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A Research on Whether Criminal Psychopaths Are Born Or Made

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Categorising Psychopath
  3. The Nativist Approach (Nature)
  4. The Empiricist Approach (Nurture)
  5. Interactionist Approach
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


A psychopath is 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.’’ (Mark Dombeck, n.d.). The purpose of this essay is to delve into the different arguments of the Nature versus. Nurture debate in reference to whether criminal psychopaths are born or if they are in fact a product of their environment. This essay will contain research into the categorisation and diagnosis of psychopaths, prevalence statistics and criminal psychopathy cases such as the crimes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacey and Aileen Wuornos as evidence for the different arguments. It will also focus on whether there are any viable treatment options for psychopathy and any ethical dilemmas and implications humanity may face as a result of labelling psychopaths.

The Nativism versus Empiricism debate (also known as the nature versus nurture debate respectively) on the aetiology of psychopathy is one that has been discussed by many. The nativist argument suggests that psychopathy is present in an individual from birth and is caused by innate, biological factors such as genetics, brain structure abnormalities and hormones (McLeod, 2018). The empiricist side of the debate argues that psychopathy is a disorder that is developed as a result of experience during the upbringing of individual’s life, for example, social factors in one’s environment such as abuse and trauma. Another theory is that nature and nurture interact with one another, following the ‘Diathesis-Stress Model’. This suggests that the true cause of psychopathy is realistically a combination of both biological factors and environmental factors.

Categorising Psychopath

Some research into the diagnosis of psychopaths has shown that there is no formal psychiatric disorder of psychopathy. Instead, psychopathy in the ICD-10 is classified under a broad ‘Dissocial Personality Disorder’. According to Robert Hare, Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder that can be diagnosed using his 20-item checklist called the ‘Psychopathy Checklist – Revised’ or ‘PCL-R’. Items include those relating to emotional/interpersonal traits such as having a lack of remorse and guilt or being deceitful and manipulative. The checklist also includes traits relating to social deviance such as being impulsive and having the need for stimulation. The checklist is currently used by professionals as a way of clinically diagnosing psychopaths by their symptoms and characteristic.

The ‘PCL: Screening Version’ was used in a survey of the prevalence of psychopathic traits of 638 people between the ages of 16 and 74 in the British population. At a PCL: Screening Version cut-off score of 13, the study found that 0.6% of the population displayed significant psychopathic traits. This indicates that psychopathy is a rare disorder in the United Kingdom which affects less than 1% of the general population.

It has been proposed that psychopathy fits into two distinct categories; primary psychopathy (factor 1) and secondary psychopathy (factor 2) which lies on a continuous scale. Primary psychopaths are characterised by their manipulative, callous and unemotional personality traits and are thought to lack anxiety and guilt as a result of an emotional deficit. It has also been theorised that these attributes are inherent at birth so are likely a result of biological factors (Hicks, et al., 2012). Secondary psychopaths on the other hand are distinctly different in the way that they experience elevated levels of anxiety and seem to be more emotional despite being very hostile and aggressive people. It is thought that secondary psychopathy stems from an emotional disturbance such as childhood abuse or neglect, showing the impact of environmental factors (Glaser, 2013). Another distinguishable difference between these types of psychopaths is that primary psychopaths are found to be better at correctly identifying the emotions that others show compared to secondary psychopaths.

Although it should be known that not all psychopaths are criminals and not all criminals are psychopaths, psychopaths do make up a considerable proportion of prison populations in the United States. It has been found that on average, around 20% of male and females serving time in prison are psychopaths. Also, for over 50% of serious crimes committed, the people responsible are psychopaths.

The Nativist Approach (Nature)

The argument that criminal psychopathy has its true roots in biology has much supporting evidence.

One theory of the emergence of psychopathy is impaired and abnormal brain structures such as the amygdala which is responsible for fear-processing and emotional processing, and the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, social skills and moral reasoning and judgement as well as this, the prefrontal cortex is also vital for the ability to control impulsive, obsessive and antisocial behaviour (Fallon, 2014). This would explain many of the behaviours and characteristics that many psychopaths exhibit.

Studies using fMRI scans show that many psychopathic individuals display reduced amygdala functioning during aversive conditioning. The amygdala is also involved with fear responses triggered when people are told that a certain stimulus is associated with a negative shock, however, studies on psychopaths have found that those individuals display a reduced autonomic response to fear cues compared to the control group of individuals (Blair, 2008). This may demonstrate why many psychopaths do not fear being punished with the prospect of prison or capital punishment, as they do not respond normally to fear cues about stimuli (i.e. prison).

