Psychology of the anti-social

Psychology of the anti-social

No man is an island. As social creatures, we thrive in communities. Our greatest achievements are borne out of a collective push for a greater goal. In a community, anti-social behaviour is a threat to the cohesiveness of the group. It leads to feuds, disruptions and divisiveness. Why then do we allow short-term personal gain or satisfaction to threaten long term collective benefits? The answer can be found in an analysis of the system of motivations, risks and benefits that one encounters when taking any action in this increasingly crowded world.


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An Everyday Occurrence


Anti-social behaviour is an activity that impacts on other people in a negative way that is harmful or inconsiderate. It can range from criminal offenses like assault to relatively benign ones like vandalism or misuse of public facilities. Unfortunately, it is becoming more prevalent as human density increases and resources are shared amongst more and more individuals.

In recent months, the familiar practise reserving seats with packets of tissue paper or other personal items at hawker centers has begun to be viewed with disdain. It all began with a fight over seats at a neighbourhood eatery between a senior citizen and a young woman who alleged that the seats were reserved with a packet of tissue paper. Everything would normally have ended there except that the woman’s male companion returned to intervene forcefully upon witnessing the minor altercation. The man’s belligerent response of pushing the senior citizen and hurling vulgarities at him was undoubtedly an antisocial act, as was the act of reserving an entire table with more seats than was needed.

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A fair bit of discussion has also been generated over the abuse of public sharing bicycles from companies like OFO and Mobike. Although having only recently started operations on the island, many units have already been lost to vandals that have wrecked the bicycles by throwing them into drains and from the tops of flats.


Even the Internet, where many spend time on, is no haven away from antisocial behaviour. Occurrences of cyber bullying have increased to become a ubiquitous fact of growing up. Of 4000 students polled by “The Asian Parent” magazine, 70% of the respondents have been a victim of threats, insults or harassment online.


Aside from these high profile cases, Singaporeans have had to contend with everyday run-of-the-mill antisocial behaviour like: talking in the cinema when the film has started; talking loudly on the phone in the train; squatting on the toilet seat in public toilets; spitting in public; littering; switching lanes or turning without signalling when driving; road rage; animal abuse; leaving behind used cutlery and tissues after a meal at eateries; and using a toilet for the disabled when one has no disability.


The Root Cause


Genetic as well as environmental factors have been found to contribute to a person’s propensity to exhibit anti-social tendencies. Scientists at the University of Illinois discovered that children with one variant of a serotonin transporter gene are more likely to exhibit anti-social traits if they also grow up in a poor family. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that controls mood, sleep and other functions including memory and learning. There are two variations of this protein, with differing gene lengths; the longer one produces more of the transporter protein, which results in more serotonin being shuttled out of the synapse. Studies have discovered that those who are highly impulsive and aggressive tend to have less brain serotonin than their peers, while people with anti social traits generally have higher brain serotonin levels.


Serotonin Function

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Genetics is, however, not the sole cause of anti-social behaviour. The genes merely affect an individual’s susceptibility to negative environmental factors such as abuse, poverty or neglect. To highlight the effect of environmental factors, a study conducted by the Singapore Children’s Society and the Institute of Mental Health in 2014, showed that 50% of adolescents who were victims of cyber bullying later went on to propagate the same anti-social acts. Frustration, dissatisfaction and vengefulness at being victimised provided the motivation for the tormented to become the tormentor.


Genetics and a negative upbringing aside, it is a common complaint that we, as a country, lag behind others in terms of being considerate and possessing social graces. This is where the adage, “courtesy begins at home”, rings true. “Home”, being the operative word can mean the physical domicile or the country to which one belongs. The Singapore Kindness Movement has been trying to inculcate good manners for a number of years in both its current form and its previous incarnation as the National Courtesy Campaign but the cold, calculative, frenzied pace of life has left many to eschew kindness for academic or professional success in this dog eat dog world where the saying, “time is money” is a virtual mantra.


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Road to a Gracious Nation


Japanese and Taiwanese are often cited as the most considerate people. As a testament to good manners, the BBC devoted a whole article to Japanese courtesy last year, labelling it the world’s most polite country. Another BBC article, dated 14 November 2016, devoted its contents to the Persian culture of “Befarmaeed”, otherwise translated as a code of civil conduct. With Japan and Iran ranked worlds apart on the Gross National Income scale, where the former is in 4th position and the latter is not within the top 15, it is safe to say that culture, rather than wealth is the determining factor how gracious the people of a country conduct themselves.


With greater exposure to cultural norms outside of the island, government courtesy campaigns and growing awareness of acceptable online behaviour, Singapore is slowly but surely on the path to becoming a more gracious nation.


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