An evil disposition

By Razib Khan | September 12, 2012 2:14 am

The thread below on the possibility of pedophilia being a biologically mediated tendency rapidly degenerated, to no one’s surprise. As I didn’t have the time to engage in strict moderation I had to close it. And I don’t want to reopen that particular topic. Rather, I want to focus on the issue of psychopathy exhibiting some genetic disposition.

I want to assert immediately that I’m not positing that you’re born a psychopath like you’re born with red hair. Rather, psychopathy is a set of traits whose upstream causes can be both genetic and non-genetic. In fact some cases of psychopathic behavior seems to be rooted in extreme social and psychological deprivation (e.g., orphanages in underdeveloped countries). Interestingly, this may be a case where the environmental input reshapes the developing brain, so that even though the individual may lack a genetic predisposition toward a particular psychology, they may now be biological oriented toward all the traits associated with psychopathy because of the nature of their neurological development.

Going to the model where some people exhibit a genetic disposition toward psychopathy, there are two dichotomous models I’d like to outline. First, there is a model where psychopathy is a deviation from the “wild type.” Basically, a genetic “mistake.”  This is my own suspicion. Psychopaths may have a higher mutational load, for example. If the tendency runs through families it may simply be that the family has more mutations than in the norm in the human population. This model has some analogy to the case of environmental perturbations. Psychopathy might be a “born that way” trait, but it is a deviation from the ideal state for an individual as any disease might be.

But there’s another model. Here’s the Wikipedia definition of psychopathy:

 

…a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, nonplanfulness, impulsivity, and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality. There is no consensus about the symptom criteria and there are ongoing debates regarding issues such as essential features, causes, and the possibility of treatment.

What if psychopathy is not a “mistake” or deviation, but simply another morph or behavioral strategy within the human population? At low frequencies psychopaths may have relatively high fitness, because they can easily deceive and manipulate normal humans. As they increase in frequency the general population will begin to exhibit suspicion of others, and the psychopathic advantages will rapidly diminish. A population with too many psychopaths would probably not function, as everyone tries to screw everyone else over.

The point here is that in this second model psychopathy is not really a mental disease…but another way to be human. Part of human “neurodiversity,” so to speak. Psychopaths basically are our “evil twins”. Their moral universe is radically different, and that’s a feature for them, not a bug.

Does any of this matter in terms of how we relate to or treat psychopaths? Personally, I don’t think so. But all this should make us reflect on the power, or lack thereof, of the “born that way” rationale. Whether psychopathy is purely environmental, or genetic, or developmental stochasticity, it is not good. Of course in the last sentence I speak as a normal human.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
  • RedZenGenoist

    “What if psychopathy is not a “mistake” or deviation, but simply another morph or behavioral strategy within the human population? ”

    I fail to see any distinction.

    In a genetic community which for a long time has survived by predating on others, such as gypsies, it would be odd if traits which make predation more efficient were not in elevated frequency, no? If this originates in the “deviation” of the brain, then the “deviation” becomes “normal” in the group, if it’s selected for long enough.

  • http://jaymans.wordpress.com/ JayMan

    ” But all this should make us reflect on the power, or lack thereof, of the “born that way” rationale. “

    Good luck. Most people simply cannot wrap their brains around this concept. I would actually take it a step further, in that we are all “made that way”, and it really doesn’t matter how. Be it by genetics, by pre-natal environmental forces, or by post-natal environmental forces, none of us have any control of how we ended up the way we are. In other words, free will does not exist.

    The real issue of import, and I think the one that’s key in our understanding of morality and culpability is how changeable is behavior? In particular, how well can we expect offenders to respond to the deterrents presented by criminal justice? I think the evidence is converging on the notion that people vary a great deal in this ability. Hence, we should mold our legal system not on archaic ideas like “intent”, but on how to achieve the results we want. Of course, I don’t really expect this to happen, as it would require people to accept and understand the non-existence of free will and the actual roots of human behavior, and even most smart people are incapable of understanding this (because they can’t help moralizing—ironically itself explained by the non-existence of free will).

  • Jason Malloy

    Psychopathy looks a whole lot like the far end of the sociopathy bell curve. I doubt there is much more to it.

