Are Psychopaths Born or Made?

by Kassandra Lamb

We’re getting 2015 off to a great start with a joyful post on… psychopaths! Hey, we’re mystery writers; what can we say?

This is the final installment in a three-part series on Psychopaths and Serial Killers that I began back in November. We’ve got psychopaths on the brain right now because I recently released a thriller with a serial killer antagonist. And another of our authors, Vinnie Hansen, also has a psychopath in her new release, Black Beans and Venom (see her book below).

Psychopaths are totally self-centered, thrill seekers who lack empathy, remorse and rarely feel fear. They are heavily represented amongst criminals (although not all criminals are psychopaths) and con artists, but also amongst politicians and business tycoons.

mugshot of Ponzi

A color-enhanced image of the mugshot of con artist Charles Ponzi–after whom Ponzi schemes were named.

For more about their nature see the first post, What Is A Psychopath?

They make up roughly 3% of the U.S. male population and 1% of the females. A much smaller (thank God!) subgroup of psychopaths are serial killers. To read more about what makes them tick, go to my guest post on the subject HERE.

The question I’m most frequently asked regarding psychopaths is whether they are born or made. The answer is “Yes.” They are both born and made.

Lots of research tells us there’s a genetic predisposition to antisocial behavior, i.e., behavior that goes against society, that defies the rules, breaks the law. This predisposition doesn’t usually come to fruition, however, unless the person grows up in a very unhealthy environment. Full-blown psychopaths almost always come from abusive backgrounds, with harsh and often inconsistent parenting.

But before I get into the details of how this works, let me point out that these are explanations for why certain children develop into psychopaths. They are not excuses for their psychopathic behavior once they are adults!

Here are the major characteristics of psychopaths, and what we know so far (or strongly suspect) about how genetics and environment interact in these areas:

1.   Lack of remorse: There seems to be something inherently wrong with the wiring of psychopaths’ brains with regard to the development of a conscience. Most children, by age five, are starting to feel guilty when they break the rules they’ve internalized from their environment. But not budding psychopaths. They don’t feel remorse or guilt as readily as most children do.

Combine this faulty wiring with inconsistent, too harsh or even downright abusive parenting that confuses the child as to what the rules are and why one should obey them, and you quickly have an out-of-control child.

2.   Lack of empathy: Another area where the wiring may be lacking to begin with is empathy, our natural ability to feel what others are feeling. On the mild to moderate end of the genetic predisposition continuum, the child is capable of feeling some empathy.

child covering eyes

photo by appropos CC 2.0 Flickr nonderivative

With the guidance of a patient, loving parent, this empathy can be nurtured. I’ve seen a couple real-life examples of this! But in a highly dysfunctional abusive environment, that glimmer of empathy gets snuffed out early on.

3.   Learning deficits: The vast majority of people with antisocial personality disorder (the official diagnosis for psychopaths) have learning disabilities, especially attention deficit problems. Seventy-five percent have full-blown ADHD (which is genetically transmitted). The ADHD child does not make the connection between behavior and consequences nearly as readily as children normally do (Please take my word for this so I can spare you the long, boring brain-malfunction explanation).

Children with ADHD often don’t get it that what they just did is the cause of the punishment the parent or teacher is inflicting on them. From their perspective, the adult is just being mean, for some inexplicable reason. Put a child with these learning deficits in an environment where discipline is very inconsistent and often way too harsh, and you end up with a very confused and pissed-off kid.

4.   Hard to arouse nervous system: Another genetic piece, and this is the biggie for those of us who write and read mysteries and thrillers, is that people with antisocial personality disorder (i.e., psychopaths) inherit a nervous system that is not easily stimulated. It takes a huge amount of stimulation for them to feel excitement, or much feeling at all for that matter.

a bungee jumper

Bungee jumper–not that I’m saying all bungee jumpers are psychopaths (photo by Ellywa from nl CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia)

So psychopaths are constantly looking for a thrill that will make them feel something. They may find it in a variety of activities–dangerous sports, reckless driving, drinking and drugging, gaining power over others in their family or in the workplace, stealing, pulling off a con or getting away with other criminal behavior, physical violence, sexual aggression… You get the picture.

5.  Impulsivity: Another factor that is strongly influenced by genetics is a high tendency to be impulsive. This personality trait is roughly 60% inherited and 40% influenced by environment. A child who inherits a high tendency for impulsivity is going to be a challenge for the best of parents. If that child grows up in a very dysfunctional, abusive environment where little effort is made to teach self-control, he or she is going to be extremely impulsive.

Impulsive reactions is a definite characteristic of the psychopathic antagonist in Vinnie’s new release, Black Beans and Venom. I have read this story and it is a real page-turner. The book came out in ebook just before Christmas, and is now available in paperback as well.

Please check it out below, and then talk to me in the comments. Does this make sense to you how nature and nurture (or the lack thereof in this case) come together to create these monsters? Have you known any people who qualified as psychopaths? Did they have this kind of history?

book cover Black Beans and Venom, A Carol Sabala Mystery

No one wants P.I. Carol Sabala to take the case. Her boss is apprehensive about an illegal investigation in Cuba. Carol’s boyfriend worries about her physical safety. But the client is rolling in dough, the office has unpaid bills, and Carol chafes under the mundane tasks assigned to her.

In Old Havana, Carol sets off to track down Megan, the client’s missing daughter, who is battling metastasizing cancer and running from a sociopathic boyfriend. Struggling in the exotic world of the island, Carol races to find Megan, before the disease or her ex-boyfriend kills her.

Available on AMAZON and SMASHWORDS

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

11 thoughts on “Are Psychopaths Born or Made?

