What makes someone a psychopath? Nature or nurture? And can we stop at risk children from growing up into dangerous adult psychopaths? One of the oldest queries in psychology — nature versus nurture — asks if what makes us who we are is predisposed by our DNA, or by life experiences. It is a pretty poignant question when it comes to psychopaths, who are estimated to account for up to 50% of all serious crimes in the US.
Clinically known as anti-social personality disorder in the DMS-V, some troublesome psychopathic traits include:
- An egocentric identity
- Absence of pro-social standards in goal-setting
- Lack of empathy
- Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships
- Irresponsibility, impulsivity and risk taking
Although these characteristics may be unpleasant, not all psychopaths are dangerous or criminals, and not all dangerous criminals are psychopaths. Counter-intuitively there are pro-social psychopaths too. Nonetheless, some psychopaths do pose a genuine threat for the safety of others.
The real unsolved problem when it comes to psychopathy is how to treat the personality disorder. Although certainly not to be considered impossible with the malleable brains we have even as adults, Dr. Nigel Blackwood, a leading Forensic Psychiatrist at King’s College London, has stated that adult psychopaths can be treated or managed, but not cured. Curing adult psychopathy is considered a near-impossible challenge.
Therefore, understanding when and how psychopathy develops from child to adult is an important part of the research engine that will hopefully identify what parents, caregivers and governments can do to prevent an at risk child from growing up to be a dangerous psychopath.
Development of Psychopathic Personalities Is Mainly Due to Genes
Enter new psychopathy research published in Development and Psychopathology by lead author Dr. Catherine Tuvblad from the University of Southern California. Her research was a twin-based study designed to overcome many previous drawbacks and limitations. Ultimately, the study was designed to provide a more reliable indication of the extent to which genes or the environment, that is nature or nurture, is responsible for the development of psychopathic personality features as a child grows into a young adult.
In the study, 780 pairs of twins and their caregivers filled out a questionnaire that allowed for measuring features of child psychopathy at ages 9–10, 11–13, 14–15, and 16–18. This included measuring psychopathic personality features indicative of future psychopathy, such as high levels of callous behavior towards peers and problems adhering to social norms.
The changes in the children’s psychopathic personality features between age groups was considered to be:
- 94% due to genetics between the ages of 9-10 and 11-13, and 6% environmental.
- 71% due to genetics between the ages of 11–13 and 14–15, and 29% environmental.
- 66% due to genetics between 14-15 and 16-18<, and 34% environmental. ((This suggests that environmental factors may gradually play a greater part in changing the levels of psychopathic features a child develops in later teenage years, which is very promising for the development of future interventions for the prevention of psychopathy. It should be noted that while the children’s test results pointed to the environment around them becoming increasingly important to their psychopathic behavior, their parents almost exclusively thought that the psychopathy they observed in their children was purely genetic. Considering parents are largely responsible for their child’s environment, its not that surprising. Nurture is important at key developmental stages in psychopathy development.))
The analysis also revealed that there may be a key turning point in the development of psychopathy during the age range studied. The authors considered this turning point to be caused by the onset of puberty, when gene-environment interactions that are highly significant in inhibiting or promoting the development of psychopathy are at play.
Interestingly, the data also indicates that if these rapid gene-environment based changes in psychopathic traits occur early on (e.g. 11-13), any later additional environmental changes to psychopathic traits would be minimal. In other words, once the psychopathic personality traits are set during puberty, they tend to last into later years.
Other research has found that there may be other key turning points on route to becoming a psychopath much earlier in life. One study found that the total number of early negative life events between the ages of 0-4 were positively correlated with the emotion-based aspects of psychopathy. The findings suggest that early environmental factors could have important implications for the development of psychopathic traits and may also impact attachment to parents for children with genetic potential for psychopathy.
So although psychopathy is largely genetic, where it’s mostly down to if you have the right combination of genes needed to become a psychopath or not, life experiences during puberty and early infant years could make or break a potential psychopath.
Is The Cure for Psychopathy Love?
So what does science suggest as a successful environmental antidote to developing psychopathy? Believe it or not, love!
One neuroscientist, Dr. James Fallon, made a shocking discovery that on paper he is a psychopath. For example, he had a version of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene that is linked with violent crime and psychopathy. Also known as the warrior gene, MAOA encodes an enzyme that affects the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
His brain scans also resembled those of a psychopath. He had low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked challenges with empathy, morality and self-control. In his family tree, there were also seven alleged murderers.
Although Dr. Fallon, in his own words, is obnoxiously competitive, kind of an asshole and won’t even let his grandchildren win games, he was certainly not a dangerous psychopath. So why not? His genes and even his brain screamed potential for antisocial psychopathy.
His answer was that the love he received from his mother led to him becoming a pro-social psychopath. And a newly published study tends to agree with him. OK love in itself is not enough. But, how a mother expresses that love in guiding the child’s pro-social behavior and in setting good examples of pro-social behavior might be the real key.
A new discovery coming from research on adopted infants suggests this is the case. Researchers found that the development of one of the largest child risk factors for psychopathy, that is highly heritable from biological mothers with severe antisocial behaviors — callous-unemotional behavior — was inhibited by high levels of positive reinforcement at 18 months by the adopted mother.
Further research will hopefully identify a whole repertoire of ways parents, schools and governments alike can lovingly nurture the development of at risk children through these key developmental stages. Ultimately, this could stop a large amount of future violent criminals literally in their diapers, before they even start.