    I’m not sure why mutational load would result in clustered tendencies like narcissism, selfishness, dishonesty, risk-taking, fearlessness, sadism, and superficial charm, but I can think of sociobiological reasons for these traits to cluster.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I’ve often argued with friends that although the criminal justice system is often seen as about justice or retribution, it is really about protecting the public, and thus a recognition of “natural psychopathy” should be included.

    If prison were really about justice, or retribution, consider the case of a young multimillionaire who commits a violent crime. Which is the greater punishment for him – ten years in prison, or taking his entire fortune away? Although it’s impossible to know internal states, I would presume for most the latter, as their fortune can be managed in their absence, and they can pick off again (unlike most of us) right where they left off. We lock him up because he is a danger to others, not to punish him.

    Similarly, I think we should distinguish between the crimes that neurotypical people commit and those that psychopaths commit, because the level of danger is different. This is one reason I think rape should be punished more heavily than murder. Neurotypical people can commit murder for singular reasons, including being blackmailed or being caught up in the heat of rage. They can be “redeemed,” and there is no reason to believe they will always be a danger to others. In contrast, there is no justifying scenario for rape, and in a modern western society (e.g., one which respects women and where rampages don’t happen) it’s impossible to see how a non-psychopath could commit violent rape. I do not believe a rapist (excluding idiots like those in the recent reddit thread who didn’t look at a woman’s face and date raped) can actually feel remorse for their action. At best fear could possibly stop them from committing a crime again. Hence my belief that violent rapists ought to get life in prison, but murderers should be allowed parole.

    Rape is actually apropos to your point, because sociobiologists have argued that rape could have been a valid historical reproductive strategy by some men (presumably psychopaths) in the past, and yet (despite what idiot leftists said) they in no way said that this excused the act of rape. Something can be both natural and wrong, clearly.

    While I think differential treatment of psychopaths compared to non-psychopaths is not a huge jump for our legal system, a more difficult question is what do we do with “law abiding psychopaths?” Generally speaking, if they are high intelligence they will probably not become serial killers, but their penchant to lie and cheat (and do illegal things when they know they won’t get caught) with no remorse can bring the most talented among them great gain at the expense of others, especially in the realm of politics and business. Would it be just for us to lock them up before they commit a crime if we could identify them? If not, what about socially isolating them, limiting their ability to advance into powerful positions, or even merely making their status public so that people know not to trust them? It’s a thorny issue to consider.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    “Of course in the last sentence I speak as a normal human.”

    So say we all.

  • Bobby LaVesh

    @3 Karl:

    I think both of those crimes could be “in-the-passion” or due to a psychological problem. The majority of rapists arn’t Jack-the-ripper; they’re likely everyday boyfriends and husbands; familiars to the victim who take advantage of a situation with heat-of-passion… and often are never caught or even punnished.

    If someone is capable of “snapping” and commiting a murder or a rape- can we ever be sure they are rehabilitated and won’t snap again in the future?

    Regarding the legal system- I’ve always found the claim “not guilty by reason of insanity” a bad one. It should be “guilty mitigated by insanity”.

    Not- to suggest that mentally handicapped people should be thrown in jail- just to acknowledge that they did indeed commit a crime and could be dangerous to society- even if it was beyond their understanding what they did.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > What if psychopathy is not a “mistake” or deviation, but simply another morph or behavioral strategy within the human population? At low frequencies psychopaths may have relatively high fitness, because they can easily deceive and manipulate normal humans. As they increase in frequency the general population will begin to exhibit suspicion of others, and the psychopathic advantages will rapidly diminish. A population with too many psychopaths would probably not function, as everyone tries to screw everyone else over.

    Indeed, the lifehistory theory of psychopathy. I was reading the _Handbook_ recently, and some of the authors discussed it. There doesn’t seem to be too much direct evidence for it other than the moderate hereditability of psychopathy and the interesting factoid about them targeting adult women for rape.

  • Hermenauta

    “The point here is that in this second model psychopathy is not really a mental disease…but another way to be human. Part of human “neurodiversity,” so to speak. Psychopaths basically are our “evil twins”. Their moral universe is radically different, and that’s a feature for them, not a bug.”