In a study conducted using MRI scans on 124 inmates who displayed significant psychopathic tendencies, it was found that individuals exhibiting these psychopathic traits were associated with greater volumes of grey matter in their prefrontal cortexes than normal, it was also found that in sub-regions of the prefrontal cortex such as the left middle frontal gyrus and right inferior frontal gyrus, there were greater amounts of connectivity (Dolan, 2017). These studies on the amygdala and prefrontal cortex show how psychopathic individuals exhibit abnormalities in brain structures that may be directly linked to antisocial behaviours that they display, therefore provide evidence for the role of nature in the emergence of psychopathy in an individual.

Heart rate may be another mechanism involved in the development of a psychopath. In a meta-analysis conducted by Adrian Raine and his colleagues involving a total of 5868 children, the relationship between heart rate and antisocial personality/behaviour was tested. A significant difference was found between the heart rates of antisocial children and non-antisocial children, with heart rates in the antisocial children being found to be much slower (Raine, 2014). Heart rate was also measured during a stressful period, such as waiting for a medical exam or counting down from 1000 in intervals of sevens. Although it was found that young males with higher heart rates were less antisocial than boys with lower heart rates, and the same discovered of young females, it was also found that boys on average have heart rates 6.1 beats slower than young females. This may explain why there are more male convicted criminal psychopaths than female convicted criminal psychopaths (Raine, 2014). Twin studies have also been conducted and have found that resting heart rate may be hereditary. It has been found that children of criminal parents often have low resting heart rates, which suggests that heart rate truly is a mechanism involved in the development of psychopathy, since it has also been shown that there is a hereditary factor in antisocial behaviour across generations.

There a few possible explanations for the link between a low resting heart rate and antisocial behaviour. The first explanation is the stimulation-seeking theory, a low resting heart rate will in turn produce a low state of arousal which forms a negative physiological state in the body. Therefore, those who behave antisocially are seeking to increase levels of stimulation as a result of unpleasant feelings of boredom and agitation. This is supported by the fact that during adolescent years when antisocial and stimulation-seeking behaviour is most frequent, resting heart rate is actually at its slowest in one’s life, which may explain why violent behaviour is at its highest during the late years of adolescence. The next explanation involves the attribute of empathy. It has been discovered that children with lower resting heart rates display less empathy and this may be due to the fact that they cannot relate themselves into the situations of others, so may be more aggressive due to the fact that they cannot empathise with the negative feelings of abuse and violence. This is backed up by the finding that children who are less empathetic display more antisocial behaviours and tend to be more aggressive. The final explanation is the fearlessness theory. A low heart rate has been said to represent a lack of fear, this is because it indicates that we are not experiencing a sympathetic response as a reaction of our innate fight-or-flight response because heart rate increases automatically when our fear factor kicks in (add reference). The threat of punishment such as incarceration would naturally scare most people, so the risk of this threat occurring as a result of antisocial behaviour and violence is usually enough to deter people from committing crimes such as murder. However, for those who experience a lack of fear due to a naturally slow heart rate, the threat of punishment does not discourage them from committing such crimes because they feel no fear nor anxiety at the thought of being punished (Raine, 2014). This is supported by research that shows “a low heart rate provides the underpinning for a fearless, uninhibited temperament in infancy and childhood.’’ 

Finally, the role of candidate genes such as MAOA seem to play a significant role in the development of psychopathy too.

The Empiricist Approach (Nurture)

Although there is much supporting evidence for the role of nature in the development of psychopathy, there is also research evidence to suggest that psychopathic behaviour emerges as a result of external social factors in one’s environment, predominantly during childhood. This evidence reflects the empiricist view of the debate which suggests the influence of nurture is more important than the role of nature in whether someone becomes a criminal psychopath. Early empiricists such as John Locke theorised that each child is born Tabula Rasa (as a ‘clean slate’) and that their development is entirely influenced by their environment and how it conditions them.

In 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon discovered that he was a psychopath after analysing a number of brain scans and realising that his own brain scan matched those that belonged to psychopathic murderers. His PET scan revealed reduced functioning in the orbital cortex and frontal lobe, areas of the brain implicated in moral reasoning and aggression, as discussed in Chapter 2. As well as this, it was found that he had the MAO-A variant gene, also known as the warrior gene which is suggested to be associated with psychopathy. It was also found that eight of his ancestors were potential murderers (Fallon, 2014). In his book, Fallon considers why he is not a violent offender even though all biological indicators would suggest a high similarity between psychopathic murderers and himself. He came to the conclusion that most of the violent psychopaths he had analysed had been abused during childhood, and he had not, suggesting that upbringing and environmental factors are likely to play a significant role in criminal psychopathy.

Studies have displayed that antisocial behaviour is associated with childhood abuse, as well as parental rejection and neglect.

Despite having the brain of a psychopath, didn’t become a violent offender, suggesting their upbringing had more to do with becoming a violent offender than his biology.

