What if you are more likely to be a psychopath?

By Razib Khan | May 18, 2012 12:47 am

In the comments below Nathaniel Comfort asks:

What I do, as a historian, is take something apparently simple and make it more complicated. I wonder about how your curves, e.g., would be applied in real life. *Specific* couples, *particular* children–individuals, cases, persons, context.

I’m asking things like:

-What would your hypothetical psychopathic lovebirds do with that information?

Comfort is referring to this figure I generated, which shows the potential distribution of outcomes for two individuals who tend toward more psychopathy than the general population. It seems to me that this question is easily answered if simply replace “psychopathy” with “odds for heart disease.” Endophenotypes aren’t magical, they’re just sometimes hard to characterize. But once you get a good grip on them you can make standard quantitative genetic predictions. One of the points I wasn’t clear about in the chart is that I assume that the “trait” being measured is the tendency toward psychopathy as measured by a paper & pencil test in one’s youth. This does not entail that an individual in fact behaves like a psychopath. Rather, it simply implies that they’re odds of behaving like a psychopath as an adult are highly elevated. I can’t find the link, but there was a story (which I blogged) a few years ago about a scientist who was studying the peculiarities of psychopath brain structure…and found out that he himself exhibited the same morphology typical of a psychopath. The point is that changing the odds or loading the die does not entail that an outcome is determined.

For example, imagine that you have a long family history of alcoholism. You marry another person with the same history. This sort of thing is heritable, and you’ve just loaded the die for your children. How can you try and compensate? I can think of one simple strategy: convert to a cohesive religious group which bans alcohol consumption, such as Mormons or Salafi Islam. The key here is that the social group is the environment. One can’t likely change that given any environment one’s children are more likely to be alcoholics, but the basal odds are shifted a great deal if you go from being a Catholic to a Mormon.

Also, as a new parent, one thing that I have realized is that behavior genetic understanding of human nature is very useful, it tells us that “attachment parenting” is pretty much crazy. Really more of costly signalling for upper middle class couples than anything else (though less crazy than the 18th century French middle class craze for country wet-nurses which resulted in incredibly high infant mortality rates). Being raised in a Romanian orphanage fucks you up. Your parents, not so much. The “nature vs. nurture” debates are going to continue indefinitely. But parents are will continue to matter less on a day to day level than they think in relation to the outcomes of their children. You can get to set the ground-rules, but there’s no way you will dictate the game.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Behavior Genetics
  • Andy Wood

    “I can’t find the link, but there was a story (which I blogged) a few years ago about a scientist who was studying the peculiarities of psychopath brain structure…and found out that he himself exhibited the same morphology typical of a psychopath.”

    Here’s one link:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014kj65

  • Dm

    It’s actually amazing how many parents try to foist religious beliefs on their children, while not being devoted themselves, for fear that the real outside world will otherwise corrupt the children. Premeditated teaching of fundamental falsehoods to the underage children is a form of child abuse IMHO. And it isn’t a risk-free approach to risk mitigation. For example, Utah is known for its extreme rate of teenage suicide (arguably because of the extreme magnitude of a clash between emerging desires vs. stark religious prohibitions vs. freedom of the outside world) as well as for its extreme rate of affinity fraud (where too many survivors would rather trust anything if it comes from a coreligionist)

    To truly mitigate heritable personality risks, one may need, instead, to understand that most heritable psychological traits are highly pleiotropic. Things like predisposition to alcoholism or predisposition to psychopathic criminality don’t come in clear-cut package in which just a lone trait would be affected, and no other traits would be genetically linked. The key is to recognize the plethora of linked traits, and to direct the development of the child towards the more beneficial traits of the pleiotropic spectrum. But just resorting to a forceful societal prohibition, instead of redirecting risk factors towards the positive, is bound to create many problems when the children grow up and even worse, once they break free.

  • juan

    @Dm

    I did some quick searching and looked over CDCs data on teen suicide by state. Data doesn’t seem to support your extreme claims. Do you have any evidence that does?

