Nature vs. Nurture: The Making of Psychopaths

Psychopathy is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits. There have long been discussions about whether a psychopath is born or made, by which the suggestion is that a person has either a genetic or biological predisposition to antisocial behaviour, or their interactions with the environment around them are what causes the behaviour. This essay aims to determine that psychopaths are, in fact, made and not born. It may be useful to first consider some history on the terminology of the word “psychopath”. In the early nineteenth century doctors who worked with mental patients began to notice that some of their patients, who to all intents and purposes appeared outwardly normal, had, as they termed it, a “moral depravity” or “moral insanity” in that they seemed to have no sense of ethics or the rights of others. Around 1900 the term “psychopath” was first applied to these people, and in the 1930s “sociopath” was also used as an indicator of how much damage they might do to society. Since then researchers have returned to using “psychopath”. There is an argument that psychopaths are not born and that their day to day experiences shape their very appearance and violent nature. The experiences they use as their foundation can be anything from their friends’ behaviour to that of their family and the media. There are four main factors that can augment violence; a flight or fight situation such as a threat, assault or challenge that can amplify anger, learning through others techniques and skills of aggression, a mindset that there is a reward for using violence and aggression (e.g. earning praise from others, receiving material goods and reducing frustration) and ultimately a system with a tolerance to acts of aggression and violence in a certain social frame of reference. Whether a child’s environment is good or bad they will learn from it and recreate it as that is their sense of right and wrong. A large family can, sometimes, indirectly cause a sibling to receive less attention than the others which may affect a mind in a bad way leading to children even going as far as breaking the law to get their family’s desired attention.

The child criminals Robert Thompson and Jon Venables both came from large families, suggesting that their acts may have been, in part, a bid for attention. Jon was jealous as his brother and sister both received more attention from their mother while Robert couldn't remember being cared for as much as his mother was caring for her new baby. So it has happened that the imbalance in a family can lead to a child who feels they get less attention becoming a killer. Such a person with this kind of imbalance in their life along with abusive parents could start to have an urge to feel superior. There is a school of thought that the upbringing is a crucial factor in a psychopath's development. A study carried out by Dr Aina Gullhaugen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology on high-security prisoners found that many had been on the receiving end of either total parental neglect or controlling authoritarian parenting. Gullhaugen describes a scale going from total neglect at one end, to control at the other, going on to say “More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales.” Arguably one cannot blame parents for everything, and a large percentage of children who have been exposed to traumatic upbringings do not go on to display psychopathic tendencies. Dr Gullhaugen’s research is further backed up by Professor Essi Viding of University College London whose research resulted in a conclusion that just under 1% of all children are callous-unemotional, the term used for psychopathic children who are inclined to cheat, lie and set out to hurt others with no remorse. There is also research to suggest that most institutionalised psychopaths have experienced physical and/or psychological abuse in their childhood.

A study was conducted investigating childhood relational trauma in a group of violent offenders from Italy. The research was done on a group of twenty-two offenders each convicted of violent crimes all between the ages of twenty-two and sixty. The findings showed a positive correlation between high levels of childhood trauma and score on the psychopathy checklist suggesting that an early exposure to relational trauma plays a relevant role in the development of more severe psychopathic traits. Dr Gullhaugen’s research also lends credence to this with all institutionalised psychopaths studied having a history of grotesque physical and/or psychological abuse during childhood. A model of the brain made in the 1930’s imagines a brain as a hill and our mental path as that of a marble rolling down it. We have a fixed path that the marble would follow but if a force was exerted such as a traumatic childhood or brain injury this path would change. The implications of this are that psychopaths are encouraged down the cerebral path by their environment and not as much their preordained track. In conclusion, psychopaths are truly a product of their environment. They have brains hardwired for it but only their circumstances set the proverbial marble rolling. There is a large body of research suggesting that an individual's upbringing combined with exposure to a negative environment is a leading factor in the development of psychopathic tendencies.


01 February 2021
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