    Razib, in a deep darwinian sense I really can´t see the difference between the two approaches, other than the satisfaction of the human desire for “purpose”, unless you´re stating that these two approaches would end up predicting very different “genetic structures”.

    As far as I know, the second approach would be the first one, only seen as an “exaptation”, no?

  • E.M.

    Maybe psychopathy results from the relative inability to see other people as “real people, just like me”. Lack of guilt would result directly. This would be consistent with the observation that severely socially deprived children (such as in certain Eastern European orphanages) are at a high risk of sociopathy: they weren’t exposed to others during a critical developmental period and will never understand that others are “like” them. Shallow emotions might correlate with sociopathy simply because it is presumably through the affective mirror neuron system that we understand others, and shallow emotions would be make it even harder to perceive emotions in others. Furthermore I believe that orbito-frontal regions like the anterior cingulate are involved in the perception of bodily and emotional state (of self and others), and also in impulse control.

  • Emma

    My feeling is that your first model is the right one and that psychopathy is a genetic mistake.

    A classical argument for the other model, that it is adaptative, is presented in the paper linked by Jason malloy : “However, the persistence of these traits over time (Foster, Campbell,
    & Twenge, 2003) and across various societies, as well as linkages to positive traits,
    suggests that the Dark Triad [Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy] can be advantageous in some ways”. I have seen similar argumentation to explain that skyzophrenia or autism might be adaptative but I think that the argument is valid only if these conditions are determined by one or a few genes, which is not the case.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    5 -

    I disagree that the majority of rapists are psychologically normal. Some date rapists perhaps, because many are (as the recent notorious reddit thread shows) such dumb-asses they do not realize that the woman isn’t consenting, or consent when someone is intoxicated doesn’t really count. The other exceptions are where the social nature of humans causes our decision-making abilities to vanish – rampages in wartime, and those peer pressured into gang rape. These are vanishingly rare in modern western culture however.

    Stranger rape, or violent rape, is a different issue, because it requires you to totally dehumanize the victim. In terms of observing the physical suffering, it’s less akin to shooting someone than to torturing them. Notice I said torture – not assault, because rapists typically are not enraged, but in a calm predatory “seeking” mindset when they rape.

    In contrast, there are two big motivations for murder which are very different from rape. One is anger. People may get so angry when their find out their wife is having an affair they kill them, but generally speaking, they don’t get so angry they feel compelled to rape either their wife or their partner. Anger does seem to increase arousal levels to a certain degree, but it also tends to depress the mental desire for sex, so the relation between the two is unclear. The other is fear. Lots of murders happen due to fear – fear of blackmail, fear of jail time, fear of further violence being unleashed upon you. The idea of a rape based upon fear is ridiculous, because anxiety is the ultimate boner-killer.

    Regardless, I do not think that if you take a human life you’ve crossed some ineffable line, except perhaps in your own head. We have legally sanctioned killers in our society after all, cops and soldiers foremost among them. These things obviously need to be judged on a case-by-case basis, but there are plenty of murders which were done for a singular reason, understandable (if not forgivable), where someone who has served a reasonably long penalty should be able to go back to society.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #10, re: “rape,” the issue is ingroup vs. outgroup. people who regularly rape “ingroup” members are deviant. unfortunately, the rape of outgroup members is not atypical across human history. e.g., the rape of ethnic scandinavian women in scandinavia by men of middle eastern or pakistani origin isn’t a sign of mental illness of the individuals, but the dehumanization of ‘loose’ outgroup women by these men and their subculture. if the stats are right about half or more rapes in norway and sweden are committed by these men. so using those categories, most rape is then by mental normals….

  • Anthony

    Karl – the standard argument that murder (especially premeditated) should be treated more harshly than any other crime is that doing otherwise creates an incentive for other predators (rapists, pedophiles, etc) to kill their victims, since the punishment won’t be any worse, and a conviction will be harder to obtain if the witness is dead.