    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Glad you liked it, Susie! Poor parenting combined with those genetic pieces can create a psychopath, but I’ve seen the opposite too. One of my clients had several psychopaths in her family tree. When her three-year-old started showing signs of having the inherited traits, she read everything she could find on the subject and figured out how to adjust her parenting. In two years, she turned that child around!

      Reply
  1. Karen McFarland

    Sorry to be late to the party Kassandra. My CFS has kicked up in the worse way and I am moving at a snail’s pace. But I eventually get there! That’s an interesting connection between ADHD and psychopathy. Iy, yi, yi, is that ever messed up. We very possibly may know someone like that. I just hope that they’re not out committing murder. Scary thought, but very enlightening my friend. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Oh, my! Sorry to hear you’ve been feeling bad lately, Karen. 🙁 Does winter make it worse?

      If so, come on down to Florida!

      Glad you found the post interesting. The connection with ADHD does explain a lot, especially why they don’t seem to learn from consequences. But I should put a caveat out there. Most psychopaths have ADHD. Most people with ADHD are definitely NOT psychopaths!

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Character Psychology: 9 Common Errors — Guest: Kassandra Lamb | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  3. AnnB

    “There seems to be something inherently wrong with the wiring of psychopaths’ brains with regard to the development of a conscience”

    Could you please tell me what the source for this statement is. Thanks in advance, AnnB

    Reply
  4. Kassandra Lamb Post author

    Hi Ann, I’m basing that statement on three things. One, a tremendous amount of research has found that Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) involves a genetic factor, the most telling of this research being adoption studies in which sons of biological fathers with ASPD were much more likely to engage in criminal behaviors despite having adoptive fathers who did not have ASPD.

    Two, a key symptom of ASPD is lack of remorse; it is the symptom that differentiates this disorder from narcissism and other personality disorders. And third, we often see a progression in kids who later exhibit ASPD. First, they exhibit Oppositional Defiant Disorder, then Conduct Disorder, then later ASPD. In ODD, these kids are quite defiant of authority, often laughing when they are punished and showing no fear or remorse.

    In my own clinical experience, I have seen ODD in a child as young as three. I knew this family well and there wasn’t any dysfunction sufficient to explain this high level of acting out at such a young age. But there was a family history of ASPD in the mother’s family. The mother was determined that her son was not going down that path. She sought training in how to adjust her parenting to deal with a child who did not respond to normal disciplinary approaches, and that child was doing quite well three years later.

    So these inherent predispositions are not set in concrete. The environment most definitely plays a role for better or worse in shaping psychopathic tendencies.

    Reply
  5. Richard Mahony

    Thank you, Kassandra, for the very interesting info on the connection between ASPD and ADHD. I thought you might find the following observations possible material for your next blockbuster.

    With all animals but especially mammals, including humans, there is a fundamental zoological distinction between congenital characteristics, thus present at birth, and inherited characteristics. (All such characteristics may manifest themselves at birth — or not till later, say during infancy, during adolescence, in maturity, or even not appear fully until senescence).

    Second, all of an animal’s inherited characteristics, ie those passed on from its two biological parents and its biological maternal grandmother (at least ) directly or indirectly, include, but are not identical with, the animal’s inherited genetic characteristics.

    Here’s why I say this. (Apologies if it seems like too much ‘mansplaining’ for a truecrime forum!). The following assumes a relatively straightforward two-parent biological model (ie no surrogates).

    The eggs of the female mammal C develop in C’s ovaries as C, while a female foetus, develops in the womb of C’s biological mother A, impregnated by B (C’s biological father).

    Hence, the uterine environment of A’s womb as C develops in utero will affect the development of C (including C’s eggs, growing inside the foetus C) irrespective of A’s genes, B’s genes or C’s genes (inherited from A and B).

    When C is sexually mature, and mates with D, the foetus E, made from one of C’s eggs, likewise develops in C’s womb and likewise is affected by the uterine environment of C’s womb.

    When E is born, E is at this moment the product of E’s genetic inheritance from C (E’s biological mother) and from D (E’s biological father), plus the effects of the uterine environment of A (E’s maternal grandmother) on C’s eggs, and of C’s uterine environment on E.

    This is true of all animal species that have a uterus, which is why the breeders of non-human animals keep such careful records of the progenitors (the sires and the dams), going back at least to the grandparents.

    It also explains why the grandchildren of women who experienced extreme hardships such as famine during pregnancy are biologically affected by the hardships experienced by their maternal grandmothers during their maternal grandmothers’ pregnancies.

    It’s possible also that, without necessarily affecting their genes per se, the sperm of the males who mate is affected by the biological history of the male at the time of mating. If so, then the health of the maternal grandfather and of the father (and thus the health of their sperm at the time of mating) may have an effect on the health of the grandchildren at birth that, again, is independent of the genes per se inherited. (This last epigenetic scenario seems to be much more controversial because of the difficulty of identifying plausible nongenetic means of transmission (if any) likely involved).

    Hopefully some food for thought?

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Oh yes, it is definitely more complicated than just genes plus post-birth environment. Prenatal environment can affect development in a lot of ways, especially maternal stress. Researchers are now discovering that mother’s stress can turn on or turn off certain genes prenatally. And environmental factors can cause mutations in the father’s sperm, even dietary deficiencies. And father’s age. The older he is, the easier his sperm mutates, in general.

      It makes sense that some of these prenatal factors would often be present in a family that might produce a psychopath. Say the father has ASPD. He may very well be physically abusive toward the mother. That would certainly stress her quite a lot during pregnancy. Then after birth, that violent chaotic environment would reinforce innate tendencies toward antisocial behavior.

      Thanks for your insights, Richard.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *