Nature, Nurture and Psychopathy

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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

The closest thing to a real "Batman" style villain in the real world is the psychopathic personality; a narcissistic and antisocial personality disordered sort of individual who has an easy time manipulating and harming other people because he doesn’t much empathize with them. Psychopaths tend to be numerous in prison situations (and some might say, in positions of authority) as they have little regard for law and order. What matters to these folks is their satisfaction of their various appetites. The people around a psychopath are more or less seen by that psychopath as tools or objects that either help them satisfy their appetites, or get in their way. They aren’t adverse to harming other people who get in their way in order to satisfy their appetites if that becomes expedient.

Psychologists have for a long time debated how exactly psychopaths occur. Are they born that way or are they in some ways created? The debate goes back to the old enlightenment philosophical debate between which is more important – nature or nurture. The answer to this seemingly vexing question is almost always the same – both nature and nurture make important contributions. The available data regarding the causes of psychopathic personality suggests that both nature and nurture are at work there as well.


A recently published paper in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (2006, Vol. 115, No. 2, 288-297) titled, "Associations Among Early Abuse, Dissociation and Psychopathy in an Offender Sample", by Norman Poythress, Jennifer Skeem and Scott Lilienfeld (of the Universities of South Florida, California at Irvine, and Emory (GA), respectively) suggests that at least some of the features of psychopathic personalities occur as a result of abuse experiences, which could be called a perverse form of "nurture".

These researchers went into prisons and interviewed numerous inmates, asking them to complete multiple psychological assessments, among them the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (the standard modern questionnaire measuring psychopathy), a historical (retrospective) history of their abuse experience, and a few other questionnaires including the Dissociative Experiences Scale.

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The Psychopathy Checklist yields two broad scores, each related to two important and seemingly separable aspects of psychopathic people’s typical personality. First, such people tend to show a related cluster of what are termed affective (emotional) and interpersonal symptoms: They lack empathy, guilt remorse and other feelings that suggest they connect with other people emotionally. Second, they tend to be impulsive, to show poor self-control and to demonstrate a profound lack of judgment.

Scores and data from these assessments were then analyzed using a popular technique known as structural equation modeling (SEM). The SEM technique involves computation of the mathematical relationships between various scores and comparison of these observed relationships against various hypothetical (possible) relationship models suggesting how those scores might fit together if different assumptions were true. For instance, if abuse causes dissociation, then the model might look a certain way. However, if dissociation occurs independently of abuse, the model would be expected to look a different way. Some models end up fitting the observed data better than others, and are retained, while the more ill-fitting models are discarded.

Analysis of all this data suggested that one tested model fit better than the others. Abuse was not found to predict psychopathy as a whole, but an abuse history did predict a certain feature of psychopathy; namely the tendency to be impulsive and to show poor judgment. The lack of any strong relationship between abuse and lack of empathy/emotion in the studied psychopaths was interpreted as evidence that those critical features of psychopathy might possibly originate in some other fashion (such as genetically through the inherited tendency to have a "fearless" temperament).

As the authors themselves conclude:

"Our findings indicate that a history of child abuse or neglect relates positively but weakly to global psychopathic features. Abuse is unrelated to the core affective and interpersonal traits of psychopathy but relates preferentially and moderately to the impulsive and irresponsible lifestyle or externalizing features of psychopathy. Dissociative experiences do not significantly mediate this relationship. Our findings call into question etiological models positing that early abuse and neglect shut off affective responding, thereby resulting in individuals who possess the cold and callous features of primary psychopathy."

It would be better if psychopathy was completely caused by nurture, because then we could more easily do something about it, conceivably. To the extent that genetic factors are at work then even if the problem of violent abuse is solved in some unlikely future utopia, there will still be mechanisms at work creating psychopaths among us. Not really an uplifting thought.

Keep Reading By Author Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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