Interest in the most severe form of character disturbance (psychopathy) has grown rapidly in the past several years, thanks mainly to the research conducted by Dr. Robert Hare of Canada and others. And one of the more interesting findings to come out of clinical studies on brain functioning is evidence of a possible biological basis for the psychopath’s diminished capacity for empathy. So does that mean that the most seriously disordered characters among us – or for that matter, all disturbed characters – are simply born the way they are?
It’s been established for some time that genes play a significant role in the makeup of those individuals eventually diagnosed with such conditions as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD, sometimes also now termed Dissocial Personality Disorder or DPD). And while the concepts of psychopathy and sociopathy have been around for a long time, neither has been recognized as an official disorder (although it’s likely that the upcoming revision of the official diagnostic manual will include the key aspects of psychopathy as a variant form of APD). Historically, the evidence for a genetic predisposition to APD has come from studies of monozygotic (identical) twins reared apart. The fact that the twin of an individual with an antisocial behavior history is more likely to show the same kind of behaviors despite being raised in a different environment argues for a genetic predisposition to the disorder. And it’s of particular interest that twin studies have shown that the key component of psychopathy (i.e. lack of guilt or remorse and callous use and abuse of others rooted in empathy deficits) also appears to be influenced by biological factors. The “concordance” rate between twins reared apart for the various traits associated with APD, DPD, psychopathy and sociopathy is not strong enough to confirm a strictly genetic basis, but there can be no doubting a strong biologically-based predisposition. And one fairly recent study on monozygotic twins reared apart demonstrated that the biological predisposition toward empathy deficiency shows up even in children as young as 7 years old (see: Evidence for Substantial Genetic Risk for Psychopathy in 7-Year Olds).
In the past several years studies of brain activity in individuals meeting the criteria for psychopathy have yielded some groundbreaking findings. CAT scans reveal that with psychopaths, areas of the brain typically associated with emotion, especially the integration of emotion with other mental constructs, do not operate in the same manner as they do with normal individuals. Show most people a picture of something typically associated with a sentiment (e.g., a wedding ceremony), and areas of the brain that process information about the event as well as areas of the brain involved in emotion both show activity. But show the same image to a psychopath, and although the area of the brain recognizing the image or event is active, the area of the brain typically associated with an emotional response appears dormant. Other brains studies measuring different aspects of the integration of emotions with other human experiences have shown the same abnormalities when it comes to psychopaths.
So, what does this all mean? And would it be fair to say that all the disturbed characters among us are simply born the way they are? Naturally, the answer is not all that simple. Suffice it to say that many of the traditional assumptions about traumatic or impoverished environments being the “cause” of some of these conditions have now been rightfully and significantly challenged. There are biological factors at work and some of these factors are strong contributors to some of our more serious character disturbances. And there at least appears to be a strong genetic component to an individual’s capacity to experience empathy, guilt, and remorse. And while all this might come as welcome news to those exasperated parents who used to blame themselves and who we used to blame for raising monsters, there’s still a lot we don’t know about all the factors that contribute to someone becoming a full-blown psychopath.
While for some time I was nearly alone in the field, many other professionals are recognizing the broad continuum of character disturbance that plagues society these days. And while much of the research of late has focused on the most extreme cases (i.e. psychopathy, sociopathy), we’re gradually coming to understand more about the entire spectrum of character disturbance as well as the various factors, the presence and intensity of which might largely determine the kind of character disturbance that might develop. We’re also gradually coming to understand the phenomenon of character disturbance within the context of evolutionary history. There was a time – back in our more primitive days – when two of the factors we now think of as highly problematic: fearlessness and the capacity for the remorseless perpetuation of violence, were the very qualities the tribe valued most in its dominant leaders. The truth be told, psychopaths probably helped us survive and get to where we are. But in an evolved and civilized world, they have little place. They’re natural predators, but there are no wild beasts to slay. So, as Hare notes, they’ve become intra-species predators (which is why in both of my books I suggest that the most appropriate descriptive label for these personalities is “predatory aggressive”). They’re also not killing each other off in great numbers in tribal wars. As a result, they’re now estimated to make up between 2 – 5 percent of the population.
In In Sheep’s Clothing, I expose the manipulative characters who fall just short of being true psychopaths. And In Character Disturbance, I not only outline the entire spectrum of character dysfunction but also address the biological, environmental, and other factors thought to contribute to character development. And I make the case that the degree to which genetics outweighs other factors as the main causal agent for a disturbance varies. Suffice it to say, however, that when it comes to severe character disturbance, the evidence is strong that biology might be the greater culprit. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate good “radar” for the predators among us and to keep a safe distance. We’re not in caves anymore and we don’t need a champion with ice water in their veins slaying every potential threat for our survival. And we have to remember, that given their predatory instincts, and the lack of dragons in our midst, if we’re not careful, they’ll prey on us.
Some have suggested that psychopaths might rightfully be considered a different species because they’re so different with respect to the critical attributes that most of us think define us “human.” But there’s certainly no solid scientific foundation for that notion. Nonetheless, during my many years dealing with psychopaths, I was most struck by the fact that many considered themselves not only very different from the rest of us, but also clearly superior to us because they did not carry with them the vulnerability that typically accompanies having feelings and a conscience. And it’s their pathological sense of superiority, a truly malignant narcissism, that gives rise to their sense of entitlement to prey on those they regard as inferior creatures.
Whether it’s the result of genes, a peculiar mindset, an ingrained pattern, or even an evolutionary variation, psychopathy is a very different and dangerous animal indeed. And according to DeBecker, nature has given us the “gift of fear” (e.g., hair standing up on the back of our neck, uneasiness and queasy stomach, etc.) to alert us when we’re in the presence of a predator. Unfortunately, some of us fail to trust our instincts and allow ourselves to be taken in by the the great charm of which they’re capable and to fall under their spell. And by the time the spell is broken, it’s often too late. That’s why, as I advise in all my writings, it’s so crucial to trust your gut over your heart or even your head. And when your gut tells you you’re in the presence of a predator, run!