    In the case of the law-abiding psychopath, I think we, as a society, should let well enough alone until a crime is committed. Aside from the morality of the question, it’s also a matter of incentives – if one is going to be locked up for being a psychopath regardless, one might as well commit some satisfying crime first. For that matter, I generally oppose examination of the mental state of an offender beyond the question of intent – our knowledge of psychiatric treatment is defective enough to not warrant additional compulsion beyond that which would apply to the sane, and criminalizing particular motives more than others is effectively criminalizing opinions. Of course, examination of motive can be important in establishing whether a person actually committed the crime, and to establish intent.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Razib -

    I am aware that in other circumstances, neurotypical people rape (or engage in blood feuds for that matter). It’s why I added the “vanishingly rare in modern western culture” caveat – immigrants from countries where rape of outsiders is considered “normal” are not products of modern western culture.

    Perhaps the real issue with sociopaths/psychopaths is not so much that they have the ability to break particular boundaries the rest of us do not, but they simply don’t pick up on the emotional signals to conform to group morality. I would not be surprised in a “vengeance culture” if most psychopaths would be unmoved to avenge the deflowering of their sister unless they saw some for of personal gain was possible.

  • Anthony

    Razib – I’m not even sure the matter is entirely in-group vs out-group. There’s been plenty of coercive behavior to obtain sex which stops short of physical assault, even within homogenous societies. The classic case of this is the wealthy/powerful man sleeping with the “help” – in a low-opportunity society, the unspoken threat of losing a comfortable job can be enough to obtain sexual consent.

    I’d not be surprised if this is *more* common in societies where most servants are ethnically different than the servant-employing class, but it still happens in societies where the servants are the same ethnicity (and religion, and language) as the wealthy.

    Or does wealthy vs poor create enough of an in-group/out-group dynamic even when all else is equal?

  • Grey

    I think this shows the basic culturally evolved wisdom of the earlier version of the traditional criminal justice system (in countries that could afford lots of prisons). If you lock people up for lengths of time proportional to the harm of the crime and increase it with multiple offences you’re effectively filtering the population’s reproduction time on the basis of harmful behaviors. Over time this has an effect in proportion to the genetic component – high imo – but at the same time it allows for those people on the cusp to step over the line and then back in again – so slow flexible eugenics based on actual behavior not pre-judgement because the thing is, for example, although violent traits might seem to be an entirely bad thing, people with violent traits *alongside* other traits that control it are the people most likely to drag you out of a burning building.

    The big problem with the thing that shall not be named and why people get so (rightly imo) hysterical about it is the average sentencing doesn’t remotely fit the harm of the crime i guess because up till 30-ish years ago it was almost universally covered up.

    Three strikes and you’re out for that == awesomeness.

    (This is also why the idea of conjugal visits in prison is the single mst stupid thing ever.)

  • Grey

    “Rape is actually apropos to your point, because sociobiologists have argued that rape could have been a valid historical reproductive strategy by some men (presumably psychopaths) in the past”

    I wouldn’t suggest anyone actually do this because it is pretty unpleasant to say the least but if you read up on the Congo and places nearby e.g.

    http://www.vice.com/the-vice-guide-to-travel/the-vice-guide-to-liberia-1

    you’ll find both
    a) a very casual attitude to rape among a lot of the men (a large minority would be my guess as you can’t have any kind of society at all if there are too many)
    and
    b) lots of women with *3+ children* from multiple rapes.

    I think rape is an r-type behavior that gradually becomes abnormal if a population becames more K-type.

    (modified by men along the r/K spectrum behaving in a more r-type way with out-groups? this might actually fit elite behavior within a culture as well?)

  • http://econstudentlog.wordpress.com US

    @Karl

    The numbers I know about (from Denmark, things may be different in the US) make it clear that “stranger rape, or violent rape” are a minority of all rapes. In Denmark much more than half (64%) of all rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. About 1 in 6 rapes (17%) are committed by the partner.

