Not all psychopaths are killers, or even criminals. Everyone probably dated one in their life, or worked for or with one. Some psychopaths can harness their disorder toward a successful career where sometimes having no regard for the feelings of others can be advantageous: corporate CEOs, politicians, entertainers and even yes, true crime authors, can be full-blown psychopaths. Most of us have encountered one or two somewhere in our lives.
Psychopaths represent around one percent of the world’s population, which means that one out of every hundred people is a psychopath. In contrast to this, about twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is comprised of those who have shown psychopathic tendencies, one out of every four people. This disproportionate ratio shows just how serious psychopathy is.
Because of the pervasive nature of psychological state in modern popular culture, with every other antagonist in television programming, books and movies displaying psychopathic tendencies, there has been much interest in the scientific community as well as the general public in the origin of this mental illness.
Another reason for this interest in psychopaths is the horrific manner in which they commit their crimes. The crimes being spoken of here are cold blooded and serial murders which are what psychopaths are best known for and most often associated with. A serial killer murders in cold blood, does so obsessively and compulsively for no reason other than pleasure. They are brutal, creatively so, and are often without remorse. Hence, the serial killer is often the subject of morbid curiosity. They are seen as horrific examples of what happens when the gates of amorality are flung open; they show people what could happen if they lose all sense of empathy.
Hence, people want to know what brings about this state of being, this way of thinking that demeans one’s fellow man to the point where one would brutalize and murder them, often after sexually violating them. What leads to this form of depravity, and can it be stopped?
In order to ascertain what it is that makes psychopaths behave the way that they do, it is important to first understand what exactly a psychopath is. An understanding of a psychopath’s state of mind is essential because it helps us understand the theories behind what makes a psychopath tick.
There are several personality traits that psychopaths possess. Any individual that has a combination of these personality traits probably suffers from some form of psychopathy. These personality traits include:
- A lack of empathy. Essentially an absence of remorse or guilt after having caused someone pain or harm.
- Lack of an ability to feel profound emotions. Psychopaths tend not to feel love, only passing affection at most.
- Lack of inhibitions or impulse control. Psychopaths tend to have little ability to defer gratification.
- An inflated sense of self worth or an overly large ego. Psychopaths tend to think very highly of themselves.
- A refusal to accept responsibility for their actions, and a perpetual internal narrative that others are responsible for the pain they cause.
- Psychopaths aren’t all violent, but they do seem to be socially destructive and tend to lean towards substance abuse.
There are two major theories behind what leads to psychopathy. These two theories pertain to two aspects of what shapes the human personality: nature and nurture. Though there are various other complex factors at work, the origin of the psychopath boils down to one of these two factors, or a combination of both in some cases.
What is nature exactly? It can be defined as the work of God if you are religiously inclined. It can be described as the end result of millennia of evolution. All in all, proponents of the nature theory tend to believe that the psychopath is the way he is due to the fact that he was born that way.
What this means is that psychopathy is a disorder of the brain. This disorder is at various times considered to be chemical or physical. A chemical disorder that leads to psychopathy generally means that the psychopath suffers from an excess of testosterone, leading to increased and unnatural aggression, or a general imbalance in the chemical structure of his brain. This excess in testosterone is often also accompanied by low levels of serotonin in the brain, a chemical that tends to cause euphoria and a sense of peace. As a result of this combination, psychopaths are very aggressive, and do not feel satisfied easily. Releasing their aggression gives them a boost in the serotonin levels of their brain, and since the levels of serotonin are naturally low, these psychopaths end up performing great acts of violence in order to feel its effects.
Alternatively, many proponents of the nature argument claim that psychopaths think the way they do because their brains are different structurally as well as chemically. Psychopaths have either enlarged or malformed amygdalas. The amygdala is the section of the brain that processes our emotional reactions and helps us with decision making. A malformed and thus malfunctioning amygdala can thus clearly cause a lot of the problems psychopaths face, such as impaired judgment due to inherently poor decision making as well as a severe impairment of the way they process emotions. One of the major ways that this affects their personalities is through exacerbating the aforementioned testosterone overload. Too much testosterone leads to wanton aggression. An inability to properly process this anger leads to a compounding of said aggression, thereby resulting in the creation of a vicious cycle that eventually leads to the violence that psychopaths are so famous for.
Psychopaths are also said to be created in the womb as a result of genetic anomalies. Studies conducted on psychopaths have suggested the presence of a recurrent genetic trait common in most if not all individuals displaying psychopathic tendencies. This suggests that psychopathy is hereditary, something that several studies have proven to be true. A particular gene is often considered to be responsible for psychopathic behavior. This gene, monoamine oxidase A, often called the warrior gene, exists in people that possess a desire for dominance over others as well as aggressive tendencies in pursuit of the aforementioned domination. The traits of those possessing this warrior gene are often surprisingly similar to those possessing psychopathic tendencies. This theory that psychopathy is the result of genetic anomalies ties in with the nurture theory as well, as these genetic anomalies can be compounded and exacerbated by environmental factors.
Those that claim that one’s nurturing is what eventually turns one into a psychopath postulate that psychopaths are made, not born. This theory is based on the fact that so many individuals exhibiting psychopathic behavior come from abusive homes, or from situations where they were desensitized to violence at an early age.
Studies conducted on individuals exhibiting psychopathic traits seem to confirm this to some extent. One study conducted on teenagers living in London showing signs of psychopathic behavior, confirmed a correlation between psychopathy and growing up with the following environmental conditions:
- One or both parents convicted of a crime
- Physical neglect during childhood
- Absence of a father figure during upbringing
- Maternal figure exhibiting signs of depression
- Poverty or poor living conditions while growing up
- Harsh discipline bordering on abuse
- Lack of supervision while growing up
This study contended that it was these elements of the psychopath’s upbringing that instilled in an individual the aggression that would cause him to commit such atrocious acts of violence. Another study suggested a link between psychopathy and an inability to integrate into society. Although it is unknown if the behavior causes the disorder, or if the disorder causes the behavior, but a correlation has been made between poor social skills and the development of psychopathic tendencies in later life. This is due to the mental impact negative treatment from one’s peers can cause, negative treatment which can be reasoned by a failure to integrate.
Apart from upbringing, psychopathy has also been connected to injuries caused during childhood. Trauma caused to the head can end up resulting in brain damage. As has been mentioned in the nature argument, a damaged or malformed amygdala can result in an inability to process strong emotions. Damage done to the amygdala at such a young age can cause psychopathic tendencies later on in life.
The theory that psychopathy is caused by nurture also fits in with some nature arguments, in particular the theory that psychopathic behavior is caused by genetic anomalies. Certain studies have concluded that if an individual possesses psychopathic genes, then the way they are brought up can end up activating the behavior stored in these genes and unleashing the psychopath. It is also speculated that, if psychopathy were genetic, growing up with a psychopath for a parent can cause the development of psychopathic tendencies even if the individual is not genetically inclined to that sort of behavior.
All in all, it is probably a combination of both nature and nurture that cause psychopathic behavior. The depraved acts of serial and cold-blooded killers must require them to have a different kind of brain to allow them to dispense with empathy so easily and commit such horrendous acts of violence. However, the fact that so many killers grow up suffering abuse themselves implies that upbringing plays a strong role in molding the innocent child into the monster that he will one day become.