    Utah has a higher rate than the national avg, but so does the entire inter-mountain West (and Alaska). Utah (depending on the source) had the 10th-12th highest teen suicide rate by state, producing a total of 23 teen (15-19) suicides in 2007, and was one of the lowest in its region.

    Also the teen suicide rate seems to closely mirror the overall suicide rate with the inter-mountain West and Alaska having higher rates than the rest of the country.

    Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska all had higher teen suicide rates from 2000-2006 than Utah.

    The lowest rates were in the northeast and California.

    If anything, it would be easy to argue that Mormonism is helping Utah have a lower teen suicide rate than all of the surrounding states since all the states that border Utah have higher rates.

    That said, it seems likely the % Amer-Indian is a greater factor since the suicide rate among Amer-Indians is the highest of any ethnic group in America. Oklahoma has a higher teen suicide rate than the states it borders.

    There also seems to be a a trend of increasing suicide rate from south to north. Maine has the highest on the east coast (excluding West Virginia).

    Lack of sunlight, cold temperatures, mountainous terrain, and % of Amer-Indians all seem more correlated with a higher suicide rate than % mormon. I’m just eyeballing the map generated at CDC by my query for teen suicides from 2000-2006, though, I’m no expert on this issue.

    But Dm’s virulent claims against Mormonism in particular and religion in general struck me as implausible and 10 minutes of googling confirmed my suspicion.

  • Dm

    #3, sorry if I came across as bashing religion in general, or Mormonism specifically. Please don’t take offense. My comment was narrowly directed against those who aren’t themselves devoted believers, but who insist on pushing strict religious upbringing on their children “as a therapy”.

    While I don’t think that the potential side effects of strict religious upbringing have been thoroughly investigated, I’m sure that responsible parents should be wary of possible complications. It’s far too easy to choose a drastic “remedy” out of a misplaced confidence that “nothing bad would ever come out of it”. That’s why it is important to remind the readers that it’s commonly assumed that strict Mormon upbringing is associated with an increased rate of depression and suicide (even though the casual relation has not been proved).

    As to suicide rate stats, Utahns are being bombarded by public messages from suicide prevention groups (for example, Mormon child bedrooms are often painted in pink, yellow, or teal colors “to help with suicide prevention” on the advice of a Church psychologist) and it’s easy to end up with a feeling that youth suicide is the state’s #1 problem. But at a closer look, the problem is stark but more complex. Utah had the worst record in the nation in a *compound* depression metric which included suicide rate
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/695231614/Utah-leads-the-nation-in-rates-of-depression.html
    as well as in the “suicidal thoughts” metric (a number of other CDC metrics are also listed in this official state page below)
    http://health.utah.gov/vipp/suicide/index.html

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    just to be clear, i don’t agree with people who are not believers who give their children religious educations/upbringing for morals or socialization. but it’s a personal choice conditioned on personal variables. there are probably people out there who have amoral tendencies and are socially obtuse retards for whom cultural systems to inculcate values and enable friends are pretty important. i’ll be honest and admit a few times in the past few years i have suggested to people thinking of leaving religion that perhaps they should stay because they seemed to be mentally unstable losers, and i was kind of worried that they’d be able to stand on their own feet. it’s like maintaining the ecological balance of different populations of wildlife; you don’t care if birds and worms have the proper epistemology down.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “One of the points I wasn’t clear about in the chart is that I assume that the “trait” being measured is the tendency toward psychopathy as measured by a paper & pencil test in one’s youth. This does not entail that an individual in fact behaves like a psychopath. Rather, it simply implies that they’re odds of behaving like a psychopath as an adult are highly elevated. . . . The point is that changing the odds or loading the die does not entail that an outcome is determined.

    For example, imagine that you have a long family history of alcoholism. You marry another person with the same history. This sort of thing is heritable, and you’ve just loaded the die for your children. How can you try and compensate? I can think of one simple strategy: convert to a cohesive religious group which bans alcohol consumption, such as Mormons or Salafi Islam.”

