The psychopath is a unique and quite dangerous subgroup within our species. He, or she, is capable of deadly manipulations executed with unbelievably cold, calculated intellectual and emotional maneuvers. Charming, lacking in empathy, guilt, responsibility and the normal range of human emotion, they move among us with an often impeccable mask that makes them virtually undetectable. There are several evolutionary hypotheses which attempt to explain their behavior, however the best fit is that they represent a cheating reproductive strategy, one geared towards the production of many offspring for which they afford no long term care.
Support for this thesis comes in a various forms. We know that psychopaths are callous, deceptive, promiscuous, and egocentric (Cleckley, 1941: 337-364). They are also mostly male: almost four times as many more psychopathic men then women (Sigvardsson, et al, 1982). This makes them ideal for mating with many women and then leaving them subsequently, once the deed is done, so to speak. It also confers a psychological advantage in that they have the ability to manipulate women by mimicking emotional attachment, or deceiving them about resources they can offer. The same is also true for female psychopaths, who can often create the impression of being in distress which elicits more financial and physical support from the men they mate with. There is a genetic basis to the trait, demonstrated in many twin adoption studies (Viding et al, 2005 & Larsson et al, 2006: 221-30).
Alternatively, Harpending and Draper (1988) proposed an anthropological hypothesis, in their study they discuss two tribes, the Kung Bushmen and the Mundurucu villagers, who fit two different ecological niches and how pro-social and antisocial behavior is a geographical adaptation. The first group, the Kung, live in the Kalahari desert of South Africa. It's a harsh environment, which forces all members of the tribe to contribute to their collective survival, reliable reciprocation of altruistic acts is crucial. The Kung form nuclear families, stable, long term relationships and thus have a strongly selective pressure on pro-social behavior. Reproductive success is thus dependent on consistent collective altruism.
The Mundurucu, on the other hand, live in the Amazon Basin, a lush environment with plentiful food. In their tribe, the women do most of the farming while the men compete physically and politically for social status. They spend most of their time engaging in gossip, fighting, planning warfare, and complex rituals, occasionally hunting for meat which can be traded for sex with the women. Here, reproductive success is dependent on the male's ability to compete in a social hierarchy; he needs good verbal skills, fearlessness to fight other men in physical competitions, and the ability to deceive women about the potential resources he can offer her. This environment favors the expression of the antisocial trait, which can potentially explain the evolutionary origin of psychopathy.
Another potential hypothesis is the need for a warrior caste within a group of evolving humans. Early competition among groups is suspected to have been high, often with groups competing for local resources and environmental niches. Baily (1995) suggests that aggressive inter-male competition for social status, and thus access to females was very prevalent in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, favoring men who lacked humanity's more empathic features.
While the two proposed alternatives have evidence and logic to support the reasons why there is a genetic basis to antisocial behavior in general, they fail to enumerate the evolutionary cause of psychopathy specifically. For example, if the anthropological perspective was accurate, we would expect men in the Mudurucu tribe to more accurately represent the full spectrum of psychopathic traits. While they do have more antisocial tendencies, they do manage to engage in long term, same sex relationships, and cooperate effectively in times of warfare. The western male psychopath seems to take antisocial behavior to a new level, beyond that which would be successful in this particular ecological niche. He never forms stable long term relationships, nor is able to cooperate within a group without being it's sole dominant member.
Baily's hypothesis tends to make more sense than the anthropological hypothesis, however there are several key points at which it fails to explain the profound psychological differences. Humans are, by nature, social organisms. We survive when we cooperate. While there may have been an early need for a violent subgroup in order to compete with other groups, it would have been virtually impossible to control a psychopath or a group of psychopaths for collective benefit and defense. This again, may have explained the genetic basis for some antisocial traits, but fails to plumb the depths and total differences between the psychopath and normal humans.