    (Source: This (Danish) report about rapes in Denmark by the Danish Crime Prevention Council:)

    http://www.dkr.dk/sites/default/files/Voldtaegt-del-VI-vej-gen-retssys.pdf

    It may also be noteworthy in relation to your discussion that a significant proportion of the violent rapes committed by someone the female does not know are committed by more than one perpetrator; in Denmark, 17% of all rapes of this type committed by people with a Danish citizenship (far from all of these were ethnic Danes) had more than one perpetrator. The corresponding proportion for non-Danish citizens was 39%.

    http://www.dkr.dk/sites/default/files/Voldtaegt-del-III-udvikling.pdf
    (page 96)

    @Razib:

    “if the stats are right about half or more rapes in norway and sweden are committed by these men”

    Danish estimates, to the extent that they exist, are similar. This is a quote from the report I link to above (also a CPC-publication), discussing the rapes committed in Denmark by males the female doesn’t know (page 79):

    “Der er i 2000-02-undersøgelsen søgt oplysninger om etnicitet, såvel for de sigtede som i eventuelle signalementer i de uopklarede sager. Oplysningerne er imidlertid ret usikre, og der er mange helt uoplyste på dette punkt. Det kan dog med sikkerhed siges, at flertallet af de sigtede ikke har en nordeuropæisk etnicitet.”

    It’s awful Danish so I won’t try to translate it directly, but basically they tried to establish the ethnicity of the perpetrators – both the ones that were charged and the ones that got away. The last sentence translates to something like this: ‘It can however be said with certainty that the majority of the males charged [for these types of rapes] are not ethnic Northern European.’

  • BDoyle

    Put me down as a vote for psychopathy as being most often normal variation, as opposed to either genetic mistake or adaptation. I think most people would agree that complex behaviors are the result of multiple genes interacting with each other and the environment. I think you cannot assume that these interactions are all linear and additive, or even that the primary function of all these genes is to regulate behavior. Roll all of these dice, and some people will end up on the tail end of the distribution. Because of the multiple functions and non-linearity, there might not be a selection pressure against a variation that occasionally is detrimental.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    12 -

    An easy way around the “pscyhopath calculation” is to have different sentencing for aggravated murder (murder coupled with torture, rape, or molestation for example), and regular old murder. Nonetheless, you may have it right that if you had life imprisonment for rape, an additional charge wouldn’t mean much.

    14 -

    In the scenario you mention (a rich man using power to make a poor employee sleep with him), there is both the psychopath rationale (will to power and dehumanization), and the self-deluding, neurotypical one (assuming the woman is “secretly attracted” – telling yourself you’re “doing her a favor” etc.

    15 -

    I’m sorry, but what you’re saying has no basis in reality. The oldest traditional criminal justice method execution or no penalty at all, given prison wasn’t really feasible. Even up until a few centuries ago, the death penalty was given for an astounding number of crimes, and we of course jailed people for being debtors. Plus prison conditions themselves were so awful you’d be liable to be dead if you were there for any period of time whatsoever. And of course the actual imposition of justice should be presumed to have been, overall, more arbitrary in the past – not only due to corruption, but because police were a late social invention, actual investigation was often left to rank amateurs, and there was a lot you could get away with if you were lucky enough to not pick a wealthy victim.

    That said, I do wonder if the criminal justice system in general was part of the reason why the upper classes tended to outbreed the poor by such a wide margin in the early modern era. If a significant proportion of the working class is always either arbitrarily executed for petty crimes, or imprisoned in conditions so bad they tend to die of starvation or disease, there will be a significant drag on underclass viability.

    16 -

    Rape is common in less developed societies, and particularly in places with civil conflicts where it is still seen as a “just claim in war.” I think a major portion of this has to do with the process that Stephen Pinker refers to as “Rampage” – how a winning side in a battle often engages in the most savage acts of brutality imaginable once the fear of battle is gone and victory is certain.

    17 -

    Although this is a very politically incorrect thing to say, date rape is not the same as stranger rape. Although it can leave very deep mental impacts on the victim (although arguably not as deep – I read a letter to Dan Savage by a woman who was date raped, and then really raped, and she decided after that that she was not, in fact, raped the first time), the psychology of the criminal is different. Date rapists can easily self-delude, saying “sure she doesn’t want it this time, but she’ll enjoy it once we get into it” or “she just needs some alcohol to let loose, but I’m sure she’d have sex with me anyway.” Again, the recent Reddit thread where rapists spoke out was interesting, because while there were a few sociopaths, most of them were just idiots who didn’t listen to the women because they were so turned on, felt guilty afterwards, and still ask themselves “how can I be a rapist, I am a good person?”

