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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Essays and Blogs Concerning Mental and Emotional Health

Nature, Nurture and Psychopathy

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 15th 2006

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.

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.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Respected Psychos - - Dec 19th 2014

It is the respected psychopath that is so dangerous. Rapists, killers, and others who commit such atrocities are dangerous as well; however, they seem to have an effect only on a limited number of people.  Psychopaths that become leaders lead large groups of individuals. They are manipulative and cunning making their evil less noticed. 

my dad was a pychopath story - lisa - Aug 1st 2014

the story from my dad was a pychopath is nearly identical to my life story , almost to the letter, im glad im not alone in this, im 47

My dad was a psychopath - - Jul 17th 2014

I'm 53. 

I consider myself a high functioning, dysfunctional person. I have a good paying job and high IQ. None of this matters, when it comes to emotional issues though.

I was physically and mentally abused by my parents in my early and teenage life. Both are dead now. My father was a psychopath and my mother was a badly broken person whom my father preyed upon. I was sexually abused by my brother for a year or more, when I was eight.

I've come a long way since childhood. I was a very messed up, self-loathing person as a child and teenager - I raged and didn't know how to behave because I never "fit". 

This seemed to attract other troubled persons, whom I knew were broken and I would try to help – which made me feel better about myself somewhat and helped me.

I was suicidal many times when I was a teenager. I believe because I was born with higher intelligence, self-awareness, and inherently knew what was "good" (all from a young age), I knew I wasn't behaving properly. To cope, I used a rule: whatever my father does, do the opposite. My father was such a classic psychopath that this worked - but there was a cost. My father hated me because I refused follow or listen to him - to be his object of possession. 

He basically disowned me right up until his death. This only seemed to pile more guilt on me – what is the right choice in life? But I always tried to rationalize: would a normal father disown his son for trying to be himself? And so I live with it.

My brother looked up to my father and unfortunately, he’s paying a huge price for it… he is extremely dysfunctional in many, many ways. His sole goal in life is money and power at any cost. He and I don’t talk to each other anymore and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But by going my own way, it has allowed me to reach a point in life where I realize I have no control over anything and need to let go of things. I've begun to change and learned to become more flexible, accepting, empathetic and understanding towards others.

It's a constant struggle though. I am constantly faced with situations where I don't know how to act, since I never learned how to in my youth. And so I emulate others I feel have a good heart. This makes me painfully aware of myself and I am always afraid to reveal my inner self – I’m a guarded and introverted person.

Consider this; if you find an aspect of yourself that is difficult or undesirable (take for example, rage), one can try to change that behaviour. But the problem is, what to replace it with? There's a vacuum left behind that is scary and hard to fill. It's only through great time and patience that I'm finding a path. I fear I will be doing this until I die.

Am I "healed"? No, and I never will be. I still become suicidal and I self hurt (one time last year I punched myself so hard in the face, I had a huge lump and bruise and had to explain it away as an accident). I am unreliable because of instability at times. I avoid confrontation since I am never sure how I will react.

All this, and somehow I've managed to have a good career, raise a family of three and try to enjoy life. I have marriage problems though. My wife knows all about me but somehow she never can quite understand and displays great distain and impatience - she hates me for who I am and how I treat our children on occasion (e.g. yelling. I am never violent or physical)... I agree with her sometimes but other times, I'm not so sure. I am just a human being doing his best and I didn’t bring this upon myself – I was born into it. Why can't she understand and give me space and time? But people are people and they will treat you like a freak, no matter how hard you try…

And finally but most importantly, my life has always been about self worth, meaning for my existence, and why I should even bother struggling. I still have no answers to this, but I remain here on earth, hanging on, so I must be doing something that makes it all worthwhile. Not very positive for my children, but I try my best to hide it and sacrifice much for them.

I wish everyone healing and peace with themselves. May you all find a good path through this life and find meaning. Good luck.

From a very young age, I recognized my father was not a nice person. In fact he was 

unusually cruel to his own family and felt no remorse. Examples:

- he embarassed me in inhuman ways, on many, many occassions e.g. at a parent teacher 

meeting in college, he called my professor a fag to his face while I was there. He openly 

fought with the parents of my friends. He would openly flirt with my girlfriends, even 

though he was 40 years my senior. I was disgusted by him.

- he threw me in deep water when I was very young and laughed while watching me struggle 

and almost drown.

- when my mother was terminally ill, he had to be ordered directly by my sister to obtain 

medical help at home while my mother was dying of ovarian cancer, neglected at home on the 

couch, while he went on living his life oblivious. All the children had long since moved 

far away - with reason. So it was difficlut for us to help our mother. He certainly didn't 

care. He laughed and joked around at her wake. I never saw a single tear or any feelings 

of loss even though they had been married more than 40 years. It was more like my mother 

was his slave. When I ended a relationship with one girlfriend, my father actually asked 

me who was going to do my laundry - in all seriousness.

