Why We're Breeding Psychopaths: The Benefits of Psychopathy, Triggers to Aggression and the Future of Humanity

Monday, September 08, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under General

As discussed in the last post, there are a number of traits that define psychopathy and a wide continuum on which those traits can come out.  In general, psychopaths are known for a lack of empathy, charm/charisma and serial killing, not exactly a stellar stereotype. But psychopaths possess a number of traits that have made them historically beneficial to the human race.

I know. You still think I've lost my damn mind. But bear with me. 

Today, many in the general population seem to believe that psychopathy evolved as an adaptation to be a type of "super predator". When faced with food shortages or otherwise harsh conditions, psychopaths would have been able to murder tribe mates, steal resources and rape at will, free of guilt or remorse. Bad for humanity, probably even at the time.

But, this theory is incomplete. You don't need to be Rico fucking Suave to brutally murder the neighbor's mother for her Ramen noodles, although I suppose sexy abs might make people think twice before lynching you. In our ancestral past, there were probably a number of different early conditions that led to the development of psychopathic-like traits, not all of which include genetic predisposition to super predator violence. And though there are subgroups with psychopathy and violent tendencies, current studies support the idea that violence is a trait that cannot be generalized to the entire psychopathic population9

Today, we are moving beyond the idea of super predator as more and more research is showing us that it is not so much the psychopathy that makes someone violent, but another gene or set of genes that can manifest at the same time. But the violent traits linked to these specific genes may only be expressed in the presence of certain environmental factors. Instead of aggression being a symptom, violent psychopaths may emerge due to the way we treat our children and one another. (For more behind the scenes insight into this, check out Famished by yours truly. If you love psychos, you'll love it.)

It's just one more reason to avoid being a dick.


The Benefits of Psychopaths

The masses have it half right: psychopathy may have been useful in times of scarcity, or in environments where reciprocal altruism wasn’t being honored, where cheaters thrived at higher rates. A reduction in empathy, increases in charisma, manipulation and promiscuity could have served males well in environments where fathering larger numbers of children without caring for them was beneficial. (AKA The One More Reason We Need Maury Povich Theory.) This may partially explain why psychopathy is more common among males. 

But there might be more to it than that. 

Psychopaths might be more likely to take chances, a trait that has always been necessary in order to move humanity forward. According to Chris Stringer in Lone Survivors, only a risk taker would have been able to take those first steps out of Africa, a path away from the expected and into the unknown3. To make such a leap in faith may have required an impulsive risk taker, narcissistic enough to think they could handle undiscovered territory. Those possessing lower levels of stress hormones (because they feel less than others) are also not subject to the inhibition of the immune system which occurs in those under high stress.

Healthy risk takers are necessary; they have propelled us forward since the dawn of human existence. Instead of someone lurking in the shadows, I picture early psychopaths like primitive Jim Careys, racing forward impulsively into new dimensions. And really any dimension is better than Ace Ventura. 

Today, this element of risk taking is often seen as reckless as the actions undertaken tend to be dangerous. Not as dangerous as leaving Africa, mind you, but partying, engaging in casual sex or skydiving for the much needed adrenaline rush is not always seen as healthy. Pretty fun, yes, but not necessarily healthy. 

While this impulsivity element does carry some possibility of risk, psychopaths still tend to excel in making business decisions, and may provide the risk necessary to move corporations forward. As noted in the last post, psychopaths tend to excel in cold cognition functions, which enables them to make better financial decisions when under strain, as opposed to non-psychopathic individuals who are more likely to freeze or make emotional decisions. 

Non-psychopaths make emotional decisions? Not me! There's no way I'd impulse buy a box of cookies at the grocery store after finding out my in-laws are coming to visit. (Mmmm chocolate chips.) 

That cold cognition thing may explain why Babiak, Neumann and Hare found that psychopaths may have a tendency to flock to higher corporate positions. According to their study published in “Behavioral Sciences and the Law”, 3.9% of those in high corporate positions score thirty or higher on the PCL-R Checklist4. This is very high even in the prison population, and at least four to five times as high as the general population they sampled in the surrounding community. They also found that psychopaths had higher ratings for charisma, communication skills, creativity and good strategic thinking/planning, though they had lower rankings for responsibility, management and overall accomplishments. 

However, psychopathic tendencies can also lead to abuses of power which may make it a questionable good overall, as illustrated in Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work5. Dictators seem to follow similar patterns, though clearly they don’t often agree to such testing and will fucking murder you for asserting it, making such thoughts necessarily speculative.

