Review: The Antisocial Tendency

The paper reviewed here is ‘The Antisocial Tendency’ by Donald Winnicott from 1956. Winnicott tells us that he has chosen ‘the antisocial tendency, not delinquency’ as

the organized antisocial defence is overloaded with secondary gain and social reactions which make it difficult for the investigator to get to its core

in contrast with the antisocial tendency in the child which is

related to the difficulties that are inherent in emotional development

I was most surprised to hear of the difficulties that Winnicott ran into with the subject of his child analysis.

He broke into my locked car and drove it away in bottom gear on the self-starter

The boy had caused disturbances at the clinic and the therapy had been ended because of this and later Winnicott suggests that ‘not psycho-analysis but placement’ should have been the treatment of choice. He compares this case with another in which some changes in the environment were sufficient to improve problematic behaviours. Much of Winnicott’s argument in the subsequent text centres on two constituents of the ‘antisocial tendency’ – destructive behaviour and stealing. Winnicott describes the former as the child attempting to find those aspects of the environment which remain stable in response to their impulsive actions and the latter as relating to the child-parent relationship in which the child seeks the parent over whom they feel they have rights. These conclusions may seem a little direct and unusual but Winnicott places them in the context of specific cases he has seen where these arguments can be supported by certain evidence. However these are selected cases and in deriving such generalisations which have social consequences a stronger level of evidence is warranted. As with other papers it can be argued that such hypotheses are really the starting point from which large scale studies with sound methodology can be generated. Before such studies are completed, these hypotheses cannot in any way reach the level of axiomatic truths but instead linger in the shadowy space between speculation and the most rudimentary forms of an evidence base with all of the biases that are inherent in this space.

At other points he makes profound points

The antisocial tendency implies hope….over and over agin one sees the moment of hope wasted, or withered, because of mismanagement or intolerance…the treatment of the antisocial tendency is … management, a going to meet and match the moment of hope

As I reflected on this case the thoughts of a wise man crossed my mind – what if during the process of induction, on moving from the single case to generalisations one is guilty of negating the individual. In other spheres of scientific endeavour, the inductive process may be quite valuable. For instance, we use this every day in predicting that the sun will rise. By generalising from single cases to the wider population however we are dealing not with objects but with people who have spent their entire lifetime differentiating in terms of values and lived experience. Yet this inductive process holds the possibility of helping those in distress by elucidating properties which people share in common and using this knowledge to help people overcome their difficulties. This balance between recognising individuality and generating knowledge which can be helpful to people is a delicate one indeed and I believe that the same issues can be raised in studies with large sample sizes as well as diagnostic construction. Perhaps Winnicott walks this fine line and his finest papers are those in which he walks the tightrope from start to finish without falling. Even when falling however there are many valuable insights that he gives to the reader.


Donald Winnicott. The Antisocial Tendency (read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society, 20th June, 1956). [1956]. Chapter XXV. pp306-315. In D.W.Winnicott. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. With an Introduction by M.Masud R.Khan. The International Psycho-Analytical Library. Edited by M.Masud R.Khan. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. 1978.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

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