    This sounds like something of a rosy understatement. Neurologists and geneticists may not understand the details of precisely what is going on, but a kid does end up with some particular genotype (and epigenome, and a few pathways for other hereditary or virtually hereditary perpetuation of traits), and that particular “broad genotype” causes specific biologicial and structural aspects of that kid to be distinct. Yes, there are ways to beat a particular Endophenotype. But, the notion that beating the usual way that a broad genotype manifests itself is nowhere near genuine success.

    A vulnerability to substance abuse (which incidentally, some studies have indicated is even more hereditary than strongly hereditary traits like a propensity towards psychosis) isn’t simply an alcohol specific vulnerability like Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite. This is just the way that a pervasive behaviorial predisposition manifests in normal people who aren’t observant Mormons or Muslims (or Quakers, as I learned the hard way from an old girlfriend).

    The odds are very good that the behavioral predisposition that usually leads to alcoholism will lead to some other quite undesirable result if that particular means of manifestation is suppressed.

    The researcher who diagnosed himself with psychopathy? Maybe he really was a rotten evil bastard and managed to manipulate the PR so that didn’t get out. Or, maybe he was just wrong about the brain structures that are really at fault. The anecdote isn’t very convincing as a basis for forming a belief that cause doesn’t usually lead to effect unless your lucky enough to not get the cause.

    Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be more careful about inserting alchol into the life of children of alcholics. Indeed, one of the virtues of having kids raised by their own biological families is that increased likelihood somebody has experienced what the kid is going through and knows better than a random person how to deal with it in a functional way.

    But, unlike substance abuse, whose very name suggests at least a strategy for addressing it envrionmentally, there are lots of dragons out there that we simply don’t know how to slay or even slow down. Lots of the time if your kid has autism or Down’s syndrome or a propensity for callous-unemotional trait and conduct disorder, you will conclude if you really get right down to the heart of the matter, that even immense amounts of parental effort using state of the art research have only an incremental effect that is likely to dissipate without constant parent/guardian supervision that usually falls apart in adulthood. People go pulling their hair out to professionals and pay big bucks for fancy camps trying completely unproven hypotheses for solutions because sometimes, even parents who have have family members who have experienced something similar have no clue what can be done. This is hard enough when the problems are basically physical like a young cousin of mine who has congenital GI and other physical problems. But, when it goes to an issue like emotional affect, compartementalizing the issue and who your child is, is just too much.

    While every kid deserves sincere and significant parental effort to get them on the right track, a certain amount of serenity prayer logic that acknowledges that your psychopathic 9 year old is always going to have severe issues and that are the limits to what you can do about it, is necessary for sanity. Beating genes with intentional manipulation of the environment is the exception and not the norm and probably will continue to be for the foreseeable future most of the time.

    For example, one of the things I do as a lawyer is prepare estate plans. Neck and neck with bad marriages and substance abuse and developmental disabilities as reasons that people need protective trusts for their children rather than outright inheritances are bipolar disorder and schizoprenia. I have yet to see a case where those parents have left any stone unturned or tried to use anything but good faith in their parenting decisions. But, try as they might, the problems happen anyway. A good share of those potential heirs predecease their parents. Unemphasizing the gene x environment aspect of the endophenotype to genotype relationship, while not actually wrong, very frequently misses what is important about that kind of parenting situation.

  • Justin Giancola

    “it’s like maintaining the ecological balance of different populations of wildlife; you don’t care if birds and worms have the proper epistemology down.”

    wow razib, I hope this is not peering into your thinking process…on a topic of psychopaths no less! ;p

  • Fustbariclation

    Your genetic analysis is, of course, sound. The problem is your psychological analysis. Somebody doesn’t ‘behave like a psychopath’ – they are a psychopath.