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “Whether psychopathy is purely environmental, or genetic, or developmental stochasticity, it is not good.”

    * The usual argument for psychopathy being good, some of the time, is essentially a desperate times call for desperate measures one, and is basically a balancing selection model that extends to the stable diversity of personality types in general, even if the proportions may vary from one population to the next. Psychopathy may provide community level selection advantages even though at an individual interaction level they are bad people to be around. Call this the selfish “evil tyrant model” who saves his community merely to benefit himself (something close is a fundamental axiom of economics).

    The theory goes that if a population has a handful of psychopaths, and at select moments in history, that community needs to take ruthless measures to survive even if they may require sustained, immoral conduct, then the psychopath can step up and make the difference between the community surviving and its obliteration. Maybe the only way the community can win a war is with treachery or war crimes; maybe the only way the community can survive is to cold heartedly abandon sick people with infectious diseases, or to offer up an innocent tribute to a neighbor with superior military capabilities, or access a secret by selling out a faithful spy, or conducing unethical experiments, or making Sophie’s Choice decisions, ordering a nuclear bomb to be dropped to end a war, or cynically talking someone into conducting a suicide mission.

    In support of the evil tyrant model of fitness enhancement from low frequencies of psychopaths in a community, there are a number of studies in psychology that show that the affluent have less regard for traffic rules, and that “better adjusted” more successful people are better at lying than their more plebian peers. Evil tyrants may be just extreme manifestations of traits that have social value in less intense doses (just as being tall can be fitness enhancing for men, but being too tall can be a problem).

    If the inheritance pattern for psychopathy is not a simple one (and this appears to be the case from what I have read – it seems as if subcomponents floating around the gene pool and causing very different conditions in close relatives must combine just so in a child born with a propensity for it) absent extreme “corruption of blood” type exterminations of whole extended families, it can’t just be stamped out of the gene pool even if the community tries hard to do so. In normal times, the psychopaths are locked up and punished; in exceptional times they manage to bubble to the top.

    * Another very different model of the evolutionary value of psychopathy also involves an impact on community level fitness, but in the context of a “predator-prey model.”

    Any naturalist or ecologist will tell you that importance of predators to an ecosystem. They cull the less fit members of the community and thereby enhance the fitness of the community on average. Indeed, predators in a sense manage the prey in a way that enhances the well being of both. In this model, a low frequency of psychopaths in a species with no meaningful animal predators have fitness value for the community by culling the gullible and those on the fringe who burden society. This is something of a conception of psychopaths as the ecological equivalent of vampires.

    * Note that in the case of preying in the gullible the fitness enhancement may be memetic rather than genetic. One can imagine this kind of memetic role as a “vaccination theory” of psychopathy.

    In a world where people are extremely truthful and trusting of each other, the potential for a massive collapse of society undone by a fraud made possible by insufficient skepticism, perhaps initated by outsiders develops (you see of lot of this, for example, in Utah where people use trust based on a common Mormon faith to facilitate big cons, and in tight knit immigrant communities where Old Country ties are used to the same effect). A low level steady level of psychopaths who abuse this trust maintains the skepticism, due diligence and anti-fraud controls in place in the communities necessary to prevent it from becoming vulnerable to a true disaster while being rare enough not to unduly undermine the fitness of the community.

    * It is also worth observing that from an individual level fitness perspective psychopaths are horribly unfit most of the time. We usually think about psychopaths as victimizers rather than victims, but according to a wide variety a success outcomes (e.g. likelihood of going to prison, being fired from your job, etc.) psychopaths have very poor outcomes. Bullies and people who are bullied are very often one and the same at different points in life. In ordinary times, society retaliates very intensely against psychopathic behavior. In the never ending war between evil psychopaths and communities of normal people with scruples, in anything but desperate times when the community’s collective effectiveness is deeply impaired, psychopaths overwhelmingly lose and lose big. If one wants an explanation for this as a persistent stable low frequency contribution to neurodiversity that evolution encourages at that level, then you need a community level fitness explanation rather than an individual level fitness explanation most of the time.

    * One particular important point about psychopathy from a social policy perspective is that this appears to be a very early onset condition. Almost all adult psychopaths, the literature claims, were showing symptoms by the time that they were in kindergarten.

