Can sex differences in personality traits help to explain sex differences in antisocial behavior? Over the past month we have been discussing the results of the Dunedin Study of the development of antisocial behavior. In this study, researchers got to know over a thousand people through self reports, interviews, interviews of friends, teachers, parents and significant others, and official school/arrest records. One finding was a higher rate of antisocial behavior in males as compared to females. The study also explored the causes of the observed sex difference.
The Dunedin findings
Among both males and females antisocial behavior was positive associated with aggression, alienation, and stress reaction, suggesting that young men and women who are involved in antisocial behavior were likely to take advantage of others, to mistrust others* and to feel betrayed and used by their friends and to become easily upset and irritable**.
Antisocial behavior was negatively associated with self-control, traditionalism and social closeness. The term self control here is part of what I call impulse control and others call Constraint. Constraint means reflective, cautious, careful, rational, planful; people high in Constraint endorse high moral standards and prefer safe activities even if they are tedious. Constraint is the opposite of the psychopathy inventory Factor 2 (stimulation seeking, impulsivity, irresponsible, parasitic orientation, lack of realistic goals, poor behavioral controls).
Antisocial behavior and personality in men and women
Overall the relationship between personality and antisocial behavior was the same for men and women. Lack of Constraint and Negative Emotionality were robust correlates of antisocial behavior among both men and women. Lack of Constraint was more likely to be associated with antisocial behavior in men than it was in women, however the difference was small.
Sex differences in antisocial behavior boil down to sex differences in personality. Sex differences in personality (self-control, harm avoidance, traditionalism, aggression, alienation, stress reaction, social closeness, achievement and social potency) explained 96% of the sex differences in antisocial behavior and 78% of the sex differences in conduct disorder diagnosis.
How to prevent antisocial behavior-work on personality
Individuals at-risk for sociopathy are at-risk because their genes make it difficult for them to develop Constraint and Ability to Love. A human being’s fate isn’t set at birth! Nor is it set in cement at 15, 30, 45… Parenting an at-risk child means helping that child develop Love and Constraint. Parents need the help of the rest of society and our schools to do that.
Experiences make a difference
Some schools have instituted programs that I believe make a difference. I was very proud this week when my 6 year old son brought home a note written from a girl in his class. The note said “Dear______ I noticed you were kind because when you wanted to get blue you said I could get the blue. Signed A____” The class has a program of recognizing kindnesses by writing notes to peers. In order to let A___ have “the blue” my son had to practice holding himself back for the sake of another. That is the essence of Constraint, and love to an extent. Experiences like this are extremely important for at-risk kids. These experiences have to happen both at school and at home.
Constraint improves with practice but there has to be a reason for kids to practice it. Furthermore, the heartfelt practice of Constraint is more effective in building personality than is the “forced” practice of constraint. So programs with positive rewards work better than programs that focus on punishing bad behavior that has already happened.
If you read this and notice that you too have issues with Constraint, I encourage you to work on it. We do not have to be slaves to our temperaments. We have a higher brain we can use to become better. My friend who is a Buddhist says that a human life is celebrated because it comes with choices and possibilities not available during other lives… What do you think?
*As per Kathleen Hawk’s theory of sociopathy!
**That exact profile has been called secondary psychopathy as opposed to the low emotionality of primary psychopathy. Some people also equate secondary psychopathy to sociopathy and reserve the term “psychopath” for those who are cold and generally without emotion. The “psychopath” that narrowly defined is very uncommon. Perhaps less than 0.8% of the population. Sociopaths comprise up to 10% of the population. I explain all these numbers in Driven to Do Evil, my next book which is coming soon…