    Psychopathy has been described as ‘moral blindness’. It is an inability to read emotions in other people. So a psychopath has to learn to act, to pretend to emotions – there is no option, because they can’t read them. They can’t empathise with other people, so, naturally, they are likely to be more self-interested and have less of a conscience than others.

    It’s like colour blindness. You can do what you like about the environment, but a colour-blind person won’t suddenly be able to distinguish red from green (if they are red-green colourblind). So a psychopath cannot empathise, no matter what his upbringing is.

    It doesn’t mean that psychopaths are bad people, necessarily. It just means that a sane society will prefer not to have them holding political office or other positions of power because they are dangerous.

    Stupid psychopaths are less of a problem than clever ones – they’re the ones that you hear about because they end up in prison.

  • Lauranne

    For the most part I agree with what I take to be the central point of this post- that parents whose children have a genetic risk for specific psychological problems can attempt to ameliorate the influence of genetic factors by providing a compensatory environment, but that in the final analysis they should let themselves off the hook some too, since their influence will probably be smaller than they might imagine.

    But as someone whose circumstances have unfortunately been such that I’ve ended up being forced to think about this issue on a practical level, over and over and over for years on end, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the specifics.

    My husband and I are pretty much a textbook example of the “geeks in love” theory of autism transmission. He’s a not-terribly-social-almost-autistic geek; I’m a not-terribly-social-probably-autistic geek; together we produced a wonderful but obviously autistic son.

    It’s clear our son’s autism is largely (if not completely) due to genetic factors and also clear that he now has and will continue in the future to have a tough row to hoe in a variety of ways. We do what we can to compensate for his bad genetic hand of cards, but we’re also aware that he is who he is and we’ll never be able to turn him into someone whose genes would have combined into a totally different person.

    So here’s the major specific I wanted to add. As a parent of a kid with obvious neuropsychiatric issues, eventually almost everyone you interact with in any significant way ends up telling you that you should a) be doing more, b) be doing less, or c) both. And over time, it gets to be a huge burden. It’s exhausting hearing over and over how wrong you are and how everything would be so much better if you’d just do X other thing or not do Y thing that you’re doing.

    The truth is, we don’t really know what to do about a lot of major neuropsychiatric problems- it’s a crap shoot, and each family makes the best decisions they can given the imperfect state of scientific knowledge and their own individual circumstances. And the hardest thing about the intervention crap shoot is that not only is there no way to know if the interventions you’re picking now will work, there won’t even be any way in the future to look back and know for sure “this worked, that didn’t” etc.

    What’s so hard in particular about that last piece, the not-knowing-in-the-future part, is that now, in the present, you already know that if your child ends up with a bad outcome, you won’t be able to know whether or not it was (partially) because of something you didn’t do. You won’t know that one of the 50 million interventions you opted not to try wouldn’t have been the one that tilted the scale to a more positive endpoint. No matter how often or how resolutely people tell you that your childrearing isn’t going to be the determining factor in your child’s individual outcomes, the truth is, no one knows, or on a case-by-case basis, will ever be able to know. And that causes enormous pressure to give to the absolute limit of your ability and sometimes even past it.

    So given all that, I was hoping I could ask you to rethink your “crazy, costly status-signalling” theory of attachment parenting, and especially to rethink how you talk about it. Perhaps it really is pointless status-signalling for some parents. But at least in the community of parents with special-needs kids, attachment-style, high-investment parenting is usually an attempt, in the face of obviously long odds against clear success, to provide compensatory supports for a child’s innate neuropsychological deficits.