    They may manage to hide it from most people, but evil adults were almost universally evil kids. Some people mistakenly diagnosed as psychopaths based upon their behavior in their youth grow out of their anti-social tendencies as they grow older. Indeed, pro-social behavior is something that people almost always develop as part of the developmental process – the empirical story is of original sin overcome. Almost nobody who was a “good kid” in middle school becomes a “bad kid” in high school and beyond absent brain damage, a propensity towards substance addiction that didn’t develop until there was an opportunity to use a substance, or an adolescent/young adult onset psychosis (i.e. bipolar or schizoprenia).

    Among other things this casts very serious doubt on the wisdom of keeping juvenile criminal records (or that lack thereof) secret, and of not considering juvenile criminal histories in recidivist sentencing schemes. The age of onset, severity, and frequency of juvenile delinquency are powerful predictors of recidivism.

    The association between psychopathy and animal cruelty is also one of the best arguments for criminalizing cruelty to animals that normal people routinely put to sleep or kill for food. Lack of empathy with the animal is highly predictive of lack of empathy generally which in turn is highly predictive of the antisocial behavior associated with psychopathy.

  • http://jaymans.wordpress.com/ JayMan

    Razib, there’s post from me that’s probably sitting in your spam filter (one link too many, I suppose).

  • fakeley

    Highly relevant to your question: evolutionary game theory.
    It theorizes about how many psychopaths/cheaters a population can sustain, under varying assumptions of rewards/punishments and mutation rate to create cheaters.

  • Chris Mackney

    For the most part they must be treated like you would treat any one else. Until you find yourself in a legal situation with one. Are they liable if they committed murder? Should they have full custody in a divorce?

    The only way to treat them any differently is if they are identified. The only way to identify them is by looking at their patterns of behaviors. One can only be ‘diagnosed’ by looking at verifiable collateral data that shows a persistent pattern of behavior consistent with the behaviors found on the PCL-R checklist. There must be evidence showing that the traits are present over time.

    They are not psychopaths until they are diagnosed, so it is virtually impossible to treat them differently unless they are detected. Unless they commit a crime that demonstrates an extreme lack of empathy it would be rare for a psychologist to figure out the patterns on their own of any individual psychopath. Even if they did, they are legally prohibited from sharing that information.

    If you were a Judge and in a divorce, one parent says to you ‘I am 100% convinced my ex is a psychopath.’ As the Judge you order a psychological evaluation and it turns out that the parent is a psychopath. What do you order regarding Custody? Should a psychopath have full custody? No custody? Visitation?

  • Grey

    @21 “In support of the evil tyrant model of fitness enhancement from low frequencies of psychopaths in a community”

    Normal people find killing someone quite difficult so i think the driver is the need for warriors/soldiers: too many and your society can’t function, too few and some other group will come and take your land. As a society specializes i think fewer people of that type are needed and “too many” becomes a lower percentage so societies start filtering them out through a criminal justice system. This will filter most strongly on those who are impulsive as well so i think you eventually get to a point where most of the people with a high capacity for violence are very self-controlled as well (when sober).

    It’s easy to imagine both good and bad consequences of this process as people who might once have been head-hunters and cannibals no longer have a niche and end up as investment bankers instead.

  • April Brown

    My suspicion ( and I base this on nothing more than what I’ve observed personally throughout my life) is that there is a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy, much like there are genetic predispositions towards musical talent. What happens in the environment really determines if that predisposition unfolds into full expression – a child genetically predisposed towards being a psychopath raised in a really well balance and healthy environment might just become an investment banker. If they grew up in a Romanian orphanage, then they’ll break kneecaps for a living. Same way that a musically inclined child given lessons and music to listen to is more likely to become a concert pianist than the child who got no exposure to music growing up.

    I could totally be wrong. Sort of a hard thing to do a real experiment on (even if you could map out the genes, the ethics alone would be a showstopper.)

