Why Do Some People Become Psychopaths?
When most people think of psychopaths, they think—with a shudder—of serial killers like Ted Bundy, who seem to show no remorse or even understanding that what they do is morally wrong.
Psychopathy —also called sociopathy—is indeed defined by lack of empathy, callousness and complete disregard for anything or anyone else other than one's selfish needs. But although all psychopaths meet the criteria for what the diagnostic manual calls "antisocial personality disorder"—of which psychopathy is the most extreme case—not all of them are ruthless murderers.
"People don't realize that there are hundreds of sociopaths walking around [who] aren't criminals," says child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. "They end up manipulating people to get into relationships; they're the kind of people at work that you ultimately learn are sleazy. They're right on the edge, but [are] not criminal."
Some refrain from violence because they can get what they need without it, but many, of course, do cross the line into crime. Almost always their manipulation skills are exceptional. A study just published in the journal Legal and Criminal Psychology found that even though they are more likely than other criminals to re-offend, psychopathic criminals are two and a half times more likely than others to charm parole boards into releasing them.
The root of the problem
Many researchers now believe that the core defect in psychopathy—and what most distinguishes it from other antisocial behavior disorders—is what are called "callous/unemotional traits." A child who kicks another child because he's angry and can't control himself but feels terrible afterwards may be antisocial, but he's not psychopathic. It's the kid who does it and feels no remorse—or even gets angrier because the other child's crying is annoying—who's most worrisome.
What causes this lack of empathy? Many—but not all—psychopaths were abused or neglected as children. Being treated poorly early on can set up a child to see everyone else as selfish and cruel, causing them to replicate that kind of behavior as a way to cope with a nasty, uncaring world. However, the vast majority of abused and neglected children grow up to be caring, and some are even especially sensitive—far from psychopathic.
James Blair, Ph.D., studies troubled children as chief of affective cognitive neuroscience unit in the mood and anxiety disorders program at the National Institute of Mental Health. He says that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be one result of childhood trauma, can be seen in some ways as the opposite of psychopathy.
"There's one core structure in the brain that's over-responsive in PTSD—that's the amygdala," he says. This region is critical for perceiving and responding to threats. In PTSD, the amygdala is hypersensitive to threats, producing fear in situations that wouldn't seem to be frightening to most people.
But in brain scans of people who have high levels of callous or unemotional traits, "We see a reduced response of the amygdala to threat," says Blair.
That doesn't mean that the psychopaths weren't exposed to trauma—a brain faced with overwhelming stress can respond either by becoming hypersensitive or insensitive, depending on a multitude of factors, including genetics.
Indeed, callous and unemotional traits do seem to be highly genetic. About 70 percent of the variance between people on this dimension seems to be inherited. However, a study of sons of criminals found that those who had a highly responsive stress system were far less likely to become criminals themselves than those whose stress system was less responsive.
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