Antisocial and Histrionic Personality Disorders

Antisocial personality disorder, also referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy, is characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others, lying, deception, impulsivity, aggressive behavior, lack of empathy, and lack of remorse. The typical sociopath views his (males outnumber females 20 to 1) fellow humans as mere objects to be manipulated for personal gain (Stevens and Price, 1996). Sociopaths represent the “cheaters” that evolutionary theorists have argued would subvert the spread of genes for altruism. Basically the sociopathic strategy is to take advantage of the altruistic leanings in other people by pretending to have similar altruistic motives themselves.

Linda Mealy (1995) has argued that the sociopathic strategy is maintained by frequency-dependent selection. She summarizes her argument as follows: “(1) there is a genetic predisposition underlying sociopathy which is normally distributed in the population; (2) as the result of selection to fill a small, frequency-dependent, evolutionary niche, a small, fixed percentage of individuals- those at the extreme of this continuum- will be deemed "morally insane" in any culture; (3) a variable percentage of individuals who are less extreme on the continuum will sometimes, in response to environmental conditions during their early development, pursue a life-history strategy that is similar to that of their "morally insane" colleagues; and (4) a subclinical manifestation of this underlying genetic continuum is evident in many of us, becoming apparent only at those times when immediate environmental circumstances make an antisocial strategy more profitable than a prosocial one.” p. 526.

In other words, some individuals are born to be sociopaths as a result of their genetics, others are made to be sociopaths as a result of a harsh developmental history interacting with some predisposing genetic factors and many individuals are capable of a temporary pattern of antisocial behavior in response to proximate environmental factors. Sociopathy can be maintained in human society only if it is limited in scope, either in the percentage of the population effected or in the length of time a large segment is engaged in antisocial behavior. During relatively stable (e.g., peacetime) conditions, sociopathic individuals who follow a cheating strategy and prey upon the larger prosocial segment of the population can not exceed a certain percentage because their success is dependent upon the naiveté of their victims. During times of chaotic social upheaval and violence (e.g., war) the proximate conditions may make a temporary pattern of antisocial behavior adaptive for a much larger percentage of individuals. However, even during the worst of times, antisocial behavior produces an adaptive payoff only in certain situations and over very limited periods of time.

The early environmental conditions that appear to trigger sociopathy in those with the requisite genetic predispositions include physical or sexual abuse as children and a history of parental separation and loss (Stevens and Price, 1996). Oftentimes, much of their early life was in an orphanage or foster home.  Presumably, roughly equal numbers of males and females are subjected to such degraded rearing experiences but males are much more likely to become sociopaths whereas females are much more likely to develop histrionic personality disorders.

Histrionic personality disorder is characterized by exaggerated attention seeking behavior, sexually inappropriate, seductive or provocative behavior, a tendency to be easily influenced by others and to perceive relationships to be more intimate than they actually are. Harpending and Sobus (1987) have argued that histrionic females are employing a cheating strategy that is equivalent to that of sociopathic males. Because the reproductive strategies of males and females differ, the cheating strategies of males and females must differ accordingly. A male sociopath should be adept at seducing females and deceiving them about his degree of commitment. A histrionic female should be adept at exaggerating her need for the male and her vulnerability in order to induce him to lavish love and attention upon her. The histrionic female should also show a readiness to abandon her offspring opportunistically (former mating partners or their close kin typically take care of the abandoned offspring).

This indeed, is the pattern displayed by these two clinical groupings. Sociopathic males are typically charming, charismatic, promiscuous, and deceitful. Histrionic females are skilled at exaggerating their needs to desired males while masking their true promiscuous nature. They often seek to control their partner through emotional manipulation. Histrionic females manipulate others to gain nurturance whereas sociopathic males manipulate others for material gain.