    Yeah, it may look crazily and needlessly difficult from the outside. But from the inside, in a situation in which the results of your efforts will always be unmeasurable and the outcome is very likely to be less good than you might ideally wish, there’s a lot to be said for the rationality of giving one’s all. At the very least, at the end of the day, you won’t have to live with the thought that had you done more, your child’s life might be significantly better. In the middle, most-likely range of outcomes, all that crazy effort may result in improvements in outcome, whether or not you are ever able to know which improvements or how many or to what degree. And at best, your child’s life may be dramatically improved by your hard work, and what parent doesn’t want that?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    So given all that, I was hoping I could ask you to rethink your “crazy, costly status-signalling” theory of attachment parenting, and especially to rethink how you talk about it. Perhaps it really is pointless status-signalling for some parents. But at least in the community of parents with special-needs kids, attachment-style, high-investment parenting is usually an attempt, in the face of obviously long odds against clear success, to provide compensatory supports for a child’s innate neuropsychological deficits.

    it is for *most* parents. thankfully most children do not have special needs, though obviously all parents think their own children are special. obviously your case is different. best of luck with everything!

  • Dm

    BTW the attraction between potential mates who share related traits may have been selected for in the evolution, specifically to increase the odds of bearing offspring with the trait magnitude scoring outside of the normal variation. If many of the complex traits are highly polygenic, it would otherwise be harder to get the predisposing alleles to meet together.

    And since most of the complex traits are pleiotropic, the outcomes of mate-similarity selection aren’t typically going to be unambiguously deleterious. Some children may have ended up handicapped, some gifted, and of course some unaffected, with the historically high birth rates sorting things out.

    It is in our modern times of small families that the odds with the children begin to take shape of inevitabilities.

  • Lauranne

    > it is for *most* parents… best of luck with everything!

    Thank you for your kindness in my individual case. I appreciate it and don’t mean to be difficult (which usually signals a “…BUT” coming up, lol)

    …BUT, what I meant (and probably didn’t explain well) was, unless you know “most parents” well enough to have a complex grasp of their individual circumstances or unless you have very solid, nuanced research data, you don’t actually know enough to make an informed judgement on the issue, especially in a format that implies the judgement is scientific in nature.

    A behavioral genetics perspective on human nature doesn’t mean that attachment parenting is crazy or signaling behavior or that parenting behaviors have no impact on child outcomes unless they’re grossly outside the norm. Those claims are all way too broad to make with the data available.

    And overbroad, negative claims about parenting behaviors hurt a large community of families who are in difficult circumstances and who hear those same negative generalizations over and over, are expected to make real world decisions based on them, and eventually get incredibly sick of them.

    Although it’s technically true that “most” children don’t have special needs, the percentage of kids with special health care needs generally hovers somewhere between 10-20%, and that’s a lot of families who have to wade through an over-promising, under-delivering system of supposedly scientific claims about pieces of their circumstances that often turn out to be ill-advised or just plain wrong. I know you didn’t *mean* us- you meant all those crazy parents who practice a certain kind of parenting because it’s the in thing or because they want to appear perfect or whatever the current stereotype is. But my point is; that’s a stereotype, not the reality for many families.

    All I’m asking is please be careful with negative value judgements in the context of complex neuropsychiatric topics. It doesn’t hurt to say “we don’t know”. What to do if your kid has the predisposition to psychopathy? You might try X, Y, Z, but honestly, we don’t really know. Will an intensive parenting style help your child with a predisposition to empathy-related deficits? Maybe, maybe not- we don’t know.

  • Violet

    @Lauranne, best of luck with everything.

    My sister’s son is diagnosed being on Autism Spectrum. My son is 6 months younger than him, and my sister is married to my husband’s brother. We are all close in age. It is clear that my child shares a lot of genetic and environmental factors with his cousin.

    Even though my son turned out not to be a special needs child, there was a lot of parental anxiety not knowing which outcome we had. We still have behavioural challenges but I have less anxiety.

    I share the concept of what you are getting at. At one point, I might have looked like I was crazy attachment parenting, even if I had a better grasp of odds for my child and the uncertainty of various influencing factors.

    This reminds me the optimization problem in engineering. After the sensitivity analysis, one would know the importance ranking of all the factors, but the optimization would depend on the sensitivity to ‘controllable’ factors. Even if they rank much lower than others, they are all we have got to tweak.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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