  • Prenatal drug use linked to serotonin, substance abuse in parents during childhood 
  • Poor parent bonding

Some research indicates how experiencing childhood abuse is a significant risk factor in the emergence of psychopathy in adults. The time in which this abuse occurs is also very important, as the earlier it occurs, the more likely antisocial personality traits will develop in adulthood (Capsi, 2002). For example, in a survey of 35 psychopathic offenders, it was revealed that 70% of the youth offenders had experienced severe maltreatment during their childhoods. James Fallon has argued that “Given that the onset of reliable memory for childhood events in adults may reach back to three to four years of age, this implied that a higher percentage of adult criminal psychopaths actually experienced significant abuse earlier than that. As such, it was possible that more than 90% of them were abused”.

  • Witnessing abuse

However, there is some contradicting research that suggests that childhood maltreatment may not be as significant in the development of psychopathy as some empiricists may have previously thought. In a study of 615 male offenders, it was found that although there was a positive correlation between child abuse and psychopathy, it was a weak one (Poythress, et al., 2006). Similarly, research has shown that childhood maltreatment increases the risk of the development of antisocial personality and violent offending by approximately 50%, yet most maltreated children do not become violent criminals, suggesting there must be alternative explanations for the cause(s) of psychopathy (Capsi, 2002). Robert D. Hare also addressed a flaw in the theory of childhood abuse causing psychopathy as him and his colleagues found that there was no evidence that the childhood backgrounds of psychopaths differed from any other criminals, and that most of them experienced some sort of maltreatment.

Interactionist Approach

However, the interaction between nature and nurture also presents an equally valid stance in the argument revolving around the causes of psychopathy. This approach follows the ‘Diathesis-Stress Model’.

The Diathesis-Stress Model in relation to psychopathy suggests that there must be a biological predisposition (‘diathesis’) and an environmental stressor (‘stress’) in order for a vulnerability to a personality disorder to occur.

An example of diathesis-stress is the theory that some individuals have a certain genetic disposition to personality and behavioural traits that can potentially be triggered by environmental stressors is popular amongst scientists and psychologists alike. Modifications to our DNA can affect the activity (expression) of our genes. Chemical compounds can be added to genes and thus regulate their activities. Although these chemical compounds have been attached to our DNA, they are not part of our DNA genome. Instead they comprise the components of our epigenome which affects the way our genes are expressed. The chemical compounds that modify our genes are called epigenetic changes. These epigenetic changes can determine whether a gene is expressed or not and can also be inherited by offspring.

Epigenetic changes may explain how genes and environment interact with one another to cause psychopathy (Fallon, 2014) as our epigenome is influenced by our environment. Environmental stimuli may add or remove chemical compounds such as acetyl or methyl groups to or from our genes (Fallon, 2014), and these epigenetic changes can in turn alter the functioning of these genes. Stress is one of the main environmental stimuli that can add these acetyl/methyl groups onto our DNA, this is because stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol which aids in the transferal of these chemical groups from different donor molecules onto specific genes. These epigenetic interactions between our genes and environment are relevant to the aetiology of psychopathy. For example, environmental stressors such as emotional or physical abuse as well as in-utero stressors like the use of alcohol/drugs during pregnancy can trigger these epigenetic changes in high risk candidate genes such as MAOA, and therefore completely change the way a person develops. The time of these epigenetic changes during a child’s development is critical, as the earlier they occur, the greater effect they have on how someone develops and what personality traits they will have as a consequence.

Caspi’s longitudinal study of over 1000 male children born in Christchurch, New Zealand, acts as supporting evidence for this theory of epigenetic interactions. He studied the degree of association between antisocial behaviour, childhood maltreatment and whether or not participants had the MAOA variant gene (warrior gene). Though the males who had experienced maltreatment and also had the warrior gene only made up 12% of the cohort, they accounted for 44% of the antisocial behaviour displayed from the overall cohort. it was found that 85% of the male cohort who had experienced severe mistreatment as a child as well as having the MAOA gene became antisocial.

This study is important because it shows the interaction between MAOA and childhood abuse in the creation of a psychopath and suggests that those two factors are significantly linked.


After considering the strengths and weaknesses of each argument in the nature vs nurture debate, it would seem that the most valid approach to take on the creation of offending psychopaths is that it is due to a mixture of biological and environmental factors present throughout an individual’s life, especially during childhood. This follows the concept of diathesis-stress model which takes into consideration a multitude of different factors in the context of a psychopath’s life and, is therefore a less reductionist and seemingly more reliable and holistic point of view. Although the arguments for the independent roles of nature and nurture in the development of a psychopath both had supporting empirical evidence, they also provided incomplete conclusions and ignored the risk of potential risk factors in the opposing perspective. It is worth noting that the diathesis-stress model would predict a high vulnerability to psychopathy, but this doesn’t mean that an individual who experiences high risk environmental factors (such as child abuse), as well as having a genetic predisposition (MAOA variant gene) will necessarily become a psychopath. This concept is less deterministic than the other two views of the argument which suggest that such biological/environmental.


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