Is psychopathy learned or genetic


Psychopathy describes a severe personality disorder that is associated with the extensive or complete lack of empathy, social responsibility and conscience in those affected. Psychopaths are considered fearless, impulsive, cold-hearted, and manipulative, and often were not very susceptible to punishment from parents or teachers in childhood. The psychologist Lydia Benecke emphasizes that not every psychopath becomes a criminal or feels the desire to kill. In their experience with sex offenders, psychopaths, contrary to some stereotypes, are neither particularly intelligent nor do they have an urge to kill. The roots of evil are more a mixture of genetic predisposition and social environment, high risk behavior and narcissism. Already in theology are in the seven deadly sins to find the basics of psychopathy.

There has been little research into psychopathy, even if scientists have repeatedly turned their attention to extreme cases and criminals. This is not surprising in that the proportion of psychopaths among prisoners is around twenty percent, with these relapsing around three times as often as others. According to Niels Birbaumerwho examined the brains of psychopathic offenders, psychopaths have been shown to be less anxious; This means that those areas of the brain that have to do with fear are not very active in psychopaths. Due to the lack of fear, criminal psychopaths probably do not fear the consequences of their actions and have fewer feelings of guilt, because feelings such as regret also arise from fear of punishment. The regions in the limbic system in which feelings are processed are also less active overall in psychopaths. The search for reward is probably also very pronounced in psychopaths, which is shown experimentally in exaggerated dopamine reactions. But it is also believed that criminal psychopaths have impaired parts of the brain that allow them to learn from the consequences of their actions. Psychopaths may be able to adapt in the short term, but are unable to learn from mistakes in the long term. Sometimes that showed up in psychopathic brains, too Urbach-Wiethe syndrome, a rare hereditary disease. This genetic disease, which was only described a few years ago, results in selective calcification of vessels within the amygdala - a part of the limbic system. The moral sense disappears, and with it the feeling for the relevant and the irrelevant. Conversations with those affected have something surreal about them: the sick ignore the key points and cling to randomly selected banalities. So they lack the usual sense of feeling for what is worth remembering. (Stangl, 2018).

One study examined convicted psychopaths and compared them with other people. Both were shown videos in which, for example, one hand caresses another hand or grasps a finger and bends it. The brains of the control group reflected what happened in a person who felt affection or pain, while the psychopaths showed little activity in the brain. However, this difference disappeared when the subjects were asked to empathize with the videos. Psychopaths presumably also have the ability to empathize with other people, but apparently they only use it when it is useful to them.

Hervey Cleckley described people with a psychopathic personality and found a lack of remorse in the face of cruel deeds, inconsiderate behavior towards others and the artful ability to charmingly wrap others around the finger as essential characteristics. Robert Hare (see below) developed one Psychopathy Detection ChecklistTheir application showed that people with psychopathic properties can also be found in leading positions, such as company managers, lawyers or surgeons, which is obviously due to the fact that people with few emotions can be more successful. People with psychopathological tendencies are not only less afraid, but are usually very self-confident, like to be the center of attention and are less afraid that other people will reject them. Such properties are quite advantageous in everyday economic life. In contrast, people who have very few psychopathic traits are more likely to be anxious, insecure, and reluctant. In a Swedish long-term study (Obschonka et al., 2013), around one thousand sixth graders of a year were followed for 37 years, with moral attitudes and the frequency of rule violations and violations of the law being of particular interest. It was found that later company founders had a significantly higher tendency towards anti-social behavior in their youth. That is, they skipped school, did not obey parents' prohibitions, or cheated on exams. As teenagers, they were more likely to use drugs than future employees, and some future entrepreneurs would take something away from business. However, the early anti-social tendencies were mainly limited to minor offenses, because the later company founders did not pursue criminal careers more often than other young people. As soon as they were in professional life, their social behavior hardly differed from that of the non-founders. Although the authors of the study do not see the prejudice that entrepreneurs are antisocial and only concerned about their own benefit, the results do not confirm them. In other words, there is a proximity to non-conformism, although this courage to take risks in irregular behavior could be justified in the rebellious youth. Unruliness and the questioning of boundaries can evidently become a basis for productive and socially acceptable entrepreneurship.