But most corporate gurus and heads of state aren’t going out and murdering people and hiding the bodies under their porches. Even if they are more interested than disgusted at blood and gore, those brain changes don’t necessarily translate into violence. 

So what does? 

The Warrior Gene and Aggression

The warrior gene specifically has been shown to be extremely beneficial to making financial decisions under duress. But in those with psychopathic tendencies, the addition of the warrior gene can create a perfect storm for violence. 

While there may be dozens or more warrior genes, one specific MAO-A with a short promoter has been found to be particularly associated with aggression, according to Dr. James Fallon in The Psychopath Inside2. This gene has also been associated with an eight percent reduced volume in the amygdala, anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortex regions which are involved in antisocial behavior6

This gene may help explain some of the research discussed by David Eagleman in Incognito, where he notes that nearly all violent criminals and the vast majority currently in prison possess a specific genetic trait which predisposes them to violence, what he calls “being male”7. This MAO-A gene is located on the X chromosome, which makes males far more susceptible to it because they get only one from their parents. Males have an XY chromosome set whereas females have XX, meaning that women have an extra chance to counteract the effects on the other X chromosome. 

Score for the ladies. 

In any case, this MAO-A gene leads to underproduction of this enzyme in the body, which leads to too much serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, aside from being the “happy chemical”, is also involved in dominant and predatory behaviors. Environmental cues can reliably alter serotonin levels in the brain, but having this gene leads children (even prior to birth) to overreact to the excess of serotonin by reducing the number of receptor cells for it. This means that regardless of the amount of serotonin produced, only a portion will ever be usable by the brain later in life because there are only so many places for it to be absorbed. 

The serotonin issues may also mean that those with psychopathy are not as responsive to this chemical when it comes time to “turn off” anger responses. While others absorb serotonin in response to anger—and calm down accordingly—psychopaths may not have this ability, meaning the response lasts far longer.

And as fun as psychopaths are, angry psychopaths are that much more exciting.

With all the neurotransmitter and other brain chemical alterations, physical brain changes and genetic input, there are infinite numbers of ways to be anxious, to be depressed or to be psychopathic. 

However, it isn’t just the genes. Fallon notes that while genetics may play a role of up to five percent, it is the other chemicals in the brain and body that determine how such genes are expressed and whether they ever get turned “on”. 

So how do you create a violent psychopathic individual? How do you turn on a gene? 

That’s easy. You beat it on. 

How Early Environment Shapes a Psychopathic Brain

Nearly all violent psychopathic individuals are abused in early life, and the earlier the stress occurs, the more likely it will affect the basic wiring of the brain. Similar abuse at a few months or two years will matter more than that inflicted at age eight, because the brain is being trained from birth. For example, morality, processed in the orbital cortex, may never develop if damage to the region occurs before it matures. If damage occurs after it has developed, other parts of the brain may understand morality better and compensate for the areas that are altered.  

Children born with these psychopathic tendencies may be particularly at risk through misbehavior, which may in turn trigger caretakers—often individuals with similar genetic makeup—to additional aggression (known as the genotype-environment correlation).  

Okay, so violence against children is a bad thing. No shit. I’m sure you already knew that. 

But how does stress turn on a gene?

Epigenetic Marking (or epigenetic tag) refers to the way genes add “tags” to DNA strands through environmental stress. Fallon suggests picturing the genetic meaning as a sentence. In actual mutations, the spelling of the sentence would be changed by inserting or deleting letters. Epigenetic marking would be more like changing the punctuation or commas in a sentence, though this can clearly change the meaning of the sentence itself. 

“Let’s eat, children.” (more empathy)

“Let’s eat children!” (less empathy)

Those alterations can slow down or speed up a cell’s ability to do its job, and trigger the onslaught of chemical alterations that lead to violent tendencies, thrill seeking or trouble calming down. And it matters for more than an individual who finds themselves in a relationship with a psychopath. It has a great impact on the global population as well.

The Impact of Warrior Genes on War and Global Aggression

Fallon hypothesizes that this gene may be running rampant in particularly violent areas of the world, where kill-or-be-killed is a way of life. This may be why the gene evolved in the first place and continues to thrive over time. In these areas, it is far more likely for women to mate with men with aggressive tendencies for protection (or have intercourse forced). Over three or four generations, such genetic dispositions could trigger alterations on a large scale, particularly when early learning embraces such violence as normal. 

When widespread war makes aggression necessary and women choose their men based on their tendency to be aggressive, we may see severe increases in the genes that trigger violent psychopathic tendencies. 

