Are Psychopaths Made or Born?

Before we discuss whether psychopaths are made or born, I would like to draw your attention to the Ted Talk of Brian Boutwell, titled “The Future of Criminology.” He is an American criminologist and associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. In his talk, he refers to the numerous experiments conducted on genetically identical twins.

Heritability and twin studies

In these experiments, the twins were separated from each other right after the birth and were brought up in completely different environments. They united after two decades, and researchers discovered no significant differences in their idiosyncrasies. They were identical to each other in terms of personality traits and behavior.

Brian Boutwell refers to another series of experiments conducted on genetically distinct, adopted children. These children develop different idiosyncrasies even though they receive the same environmental input. Brian relates himself to these experiments because he was also an adopted child. He says that he and his brother are completely different in terms of desires, habits, and personality traits, although the same parents brought them up. He also refers to a meta-analysis published in the scientific journal Nature titled “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies.” If you’ve read up to this, it’s time to draw some meaningful conclusions about whether psychopaths are made or born.

Nature vs. nurture

We can deduce from the research discussed above that personality traits are shaped and fashioned by genes more than anything else. Contrary to the widespread belief that we’re shaped 50% by genes and 50% by our environment, scientists have recently found that genes account for more than 90% of our personality.

We all have predispositions from the moment we’re born, and the environment serves to trigger some of them. However, the environment alone can’t make someone a psychopath if they didn’t have the genetic predisposition to become one. Similarly, if not triggered by the environment, psychopathic traits of a person can remain hidden, possibly for a lifetime.

james fallon
James Fallon

A notable example would be James Fallon, a neuroscientist who accidentally discovered that he was a psychopath. Despite having the predisposition for violence and incorporating all the genes necessary to become a psychopath, he was capable of living a successful life, perhaps due to the right upbringing. In his case, he didn’t have the sort of environment required for triggering his psychopathic genes.

The warrior gene

People predisposed to aggression and antisocial behavior frequently contain an alternate form of the gene called monoamine oxidase: a gene also known as the MAOA gene. The gene codes for an enzyme called Monoamine oxidase: a gene responsible for breaking down important neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. The gene occurs differently in humans. People containing its low-activity form produce less of the enzyme, while the high-activity form accounts for the enzyme’s higher production.

Several studies have established a correlation between the low-activity form of the MAOA gene and aggression. The gene has been reported to occur more frequently in populations who have a history of warfare. This has prompted scientists to dub MAOA the “warrior gene.”

James Fallon’s book contains a dedicated chapter on the “warrior gene.” This gene is responsible for at least some of the aggression in psychopaths. But it can’t solely be responsible for all psychopathic traits, and more research is needed on the genetic foundations of psychopathy.

Advice from Psychology Unfolded

Considering everything we’ve discussed above, it’s appropriate to say that psychopaths are born and not made. It’s the genetic predisposition that makes all the difference, and no one can do anything about it, not even psychopaths. Even if they wanted to change, they can’t.

If triggered, these genes can easily pop up to the surface. It is why a minor event can transform the so-called “successful psychopaths” into barbarian killers. This is also the reason why psychopaths can’t be cured. Some experiments aimed at curing psychopaths resulted in making them more violent.

People who ask whether psychopaths are born or made are often looking for reasons to change a psychopath. Ultimately, it’s more wise to flee from them, instead of directing efforts at changing them. Curing a psychopath is usually counterproductive, because they’re born, and not made.

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