Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Author's Guide to Psychopaths-Are They Born or Made?



Note:  If you haven't read the introduction to "The Author's Guide to Psychopaths," you may want to take a few minutes and look it over.

Most of us probably view psychopaths as the epitome of evil.  They very well may be, but despite the intense distillation of evil that seems to envelope the psychopath's personality, they don't have the corner market on evil.  I've always believed that all of us carry the potential to do evil.

I'm not talking about telling white lies, fudging your taxes, or slacking off at work.  Under the right circumstances, the most ordinary, law-abiding person can make decisions that would result in pain or death for another.  I wouldn't be surprised if many of the upper level Nazis were psychopathic, but the horror that was Nazi Germany couldn't have happened without the active participation or tolerance of hundreds of thousands of non-psychopaths.  (If you need convincing, check out the Milgram Experiment.)

I realize that many, perhaps most people, believe that there is an innate goodness in everyone, and I think this spurs many common misconceptions about what creates a psychopath.  I think many people believe that psychopaths are created through horrendous abuse or some sort of brain defect because they just can't fathom a person completely devoid of the ability to do anything we deem as good.

Nature Vs. Nurture


An individual's personality is inborn and next to impossible to change.  The sad fact is that psychopaths are born the way they are because their dysfunction originates in their personalities.  Psychopathy is an extreme personality disorder, and all personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat.

Because psychopaths are that way from birth, but diagnosing them as such requires a lengthy history of aberrant behavior, many are misdiagnosed as children as having ADHD or other problems.  Relax.  If your child has ADHD, it is exceedingly unlikely that he or she is psychopathic.  Psychopaths only make up about 1% of the general population, so the disorder is very rare.

Nurture does play a role in psychopathic behavior.  Contrary to popular belief, not all psychopaths are violent.  We tend to think that psychopaths are all serial killers.  It is true that many serial killers are indeed psychopathic, though not all.

A large portion of psychopaths engage in white collar crime instead of violent crime.  If someone is born a psychopath, he or she is more or less destined to be a criminal.  The psychopath's family atmosphere tends to influence what kind of crime he or she engages in.  Psychopaths raised in stable homes tend to engage in white-collar crime.  Psychopaths raised in violent homes tend to engage in violent crimes.

Their Brains Just Work Differently

The video below is somewhat dry and academic, but it gives you a visual representation of the inner workings of a psychopath's brain.  Dr. Robert "Bob" Hare, one of the world's leading experts on psychopathy, played a part in this research, and I think he's the guy in the glasses that interprets the FMRI's.  He has studied them nearly all of his career as a psychologist.

(If the subject interests you, check out his website.  The other source I am using is Without Conscience, also by Dr. Hare.  It's an interesting read, even for non-psychologists.)




Long story short, the functional MRI's show, though not conclusively, that psychopaths have no emotional reaction to words that cause anxiety or fear in normal people.  This is central to creating a psychopathic character.  They feel few emotions, so if you see them looking emotional, chances are they are faking it.  Emotions they do feel, other than pleasure or rage, tend to be short-lived and shallow.

Are They Responsible for Their Actions?

This is a tricky one.  Can they really help they were born without any attachment to any other person?  No.  Are they responsible for the consequences.  Yes, I think so.  They can grasp that their actions hurt others.  They just don't care to a degree that leaves their victims stunned with disbelief, if indeed their victims are still alive.

Psychopathic Behavior


So, now we know the problem originates in the personality.  Next time, we'll be looking at the most important part of writing a realistic psychopath:  how their utter lack of concern for anyone else manifests as observable behaviors.

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