This is a cross post from my account over on Quora, but I think that it stands repeating. If you have already read it, very cool, skip away. For those that haven’t, or maybe are just new to my writing in general, this is going to be about whether psychopaths are born, made, or both.
This is going to depend heavily on how you are defining psychopathy.
Most people erroneously define psychopathy through actions, not internal processing. This is a mistake, as behavior can occur for many reasons, and it can be absent for many reasons. Behavior is always a choice for someone that has the ability to interact with society in a way that is expected of them. Them choosing to do so is a product of their agency, their personal responsibility.
That is not how psychopathy is thought of, and it seems to be that the reason that this is the case is because psychopathy has become the catchall for “evil person”. This misconception was helped along in it’s perversion of the term by the so-called “researchers” who studied psychopathy and made a name for themselves (and a lot of money, looking at you Robert Hare) only studied it in prisons, and also had a very distinct and not at all hidden hatred of psychopaths. Let’s just say that the understanding of psychopathy that comes out of the research sector is extremely tainted by this individual.
Now add to that the conflation of psychopathy and ASPD. This occurred because insurance companies are a thing, and they like very clear cut diagnoses that they can assign a code to that determines what gets reimbursed, and what doesn’t, so ASPD, psychopathy, and sociopathy all get thrust under one general heading. Mind you, this is just in the insurance repayment manual. That’s it. The manual isn’t supposed to have any power outside of the exact role I explained above, but no matter, how much damage could something like that do to the understanding of psychopathy. It’s just an insurance repayment manual. Like… no one outside of the clinicians writing up charts are even going to ever look at it, right?
What’s that manual called?
Oh yes, the DSM, and it’s current iteration is the DSM-V.
I am guessing that not only have you heard of it, but a bunch of you are really surprised that is all that book is. I bet you were under the impression that this manual was more like a listing of all known things that psychologists look at. Nope. Not even a little bit. It is just a coding manual. It has no power, it doesn’t determine the validity, the existence, or the lack thereof of… well… anything. You would think that more people would be aware of this, but no, they are not. There is so much ridiculous faith put into the DSM, that it is treated like a holy book. If you see someone saying;
“It’s not in the DSM, so it doesn’t exist,” I am going to kindly suggest that you not listen to that individual. I am inclined to call them an idiot, but considering that there is so much misinformation about that manual, it probably isn’t their fault. If they refuse to hear the truth, see my earlier inclination. Also, disregard their opinion, they don’t know what they are talking about.
I bet you are wondering what all of this has to do with nature and nurture, but to understand that, you have to understand what psychopathy is, and you have to extract it from the concept of ASPD, because they are not the same thing, and anyone can be diagnosed with ASPD provided that they behave in a manner that dictates that label. It doesn’t make them anything other than a person acting in a certain manner, and it definitely doesn’t tell you why they are doing so. That doesn’t change the fact that if you read about psychopathy, it is intertwined with ASPD in pretty much everything that you will find. Very few places bother to do the bare basics of research into what they are talking about, which causes another problem.
People with ASPD tend to be criminals. In fact ASPD can be diagnosed in about fifty to eighty percent of all prison inmates, while only fifteen percent would qualify as psychopathic. That is a lot of people that aren’t psychopathic that have garnered a reason to be considered antisocial, and a small amount of psychopaths. However, regardless of their brain function, if the crime is heinous, the person will automatically be considered a psychopath to almost anyone you talk to, because in their mind, you have to be a psychopath to do something dreadful.
Nope, wrong again, but that doesn’t stop the label from being liberally doled out to anyone that makes the general public uncomfortable with the notion that they might be capable of something awful, so they have to assign an “othering” identifier to make sure that they have distance from the evil person. Now that person is a psychopath in everyone’s version of reality.
It is assigned to everyone and their mother if a violent crime is committed, and no matter how the person’s brain works, provided that their crime was something that makes people clutch their pearls, the person is immediately identified as a psychopath. You can argue that this isn not the case, show their psychological evaluations that clearly demonstrate that they were not a psychopath, you can explain the different between ASPD and psychopathy until you are on your last breath. Nuts to you, society has decided that psychopath means evil, that person is evil, therefore psychopath.
This misidentification psychopathy, and what it is, has created a fairly irredeemable term, but the term we have to work with nonetheless. If you are curious as to what psychopathy actually is, you can read here;
I warn you though, it’s long and detailed. Basically the shortish version of a long long definition is that psychopathy is born. It is a genetically coded variant brain structure. The brain also process the brain chemistry differently, which determines how the world is experienced. It removes several emotions, you can find that list here;
The rest are on a muted volume setting. In other words, they exist, but they are very very quiet. That’s it. I mean… it’s a very rudimentary explanation for a much more nuanced thing, but the long and short of it comes down to the brain functions differently from that of most other people. Therefore, a psychopath is born. Always. There isn’t anything more to it. The brain is coded genetically to form differently, process chemistry differently, experience the world differently. You can’t influence psychopathy to appear in a person. It is there, or it isn’t.
What you can do however, is you can shift their behavior. This is the environmental argument, and why I went through the whole thing up above in explaining to you ASPD being about behavior, not hardwiring. That anyone can have it. That it is heavily counted among those that are criminally minded. How does this relate back to psychopathy, after I spent all that time separating them?
Psychopaths, especially when they are young, lack impulse control, lack the ability to predict the consequences of their actions, lack all empathy, has no concern about what others think about them, are punishment immune, lack guilt, lack fear, lack remorse, cannot understand the emotions of those around them, and have a great deal more to learn about the world that neurotypicals come with at least the bare bones basics in wiring for them to understand one another.
Psychopaths don’t. A psychopath will never gain emotional empathy, will always lack fear, guilt, remorse, will never know what another person is feeling when they are crying, because that’s not how the brain works. A psychopath will never feel chemical love, bonding, trust, jealousy, because the oxytocin receptor in the brain is mutated. Oxytocin never binds to it, and passes through the system unused. A psychopath will never worry that they don’t fit in, can’t be shamed into behaving in a certain manner, and won’t respond to anything outside of a reward system.
All very interesting I am sure, but what I am laying out for you is the picture of someone who isn’t going to do well in the world if they aren’t taught how to be in the world in a manner that they can and have an interest in understanding. Behavior is a choice, how to choose is taught. Unless those lessons are appealing to a psychopath, then why would they ever comply with the social expectations?
Psychopathy is genetic, however, how a psychopath turns out in the world, that is environmental. No matter what, they are born as they are going to be, how they grow up and feel out the world, find their place in it, and understand it’s function is hugely based on their environment. Bad environment=antisocial psychopath, nearly always. A psychopathic child isn’t an easy person to handle, and you won’t know that they are psychopathic until they are an adult and the brain finishes maturing, so you have to figure out how to meet that child where they are for them to have a chance to develop the tools that will make them a person that interacts with the world in a socially acceptable way.
It’s complicated, and not something that is just easily sorted out as a “is it nature, or nurture” response. It’s nature, but if you nurture that nature wrong, you will create a monster.