The sociobiological perspective, that psychopathy is an alternative reproductive strategy, is the only theory that explains the full manifestation of the condition. According to this theory, psychopathy would have a genetic basis, it has variable expression, it would be found most often in males who tend to be very promiscuous, and they would have an average level of fitness. Macmillian and Kofoed (1984) enumerated these predictions for antisocial personality traits in general, and added the condition would manifest at puberty and decline with age, and noted that the carriers tend to have low socioeconomic status. These last two predictions correlate with sociopathy, a learned form of antisocial behavior, but fail to correlate with psychopathy.
A portrait of the Psychopath
Understanding the phenomenon requires some discussion of the condition in depth. Serial killers, torturers, rapists, are all excellent candidates, however the phenomenon of psychopathy extends above and beyond violent criminals. Glib and grandiose, cunning and manipulative, no ability to comprehend responsibility, empathy, guilt or love, the most dangerous psychopaths escape detection and avoid the criminal justice system their entire lives. They are able to climb corporate ladders, acquire PhDs and MDs, law degrees or even act as religious or spiritual leaders (Hare, 1993:102-23), and it's often only too late their victims realize they are being milked of money, dedication, time or other resources. Sometimes the truth is so hard to bear that the victim's mind circumvents its realization as a measure of self-protection (Lobaczewski, 1998:107). They learn at a young age that they are different from the rest of us, and they quickly learn to construct a mask of normality that allows them to blend in. This mask can be so effective as to fool professionals trained in psychology. They can murder, torture, and rape with as much emotional concern as we carve a turkey or change a tire. In fact, some psychopaths are quite capable of fooling lie detector tests, as they do not have the same physiological reactions that normal humans do (Hare 1993: 1).
Later Russell worked out several scenarios for handling his problems with his wife and wrote them down on a piece of paper: 'Do nothing'; 'File for Paternity/Conciliation Court'; 'Take girls w/o Killing'; 'Take girls Killing 4'; 'Kill Girls and Justin.' His probation officer commentated that the list revealed, 'the mind of a man who could contemplate killing his own children with the detachment of someone considering various auto-insurance policies. It is the laundry list of a man without a soul. (Hare, 1993:55)Every normal human being has a conscience, a part of their mind which allows them to quickly determine 'right' from 'wrong'. Typically this has to deal with our ability comprehend the results of our actions and how they affect other people, in the psychopath this higher function is completely absent. In its place is a malignant narcissism, a device that allows the individual to formulate quickly, coldly, and with complete emotional detachment (Hare, 1993:53) - How can I get what I want? Their desires are varied; money, sex, and power over others seem to be the most common, however some are content with a place to live, video games, and a work-free existence. How our actions affect others, empathizing, considering, and responsibility are all higher functions of the brain which are completely absent in the psychopath.
These desires force psychopaths to focus their manipulations on other people. The psychopath needs normal humans to do his dirty work, or to be his prey. He needs them to produce money, or be available for sex, to be his murder victim or perhaps to defend his character when exposed. All of their hungers require interaction with normal humans in order to be fulfilled. The psychopath views all others as objects, to be used, discarded, or destroyed as he sees fit. He cannot understand guilt, sadness, remorse, love, or true joy because he does not possess them. He can mimic them in order to elicit a desired response, but he does not truly possess them as normal human beings do. This dependency on others could be taken as evidence for frequency dependent selection.
