The Making of a Psychopath

by Kassandra Lamb

The blog post that gets the most hits (by far) on our website is my post on January 13, 2015, Are Psychopaths Born or Made?

Not sure what that statistic says about us, but there it is. People are fascinated, as much as they are repelled, by the make-up of psychopaths.

So I thought I would gather much of the information on our site about them onto one topic page.

First, What Is a Psychopath?

The official diagnosis for psychopaths is antisocial personality disorder. Here are the main characteristics of those who exhibit this disorder. (Notice that I don’t say “suffer from;” they rarely suffer as much as those who come in contact with them.)

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)

  • Psychopaths are thrill-seekers. Everyday life, that most of us find quite satisfying, bores them and leaves them feeling dead inside. So they are constantly seeking high levels of stimulation.
  • Psychopaths feel little or no fear. They are not afraid of much, not even going to prison or dying.
  • Psychopaths feel little or no empathy. Indeed, they often view others’ emotions as weakness to be exploited.
  • Psychopaths have no conscience. They feel little or no remorse or guilt about their actions or the impact those actions have on others.
  • Psychopaths are highly impulsive.
  • Psychopaths are self-centered. But antisocial personality disorder is not synonymous with narcissism. While all psychopaths are narcissistic, not all narcissists are psychopaths. Many narcissists are capable of feeling empathy and remorse, if you can get them to look past their own feelings and interests and get them to see how they have hurt others.
  • Psychopaths break the rules and laws of society. Often they actually enjoy inflicting harm on others.

Psychopaths are Both Born and Made

child covering eyes

photo by appropos CC 2.0 Flickr nonderivative

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/or very inconsistent parenting.

As children, psychopaths often laughed at teachers and parents who tried to discipline them. They may have tortured animals, and were most likely bullies toward other children (although they are sometimes the victims of bullies).

And the odds are low that these children will end up in homes where the parents strive to understand the special ways that they need to be disciplined. It is quite likely that at least one parent is a psychopath themselves and/or has psychopathic tendencies. Not the best parenting material.

But even a non-pathological parent will often end up frustrated and unable to cope with these kids. The natural tendency is to make the punishments more and more harsh. But that doesn’t always work with kids who are wired to need more stimulation (good or bad stimulation), who have no remorse about their actions, and who have no fear of punishment.

Let’s look briefly at the traits above to see how nature and nurture interact to cause them.

Thrill-seeking and feeling no fear. These two traits probably have the biggest genetic influence. Psychopaths are born with nervous systems that have a very high threshold for stimulation. In other words, it takes a lot to get them to feel excitement, or much of anything for that matter. Things that the rest of us find exciting bore them to tears.

If this high need for stimulation is not channeled appropriately, say into sports, it is likely to lead to reckless behaviors, seeking power over others, getting away with cons and other crimes, violence, etc….anything that will give the person a rush!

Lack of empathy and remorse. These traits are also probably genetically predisposed, although we don’t understand the mechanisms behind them quite so well. Perhaps there is faulty wiring in the brain prenatally and/or a recessive gene that “turns off” the natural tendency to develop empathy and a conscience.

Combine whatever this genetic predisposition may be with a harsh, abusive environment and we have an angry, self-absorbed kid who cares not at all for his fellow human beings.

With the right kind of parenting, the little glimmers of empathy and remorse a child, even with these predispositions, may show can be nurtured into a full-blown conscience. I have seen this done once, by a client who vowed her two-year-old son was not going to follow in her psychopath father’s and brother’s footsteps. But it wasn’t easy, and again, how likely are these kids to have the right kind of parents to do this?

Impulsivity and breaking the rules. The vast majority of psychopaths have some degree of learning deficits. Seventy-five percent of them have full-blown ADHD, a genetically transmitted disorder (Note, this does not mean that 75% of kids with ADHD become psychopaths, thank God!). Impulsivity is a symptom of ADHD in its own right, but combining that tendency with a lack of guilt/remorse, no fear of punishment and the difficulty inherent in ADHD to make connections between behaviors and consequences, and you have a kid who doesn’t learn from his experiences. He just continues to keep doing what feels good to him at the time, and the consequences be damned.

Now let’s disspell some myths about psychopaths:

Myth: They are often quite brilliant. Nope. Only on TV. They run the gamut from stupid to brilliant, just like the rest of us. The dumb ones engage in high risk behaviors and criminal activities and end up dead or spend a lot of time in jail. The smarter ones become politicians, business executives, lawyers, cops, and con artists.

Myth: They are obvious monsters or highly dysfunctional loners. Some are the latter. Most are neither. They look like everybody else on the surface. They get married, hold down jobs, may even be civic or church leaders! They figure out how to fit in, but behind closed doors they are seeking those thrills, often in twisted ways.

 The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, killed ten victims in and around Wichita, Kansas. He sent sixteen written communications to the news media over a thirty-year period, taunting the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church. –July, 2008, FBI symposium report on Serial Murder.*

Which brings us to…

Myth: Psychopath and serial killer are synonymous. While most serial killers are psychopaths, fortunately, only a few psychopaths become serial killers.

The FBI has a simple definition for serial murder:  The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events at different times.* And the motivations for serial killings are varied and often complicated. (See my post here for more on this.)

(*FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, July, 2008.)

Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy, 1979, leaving Leon County, Fla Courthouse. Smiling even though his appeal was turned down. (Photo from The Florida Memory Project–CC-BY-SA 3pt0 Wikimedia Commons)

Myth: All serial killers are psychotic. There is a huge difference between a psychopath and a psychotic even though the two words sound similar. A psychotic is someone who has completely lost touch with reality. Often their brains have just stopped functioning in any kind of rational way, or they may be living in a world created by their own hallucinations and delusions. Sometimes those delusions or hallucinations may drive them to commit crimes, but this is rare. Mostly they are a danger only to themselves. And rarely are they psychopaths; they have a conscience.

Psychopaths, however, are legally sane. They know what is real and unreal. In other words, they aren’t seeing things that aren’t there or hearing voices in their heads. And they know right from wrong; they just don’t care.

(For more on serial killers, see my guest post on Marcy Kennedy’s blog HERE.)

So How Prevalent are Psychopaths and Serial Killers?

Psychopaths make up 3% of the male U.S. population and 1.8% of the females in this country (1.7% total of the Canadian population). That’s three men and at least one female out of every hundred in the U.S., so you have probably known a few of them. It’s unlikely though, but not impossible, that you’ve ever crossed paths with a serial killer.

Let’s hope you haven’t and never will!

(For more on psychopathology see our archived posts under Thrills and Chills and Understanding Mental Disorders.)

Do you think you have known some psychopaths in your lifetime? Do you have any questions about antisocial personality disorder? Feel free to ask in the comments below.