It is believed to be a genetic predisposition to psychopathy because typical psychopathological behaviors can already be found in children, whereby they are indifferent and cold-hearted towards their classmates, particularly aggressive and cruel, for example by torturing animals. In psychopathies, certain areas of the brain are underdeveloped for compassion and impulse control. However, a genetic predisposition does not mean that these traits are unchangeable, with a problematic childhood usually exacerbating the psychopathy. Male psychopaths often already have numerous previous convictions as adolescents and are sometimes openly aggressive, while girls are less conspicuous, are more likely to commit petty crimes or behave in a more antisocial manner by spreading rumors. Overall, psychopathy is less common and less pronounced in women.

Psychopaths are generally referred to as people who are seriously disturbed, constantly violate social rules, frequently commit crimes and have low-level social emotions such as compassion or remorse. At first glance, psychopaths are charmingly inconspicuous and know how to create superficial relationships. In doing so, they are sometimes very manipulative in order to achieve their goals. Often times, psychopaths lack long-term goals, are impulsive and irresponsible. Psychopathy is often associated with antisocial behavior, so that the diagnosis of antisocial / antisocial personality disorder is often made.

Incidentally, psychopaths show and Sociopaths often the same behavior, because they do not respect any laws or social norms, recognize other people's right to self-determination, tend to manipulative and violent behavior and show no feelings of guilt or remorse. The difference, however, is that sociopaths may have feelings, but not control them. Fear and anger in particular slip away from them, because they are irritable, feel excluded, insulted or treated incorrectly, and tend to be impulsive and aggressive in such situations, so that they often live on the edge of society, have no job and no partnership. Although sociopaths want closer ties to other people, their irritability seldom allows them to build them up and maintain them over a long period of time. The causes often lie in early childhood and are the result of violent or impoverished relationships; that is, these people have never learned to regulate their emotions. Psychopaths, on the other hand, are extremely charming, chronic liars and, at first glance, have great social skills, although their manipulative nature allows them to quickly gain the trust of other people, even though they lack compassion or authentic ties to other people. Psychopaths are usually well integrated into society, have a job, partners and children.

The psychopathy checklist by Robert D. Hare (2016) is used as one of several instruments for the assessment of offenders, whereby in some American states the result of this test even decides on the application of the death penalty. Hare sees psychopathy no disease, but only one possible expression of the natural neurological range of variation in humans. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, while the structures and functions of the psychopathic brain are slightly different in such people, these predatory traits can, in certain circumstances, prove to be effective.

Hare's Psychopathy Checklist is different two dimensions of psychopathy:

Dimension 1: utilitarian
cleverly eloquent blender with superficial charm
significantly increased self-esteem
pathological lying (Pseudology)
fraudulent manipulative behavior
Lack of remorse or guilt
superficial feelings
Coldness of feeling, lack of empathy
Lack of willingness and ability to take responsibility for one's own actions

Dimension 2: impulsive
Need for stimulation (hunger for adventure), constant feeling of boredom
parasitic lifestyle
insufficient Behavior control
previous behavioral problems
Lack of realistic, long-term goals
Juvenile delinquency
Violation of probation conditions on parole
There are also frequent promiscuity, many short-term marital (similar) relationships and polytropic (diverse) crime.

On the use of the term psychopath

The term psychopath used to have a judgmental character, as the German psychiatrist Julius Ludwig August spoke of it towards the end of the 19th century psychopathic inferiorities, and, according to Kurt Schneider, were psychopaths abnormal personalities, which represent an extreme variant of a certain type of being, which is connected with psychological stress for those affected or the environment, whereby he differentiated between different types of psychopathy such as the depressive, the unhealthy or the fanatical type. The concept of the psychopath was subsequently developed through that of the Personality disorders replaced, but taken up again in the Anglo-American language area in the 1990s, but is not congruent with earlier representations of a psychopath (see above).

Differentiator to the sociopath

The psychopath's way of manipulating others and using them for his own ends is rather cool and calculating. While a sociopath tends to get loud, violates his tone, becomes insulting and loudly hurtful, the psychopath is subtle, often hurting by silence in sensitive areas or by comments, hints and cryptic announcements.