He uses a preternatural charm as his primary weapon. Flattery and confidence mixed with their ability to 'read' normal humans allow them to change and adapt their personalities:
They identify a person's likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities. We all have 'buttons' that can be pushed, and psychopaths, more than most people, are always ready to push them. Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people. They make use of the fact that for many people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style - often larded with jargon, cliches, and flowery phrases - makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others. This skill, coupled with the belief that they deserve whatever they can take, allows psychopaths to use effectively what they learn about a person against the person as they interact with him or her - they know what to say and how to say it to exert influence. Third, they are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial - but convinced - verbal fluency allows them to change their personas skillfully as it suits the situation and their game plan. They are known for their ability to don many masks, change 'who they are' depending upon the person with whom they are interacting, and make themselves appear likable to their intended victim. Narcissistic people will find psychopaths to be solicitous of their need to get attention; anxious people will find them to be non-threatening and reassuring; many will find them exciting and fun to be with. Few will suspect that they are dealing with a psychopath who is playing up to their particular personality and vulnerabilities. In the great card game of life, psychopaths know what cards you hold, and they cheat.Researchers who interact with known psychopaths regularly describe them as social chameleons. Chameleons, of course, have the capacity to assume the coloration of their environment in order to survive. When clinging to either a leaf or a branch, they turn green or brown, using their ability to change the color of their skin to blend into their surroundings. Thus, using nature's protection, they can remain invisible to their enemies, yet can sneak up on unsuspecting insects that make up their diet. They are the perfect invisible predator. Like chameleons, psychopaths can hide who they really are and mask their true intentions from their victims for extended periods. The psychopath is a near-perfect invisible human predator. (Hare & Babiak, 2006:37-39)
Criminal psychopaths frequently end up in jail, have higher recidivism rates, and demonstrate a vast versatility in their crimes (Hemphill et al, 1998: 139). Much more interesting, and often causing far more damage, are the non-criminal or white-collar psychopaths. Robert Hare provides many examples in Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits. They range from lawyers, to businessmen, doctors, psychiatrists, even clergymen - any position of power which can be used to further allow the psychopath to appear credible and trustworthy. The only apparent difference between these psychopaths and criminals is their ability to maintain a more effective mask of normality (Hare, 1999:109).
As you can see, there is no doubt that these individuals would not thrive in a tribal community, regardless of the ecological niche, nor be manageable as a warrior caste within a tribal group. In fact, Andrew Lobaczewski demonstrates how their pathological thought processes can infect the minds of normal humans, thus transmitting their narcissism, callousness, and manipulative traits (Lobaczewski, 2003: 102-28). An appropriate ideology, whether religious, political or otherwise, is used as a screen to justify their actions, with an 'ends justifying the means' mentality overriding normal human empathy and conscience. As such, if these individuals existed in a tribal community, they would either take it over, or be excluded over time. The difference lies in the psychological hygiene of the group, and its ability to spot pathological behavior and thought processes as such.
It's in their Genes
There are several studies which demonstrate categorically that the trait is genetically influenced. In 2005 Essi Viding et al, completed a study on 3687 twin pairs, using the Twin-Early Development Study (TEDS). They demonstrated that the callous-unemotional (CU) traits of the children were under a particularly strong genetic influence. The children were also rated on anti-social behavior (AB), and for those that had a high CU value, they also exhibited a strong genetic influence for AB.
Another study was done with over a thousand twin pairs (Larrson, et al. 2006), and this study more or less demonstrated the same thing. They used a different test, and rated the classic three dimensions of psychopathy searching for a genetic basis. What they found was that the callous/unemotional as well as the impulsive/irresponsible/need for stimulation dimensions had a strong genetic influence.
Going further, it is also likely that criminality has a genetic basis. Mealy (1995) reviewed multiple studies in which she demonstrates a heritability of approximately 0.60 for repeated crimes of property. She also reviews adoptive studies that analyzed the behavior of children who had one or more 'risk factors' (a criminal, biological or adoptive parent) and found that the trait (in this case criminality) was much more likely with one or more risk factors, and even greater when both were present. This suggests that the criminality may have a genetic basis and an environmental trigger. She explains Cloninger's two-threshold model, referring to 'sociopathy', however in the beginning it is clear she is using the term loosely to denote the more genetic, extreme cases of antisocial behavior.