This should surely be of concern to all of us. "Breeding violence" is not simply an empty phrase. It describes a specific genetic predisposition that we are encouraging by default, one that literally breeds the type of violent aggression we find ourselves anxious to fight against. 

Psychopathology and the Future of Humanity

As a quick and dirty review, Fallon’s three legs of violent psychopathy are: 

  1. Low function in orbital prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal lobe and amygdala 
  2. Genetic predisposition, including the warrior gene
  3. Abuse/neglect in early childhood

There are a number of ways for these three legs to be expressed. You may have someone with psychopathic tendencies who never becomes violent due to a nurturing upbringing. You might have individuals who officially have “psychopathic brains” but without warrior gene involvement, making them feel “empty” or “numb”, a common theme in the treatment of psychopaths. You might end up with someone with psychopathic genetics and brain changes along with the warrior gene and early abuse who somewhere learns how to control his impulses because he realizes that society functions better for him when he conforms to the surrounding norms. But this latter individual will need a rational reason to believe that society would function better for him in this regard. 

For these individuals, choices will not revolve around making those they love happy. They will do things if there is a logical argument as to why it benefits them, even if the argument is simply that it makes their own life easier or more interesting. And finding a logical argument against cheating, hurting others of being an overall dick is sometimes tricky because of where we currently find ourselves. 

How often do we show young people that kindness or getting along will logically benefit them? We do not live in a society where kindness matters in terms of success, and often those cold, corporate decisions—occasionally made by those with psychopathic tendencies—are the ones that translate into financial well-being, our current model of success. And the more successful those with psychopathic traits are, the more sexually attractive they will be and the higher the likelihood that those traits will be passed down through subsequent generations at higher rates. 

So what are we really teaching anyone growing up in such a society? 

There are questions other than those related to financial rewards. Do we glorify criminals with the way we embrace media frenzy with every calculated school shooting? Because there are particular breeds of violent psychopaths that adore the idea of impending fame. Without fear as a deterrent, we inadvertently teach that blowing up a few classmates will indeed get one the infamous notoriety they think they deserve.

Maybe more importantly, are we showing young people with psychopathic tendencies that behaving kindly even without empathy is the way to go? Or are we simply professing to embrace our fellow man while doing the exact opposite? We evolved to embrace selfishness just as much as cooperation, and even those without psychopathic traits are often taught that reciprocal altruism and kindness may not be the most beneficial model to use in our particular society. And recent studies verify that typical American children report favoring achievement over caring for others, hard work over fairness, likely based on societal pressures and parental value systems which inadvertently trigger dishonesty and cheating behaviors at higher rates8

Without empathy or guilt to hold one back, there is little rational reason to believe that even sympathy is useful. Expecting anyone to value it when everything we do is focused on the self is perhaps our own fallacy, one where we will continue to breed less empathic individuals until we find ourselves without kindness because it sincerely no longer works for the world we live in. Perhaps psychopathy is simply a glimpse into this type of future. It will not be a future of violence necessarily, but rather one of blunted emotions that are no longer useful, where cold calculations trump all else, including our capacity to feel. This might not be inherently bad, but it is a completely different version of normal, one that might scare some even more that the stereotypical version of psychopathology we have come to accept as a society.  

If this type of future scares us now, it behooves us to alter our behaviors now, and create kindness and acceptance where we are able,  to show that love does indeed matter. While we still care enough to do so.

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.amazon.com/Psychopath-Test-Journey-Through-Industry/dp/1594485755/
  2. http://www.amazon.com/Psychopath-Inside-Neuroscientists-Personal-Journey/dp/1591846005/
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Lone-Survivors-Came-Humans-Earth/dp/0805088911
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20422644
  5. http://www.amazon.com/Snakes-Suits-When-Psychopaths-Work/dp/0061147893/
  6. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/16/6269.full.pdf
  7. http://www.amazon.com/Incognito-The-Secret-Lives-Brain/dp/0307389928/
  8. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1430903.files//MCC%20Report%20The%20Children%20We%20Mean%20to%20Raise.pdf
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3978196/

Topic-Relevant Resources

Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, & Other Toxic People
A guide to overcoming abusive relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work
An interesting look at psychopathic abuses of power within corporate systems

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
A witty history of psychopathy from best selling author Jon Ronson.

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain
Amazing look into the brain of a psychopath from an acclaimed neuroscientist who identified his own psychopathic tendencies during a research experiment.

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.