-abuse than the patient themselves.

    Many parents would give themselves a pass where others would not, and one family member abusing one other covertly would not be known by anyone to report other than the victim.

    Furthermore many victims repress or suppress the abuse or severity. I find it highly suspect thought patterns are genetic. Disorders are decisions made to cope as children that become integrated with the self.

    That is, if the environment does not correct them in adolescents.

  13. My question is regarding the unbridled narcissist in relationships. How do these people engage with “romantic interest”? I believe I was with one of these types of narcissist for 4 years. Thanks for this wonderful article. It has allowed me some perspective on who I was dealing with.

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