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How Can People With Antisocial Personality Disorder Experience Empathy?

Have you ever heard of the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder? Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a cluster B disorder that often involves traits of recklessness, aggression, and impulsivity. Based on the criterion for ASPD, many people believe that individuals with the diagnosis can’t experience empathy. Much like everything else, the reality is much more gray than this black-and-white perception. In this blog, we’ll discuss the misrepresentation of ASPD and the ways that people with ASPD can experience empathy.

Media Misrepresentation of Antisocial Personality Disorder

When people think of ASPD, they often think of terms like “psychopath” and “sociopath.” Though they’re common, these terms aren’t diagnoses. In theory, they’re different ways of understanding ASPD symptoms. Sadly, the reality is more sinister. The terms psychopath and sociopath are used in the media to demonize, villainize, and “other” people with ASPD. Unfortunately, the weaponization of this language makes it largely unhelpful in mental health spheres. It also might contribute to why people with ASPD don’t usually seek or receive treatment until after they’re forced to through incarceration.

In addition to harmful language, the media only references ASPD when it comes to villains and serial killers. These individuals are shown as callous, careless, and unable to empathize in any way. That’s not the reality of ASPD, though. Much like everything else, ASPD can vary from mild to severe. With this variation, we also recognize a variation in the capacity and degree to which a person with ASPD feels empathy.

Empathy as a Spectrum and Skill

As with most things, empathy is a complex construct that involves more than one component. Firstly, empathy involves cognitive empathy (CE) and affective empathy (AE). People with high CE would easily recognize the feelings and emotions involved in another person’s behaviors. Meanwhile, people with high AE would deeply feel and relate to the feelings of another person. Secondly, a person must not just have empathy but also care about it.

As discussed in a 2021 Frontiers in Psychiatry article, people with ASPD often experience higher levels of CE with lower levels of AE. The amount to which a person with ASPD cares about empathy largely varies depending on the symptomatology present.

Ultimately, the best visual representation of empathy with these components would be a 3D graph. The x-axis represents CE capacity, and the y-axis represents AE capacity. Meanwhile, the z-axis would be the amount to which a person cares about empathy. Every person would fall somewhere on this spectrum, whether they have ASPD or not.

The good news for people with low empathy scores is that empathy is also a skill. Like any other skill, there’s both nurture and nature involved. A person may have a biological capacity to which they naturally understand empathy. However, empathy can usually be nurtured and taught over time in therapy.

If someone you love has ASPD, they may experience symptoms on a scale from mild to severe. Additionally, they may experience high levels of cognitive empathy and low levels of affective empathy. This can cause difficulties. Realistically, ASPD will impair life like any other mental illness. However, people with ASPD may, with treatment, be capable of managing the symptoms. At The Guest House, we comprehensively treat mental illnesses and addiction. With our amazing staff, your loved one will receive the support and treatment needed to live a more functional life. For help, please call The Guest House at (855) 483-7800.