Psychopathic people in companies

People with psychopathic traits are considered cold, sly, and manipulative, with no remorse or guilt, although they often live at the expense of others. People with this personality type often get particularly far in their careers because they are willing to take risks, charming and ruthless at the same time. But they also have a reputation for being harmful to companies, ranging from risky going it alone to harming employees to drug and alcohol consumption. Studies (Blickle & Schütte, 2017) confirmed the previously neglected assumption that although psychopathy can lead to antisocial behavior, it does not necessarily have to, because only that toxic form of psychopathy is characterized by anti-social impulsiveness, while the potentially benign form of psychopathy however, can be viewed as a kind of fearless domination. People with this characteristic are not afraid, are resistant to stress, have a high level of self-confidence and good social skills, which can be positive for their environment. Whether a person with fearless dominance can become a top employee depends primarily on Education factor because while people with fearless dominance and low education display behavior that can damage the company, people with high education are more likely to be judged by their colleagues as capable and in no way as antisocially conspicuous. Blickle & Schütte (2017) therefore assume, according to their study, that people with a high level of fearless dominance, above-average intelligence and a successful educational career are particularly well suited for emotionally stressful professional fields, such as crisis managers or emergency doctors.

The elements of evil

The psychiatric court expert Reinhard Haller stated four elements of evil: the one-sided distribution of power between perpetrator and victim, planning, dehumanization and lack of empathy. He holds the Lack of empathy for the central characteristic of evil. The more of these four factors are fulfilled, the worse the deed is. Evil has changed its face in recent years, with acts being triggered by smaller and smaller incidents, with most acts being preceded by insults. One of the main causes of evil deeds is therefore also in the zeitgeist, because there is one Appreciation block, d. In other words, people have a primal fear of not being loved.

Female psychopathy

Lydia Beneckes - psychologist and offender therapist - examines in her book "Psychopaths - the psychology of female evil“Explicitly the feminine side of evil. One example for her is the "Blood Countess" Elisabeth Báthory, who was convicted at the beginning of the 17th century in the course of numerous cruel murders of young girls. It is one of the less well-known cases of female psychopathy, because the prevailing social image of psychopathy is mostly shaped by male characters in Hollywood films, such as the character of Hannibal Lecter. The phenomenon of female psychopathy has not been researched for that long either, and as late as the 1930s it was assumed that this disorder could not even occur in women.

The judgment categories tailored to the male affected therefore do not fit the women, because with them psychopathy expresses itself due to biological and socio-cultural circumstances in other areas, which is also related to gender role-specific expectations and norms. Contrary to the general perception, there is no inevitable urge to kill, driven from within, in psychopathy, but social circumstances have a great influence. In the past, in the event of an unhappy marriage, because divorce would have resulted in social ostracism, a woman may have poisoned her husband.

Nonetheless, there are fundamental similarities in the behavior of psychopaths, such as the inability to feel fear, compassion or feelings of guilt. Psychopathy is also expressed in extremely manipulative behavior towards other people, with men more often acting with physical violence, women typically use social and emotional manipulation. This is mainly related to the personality disorders, the different combinations of which underlie a psychopathy. Psychopaths often make use of the role stereotypes of women, because women not only plan their crimes coldly, but they usually go undetected for longer. The acts of psychopaths are particularly often directed against their own families, with topics such as child killing and abuse being common. The discrepancy in women is also conspicuous in that they initially appear normal, even nice and friendly, whereby the abnormalities in thinking, acting and feeling are often overlooked by the environment.


Blickle, G. & Schütte, N. (2017). Trait psychopathy, task performance, and counterproductive work behavior directed toward the organization. Personality and Individual Differences, 109, 225-231.
Heinzen, H., Seibert, M., Schulte Ostermann, M., Huchzermeier, C. & Eisenbarth, H. (2014).Diagnostic methods for measuring psychopathic personality traits. Practice of Psychotherapy, 24, 106-137.
Hare, R.D. (2016). Psychopathy, the PCL-R, and Criminal Justice: Some New Findings and Current Issues. Canadian Psychology, 57, 21-34.
Obschonka, M., Andersson, H., Silbereisen, R. K., & Sverke, M. (2013). Rule-breaking, crime, and entrepreneurship: A replication and extension study with 37-year longitudinal data. Journal of Vocational Behavior. DOI: 10.1016 / j.jvb.2013.06.007
Stangl, W. (2018). Brain, feelings and emotions. [werner stangl] s worksheets.
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Westdeutsche Zeitung from September 16, 2018.
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