Cloninger put forth a "two threshold" polygenic model to account for both the sex difference in sociopathy and its spectral nature (Cloninger etal. 1975; 1978). According to the model, sociopaths are individuals on the extreme end of a normal distribution whose genetic component is (1) polygenic and (2) to a large degree, sex limited. (Sex-limited genes, not to be confused with sex-linked genes, are those which are located on the autosomes of both sexes but are triggered into expression only within the chemical/ hormonal microenvironment of one sex or the other. Common examples include beard and mustache growth in men, and breast and hip development in women.) If a large number of the many genes underlying sociopathy are triggered by testosterone or some other androgen, many more men than women will pass the threshold of the required number of active genes necessary for its outward expression.According to the two-threshold model, those females who do express the trait must have a greater overall "dose" or "genetic load" (i.e., they are further out towards the extreme of the normal distribution of genotypes) than most of the males who express the trait. This proposition has been supported by data showing that, in addition to the greater overall risk for males as opposed to females, there is also a greater risk for the offspring (and other relatives) of female sociopaths as compared to the offspring (and other relatives) of male sociopaths. This phenomenon cannot be accounted for either by sex linkage or by the differential experiences of the sexes. Besides providing a proximate explanation for the greater incidence of male sociopathy and crime, the two-threshold model also explains on a proximate level the finding that males are more susceptible to environmental influences than females. Somewhat paradoxically, although a male will express sociopathy at a lower "genetic dose" than is required for expression in a female, the heritability of the trait is greater for females, meaning that the environmental component of the variance is greater for males. The two-threshold model thus explains in a proximate sense what sociobiologists would predict. (Mealy, 1995: 526-7)
The condition itself manifests in childhood (Hare, 1993: 155-79; Forth, 1998; Frick, 2002; Lynam, 2002; Glenn 2007), and can take a variety of forms. It is distinguished from other antisocial childhood problems by the severity and/or violence of the acts committed, as well as the inability to improve or lessen with treatment. For such a severe trait to manifest so early in life we would suggest again, a strong genetic component.
A New Subspecies?
Psychopaths have a completely different inner landscape than normal humans, there is a genetic component to their behavior, and the evidence suggests it represents an alternative breeding strategy within the human population. The modern day human is defined by his emotional inner life, while some may have deeper emotions then others there is the potential for empathy, sadness, love, anger, and guilt within us all. Compassion, understanding, and altruistic acts are some of our highest qualities, and again the potential for such acts is how I define a human.
Psychopaths are genetically and biologically incapable of such behaviors and emotions. They may mimic, or create the illusion of behaving nobly, however with a little attention to detail, and careful observations their facade can easily been seen for what it is. Repeatedly, with a cold, calculating intellect they can perform the most heinous acts of pedophilia, cannibalism, murder, rape and torture without batting an eye. What's worse is that their thinking, or paralogic, if accepted by a normal human mind will slowly twist the thought processes, allowing the psychopath to effectively manipulate a normal human to do his bidding. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak demonstrate how this process works in detail in Snakes in Suits, and Andrej Lobaczewski gave a more macrosocial approach to the phenomenon in Political Ponerology.
Moreover, they have a unique biology: ranging from increased corpus callosums - which orchestrates complex interactions between the attention, arousal and emotion (Raine, et al. 2003), smaller amygdalas - long recognized as a key component in emotional processing, moral reasoning, and social interaction (Yang, et al, 2009), and fMRI scans which show a distinct failure of normal brain activation when psychopaths are charged with an emotive task (Kiehl, et al, 2006). These few examples are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their biological differences from normal humans.
As such, the problem is quite evolutionary; without an understanding of this new subspecies, their capabilities, and how they differ from us we will be 'as sheep amongst the wolves', ripe for the picking. Given the political and economic scandals of the last ten years, it's amazing that this topic has not received further attention. It also explains how large banking conglomerates, corporations and intelligence agencies can function without a moral compass, sacrificing the lives of countless innocent people and justifying their actions with an appropriate ideological mask. The phenomenon of psychopathy affects the lives of everyone on the planet, and we as a society require a comprehensive understanding if we are to navigate the difficult waters of the new millennium.
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