Are psychopaths born or made?
This is a question we might find ourselves asking whenever we’re presented with someone whose actions have been so horrific they qualify as psychopathic in our minds.
It’s certainly a question I found myself asking while I was writing my crime thriller The Watcher, a psychological suspense that attempts to delve deep into the psychopathy of a violent predator.
But what is a psychopath really? What medical criteria does a person actually have to meet to be technically defined as one?
According to the PCL-R, a set of diagnostic criteria created by Professor Robert Hare, which the UK currently uses to diagnose the condition, you’re officially suffering from a psychopathic personality disorder if you score over 25 on the scale. Joanna Dennehy, who murdered three men in a frenzied knife attack, and serial killer Ted Bundy, both fell into this category.
But it’s not always violent criminals who qualify as psychopaths. Because the condition is diagnosed based on how many psychopathic traits the person being assessed possesses, people who have never even broken the law, much less harmed anyone, may qualify as psychopaths.
And they might not even know it.
James Fallon, a neuroscientist, and the UK’s most famous non-criminal psychopath, discovered he had a psychopathic personality while conducting research on the subject.
Fallon is a conflicting character who displays much of the superficial charm and grandiose views typical of a psychopathic personality.
“My wife tells me all the time how lucky she is to be married to a fun, happy go lucky nice guy,” Fallon said, to a journalist interviewing him.
On the other hand, he displays a self-awareness and frankness you might not expect from someone with a psychopathic personality, adding, “She also tells me sometimes she feels she’s married to a guy with a dark side, someone she doesn’t like very much.”
Fallon is a strange case, as he has never hurt anyone physically or committed any crimes as an adult. Though he has, by his own admission endangered his family on several occasions, once taking his young son hunting, even though there were lions roaming freely nearby.
According to Fallon, he had a good upbringing, with loving parents and a relatively stable home. I’m not a scientist, but it’s my personal opinion that perhaps this factor, above all else, prevented his worst impulses coming to the fore.
The antagonist in my novel had the opposite background to Fallon, an abusive, neglectful home, that I felt was somehow central to the development of his flawed psychology and violent acts. Only when I started to look into this further did I discover this might not just be my writer’s brain employing creative license, but there might be also be actual scientific evidence to back this hypothesis up.
The primary identifying factor by which a psychopath sets themselves apart from the rest of us is their stunning lack of empathy. Hare says that there are two types of empathy, cognitive empathy and associative empathy, and that psychopaths possess the first but not the latter.
In other words, they know what we are feeling when we are in pain but they don’t care. A chilling thought. But as I was writing my novel and going deeper into the mental make-up of a psychopathic killer, I came to understand that this lack of empathy wasn’t always present in psychopaths from birth, as popular culture would have us believe.
Lack of empathy along with pathological lying, superficial charm, and rash, reckless behaviour is common in psychopathic personalities. The question I was interested in answering in the process of writing my novel, was how does all this anti-social behaviour manifest? Is it part of a person’s DNA, present from the day they breathe their first, or does something happen to spark it all off?
Researchers Aina Sundt Gullhagen and Jim Age Nøttestad, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, think they have part of the answer. The pair found evidence proving the environment a psychopath is brought up in might play a far greater role than their genetics do.
Gullhagen and Nottestad surveyed two groups, a random control group taken from the general population, and a group of prisoners who had been diagnosed with psychopathic character traits. They found those in the psychopathic group had parents who overwhelming fell into one of two extreme categories, either negligent, or overly controlling.
As a contrast, most of the people in the control group had parents that fell more in the middle of the spectrum, between negligent and controlling. This could point to the influence of upbringing in nurturing psychopathic personality traits, and is one of the premises my serial killer novel The Watcher explores.
The novel’s main antagonist had an upbringing that could definitely be classified as disturbing, and I explore the idea that environment may have contributed to him becoming a killer in the story quite heavily.
On the other side of the argument though, is the evidence that psychopathy is pre-destined, that some of us unfortunately possess genetics that separate us from the normal, human experience.
The idea that psychopaths possess biological brain differences that are unique is not a new one, but it’s an idea not entirely unsupported by science. Fallon discovered this himself while conducting research into the brain scans of psychopaths, at the same time he was researching his own family’s brain genetics using scans of himself and his family.
With two piles of scans, one from the psychopath pile and the other from his family’s, he was alarmed to came across a scan in his family’s pile that more closely resembled a psychopath's brain activity than a normal persons. So alarmed in fact, he broke the anonymity code to find out whose it was. It was his own.
“You can’t just tell from a brain scan whether someone’s a psychopath,” Fallon says, “but you can make a pretty good guess at what personality traits they’ll have.”
In Fallon’s case, the neuroscience turned out to be remarkably accurate. A psychiatrist friend later went through the Hare diagnostic criteria with him and confirmed he did indeed possess a psychopathic personality.
But Fallon himself states he has been fortunate in that he has been surrounded by good people, people that love him. Is it possible that those that do go on to commit terrible crimes, may not have been as fortunate?
We humans prefer definitive, black and white answers to shades of grey, but is the real answer to whether psychopathy is nature or nurture, that it’s actually a bit of both?
It seems impossible to imagine, but perhaps even someone as awful as Hitler or Charles Manson, once was a human being with hopes and dreams like the rest of us?
Maybe some formative incident sparked their psychopathy off and set them down that horrific path to death and destruction? I certainly felt this force, this influence was propelling my novel’s “villain”, but I also felt there was more to it than that.
It’s not simple enough to say that having a terrible experience or an abusive upbringing will make someone a psychopath. That simply wouldn’t be true, after all, we only have to look to heroes like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, who overcome the most horrendous prejudice in their formative years and still didn’t become psychopaths.
But in a person who already possesses a borderline personality or psychopathic brain chemistry, a traumatic experience or a horrendous upbringing might just create the perfect storm.
Perhaps something so awful happened to Hitler or Manson that, paired with their less than optimal genetic make-up, mixed to fuel a potent, deadly cocktail.
Again, I explore this theme in The Watcher and by the time I finished writing the book, though I felt the crimes my antagonist had committed were beyond redemption, I also found myself having a strange empathy for the horrific circumstances of his childhood.
At the end of the day, I’m not advocating Sympathy For The Devil, like the Rolling Stones track implores us, more an understanding of the “other”. I do believe this understanding could help us to steer away from a culture that might unwittingly create psychopaths, people who may one day harm us or threaten our safety.
And perhaps, within a world where we work to eliminate abuses and inequities, we might be able to save our psychopaths from themselves, nurturing their best traits rather than inflaming their worst impulses. Before they have the chance to cause irreparable harm to the lives of others.
The Watcher will take you into the mind of a psychopath and behind the eyes of the detective who must catch him. The novel’s released June 21st 2017 by Crooked Cat Books and readers can sign up to the mailing list at www.elicarros.weebly.com or follow the Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/elicarros to stay abreast of release news and learn how to be in with a chance of winning a £25/ $25 Amazon Giftcard on launch day.