- soon after my mother's death, he revealed he was trying to connect with a woman he met 

in Europe. He revealed she was married so I asked what he was going to do. He responded, 

without hesitation: Kill her husband.

- he often beat and tortured us (the children). Many times I was physically beaten with 

sticks, wire, etc. I, my brothers and my sisters are very dysfunctional as a result. 

He constantly manipulated people, including his own children and wife. He had many sexual 

affairs and often flaunted his escapades in front of my mother. He never expressed any fear - even on his death bed. He was also a thief and liar and would always cheat or steal in any way he could.

There is so much more I could say but I will cut it short.

When I was younger, I also dated a psychopath. It was a painful, draining experience but 

in the end, I finally saw many, many similarities between her and my father.

I learned and have become very adept at determining if someone is a psychopath. I watch 

people's language and emotions, which are often revealing if you know what to look for. 

Using a common sense approach helps. Ask yourself questions like "would a normal, feeling, 

loving, caring person do or say that?"

I have read much on the topic as well; from Hervey Cleckley's Mask of Sanity, to this 

article. You are right on the money Dr Dombeck, as much of the science reveals. Please 

keep up the good work. My life has been derailed from birth by a psychopath and it has taken 

me more than 50 years to endure through it all and come to an understanding. This struggle 

has overshadowed me from being a fully functional person - I wish I had understood more at 

a younger age and I could have been more productive. 

Please continue with your contributions. Thank you.

American Psycho - Lissy - Jul 7th 2012

Your blog is intimidating and lacking in any basis. I am surprised you have a phd in anything. 

In the book American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis describes the psychopathic minds as the ones who are insanely greedy, fantasists who dream of money & sex over anything else. I feel this is very accurate and could describe many of the people who run countries & organisations.

Generally the person on the street with mental health problems lack confidence, very low self interest. 

It's the trigger happy psychiatrist who brandishes these 'general' people with idiotic terms for mental illness. 

I would say that if all people who were termed sane were separated from the people who were termed mentally ill and we were to look at the number of instances of aggression, rape & murder - the percentage of sane people would be higher.

It pisses me off that trigger happy so-called academics like yourself seem to 'get'off' on labeling people. You are not acting academically in the true sense and neither are you aware of the true facts of mental ill health.

I have worked closely with mentally ill people and all but one were genuine & loving people, including the so-called psychotic & psychopathic ones.

Try using ingenuity and listen less to the mass bulls**t which is fed to you. You have a responsibility as a human & a so-called academic to 'THINK' for yourself. 

My experience - Rin Satsu - May 7th 2012

I've been diagnosed with "socially adept psychopathy" and paranoid schizophrenia by two different institutions in which I paid for the testing. Yet, I've never committed a single crime in my life, I've never hurt anyone intentionally; it just seems like my train of thought, and the fact I have an easy time manipulating others to do what I want, appears to classify me as such. It frustrates me to no end that the term "psychopath" carries such a negative connotation, and I can't mention it to anyone when seeking help for fear that they'll pretend to help me but in reality will turn on me and either tar my name or report me to the authorities, who will take it the wrong way and try to get me put in a padded cell. I've never done anything wrong, and yet I've constantly been persecuted for thinking differently my entire life, by everyone I know. Why do we have to suffer like this just because we're different, and know how to use our minds to better effect than the majority? I can't even find myself trusting therapists, because I always feel like they're silently judging me and trying to brainwash me into being just another sheep of society. I just don't know who to turn to anymore.

why is there no treatment ? - - Jan 13th 2011

I do not understand why there seems to be no treatment for those Suffering with phychopahty. I have been diagnosed, and that is all. I have been unable to find treatment for my lack of empathy, complete disregard of others, most of all my imagination consuming me completly with acts of  horrific violence. I cant stop thinking of hurting people that affend me or talk behind my back. Am i the only one with such twisted mind. As i write this message i realize how absurt it is that i said those suffering with phycopathy. Having phycopathy in many ways makes me a superior being. I have a very limited range of emotions, therefore i have less weekness. suffering!!! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

Why is psychopathy seen as a bad thing? - tia - Aug 8th 2010

There are people I know that have some psychopathic tendencies but they are not bad people at all.  They make bad partners, they may not be consistent in keeping one job, they are very controlling and believes they control the world, but I find that they make good leaders.  Or is it that one can have a similar traits but are nor diagnosed psychopaths.  I believe nurture can determine if a psychopath becomes a heartless killer verses respectable individual.  

people with psychopath - - Jul 7th 2010

I see no information about people who have lived with psychopaths for a long time. What sort of personalities they develop? What do they become?

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