  • Karl Zimmerman

    26 -

    A self-restrained psychopath is still a psychopath. The fact that self-restraint in psychopathy is almost always associated with higher intelligence suggests that those psychopaths who do engage in surface conformity to the dominant morality do not do so because they develop their empathetic repertoire to a full extent, but because they have enough natural ability to understand that violent criminality will really cramp their ability to get ahead in the world. While their comparably high productivity means there’s at least some positive contribution they make, their likelihood to screw over people whenever they believe they won’t get caught probably still makes them a net negative on society, except in extreme cases.

  • Henry C

    I found Karl Zimmerman’s comments very surprising. I found myself disagreeing with practically everything he said. I’ll sample a few.
    “I think we should distinguish between the crimes that neurotypical people commit and those that psychopaths commit, because the level of danger is different.”
    Crimes are about the past, not about potential futures. What’s done is done. What difference does it make if your neighborhood bum shoplifts or Lindsay Lohan shoplifts? Level of danger? What difference does it make if a parent beats the pulp out of a child or some drunk stranger beats the pulp out of a child? The parent is far more likely to do it, because of proximity.

    “I think rape should be punished more heavily than murder.”
    Good incentive for rapists to kill and burn their rape victims, and their personal effects. Burning people thoroughly is not that difficult. It gets rid of evidence of rape quite thoroughly. Takes care of Karl’s argument in #20 also. They murder would just claim that X happened, he punched her, she died, he panicked and burnt her.

    “Generally speaking, if they are high intelligence they will probably not become serial killers”
    Backing data, please! We can’t just have assertions floating around.

    “their penchant to lie and cheat with no remorse can bring the most talented among them great gain at the expense of others … what about socially isolating them, limiting their ability to advance into powerful positions”
    Prof. Jim Fallon (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vx8RxRn6dWU) is a psychopath, genetically and neurologically. To the best of our knowledge, he has not committed any crimes. What do you suggest we do with him.

    “or even merely making their status public so that people know not to trust them? It’s a thorny issue to consider.”
    You mean like how the Nazis forced Jews to wear a prominent sign? We all know Jews are cunning profiteers, right?

    “I disagree that the majority of rapists are psychologically normal.”
    Sure, because the act of raping itself is taken as one of the criteria for marking someone as abnormal. (circular logic!) But apart from that, this statement is pointless.

    I have spoken with a few practicing psychologists (all female) about rapes. Yes, it is assault and torture, but it need not be something that scars a person for life. I ask the guys here. How much would it affect you if YOU were assaulted and raped by another man? What changes in your own attitudes do you foresee?

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Cping over from Reddit:

    What’s interesting about this perspective – and one thing I forgot to mention in my comment there about the Handbook of Psychopathy papers – is that to the extent we can tell, large industrialized countries seem to have higher psychopathy rates. For example, there were problems applying the Hare checklist to Ireland & Scotland because of their lower apparent rates.

    One thing I found particularly interesting was some Eskimo-related stuff: not only did their rate seem 5x lower, when asked what would happen to a person who was an example of a Eskimo term for shiftless parasitical lying people, one of them said they’d probably be quietly pushed off an ice floe eventually.

    The relevance to the evolutionary theory is left as an exercise for the reader. :)

    Reputational effects are powerful in small societies. While in America, on the other hand… one of Hare & Babiak’s examples in their Snakes book was a con artist who just moved from church to church, changing identities and ripping off members, until he was finally caught.

    I don’t know much about nurture; but there’s clearly some sort of cultural input to the disorder, yes.

  • http://www.systemsthinker.com/interests/mind/psychopathy.shtml Psychopathy Writer

    I studied this stuff a lot in putting together my page on psychopathy. I’m glad to see discussion of this hugely important topic.

    There is more and more evidence coming out regarding heritability of psychopathy and the extent to which environment contributes. It’s very complicated. In fact, as I mention on my page, in the great book Evil Genes, Barbara Oakley even mentions some cases where it appears healthier parenting made the psychopathy worse! Now if that’s true, we really have some surprising dynamics to deal with.

    I also talk at length about the discussion of whether psychopathy is a disorder or simply an alternate evolutionary strategy, which you touch on here.

    I hope more people continue reading about this subject. And I hope they actually go beyond psychopathy to consider the role of other conditions like NPD and BPD which contribute to challenges in society, as well. There is a field called Ponerology which studies the whole process by which these conditions work together. I link on my psychopathy page to a very in -depth page on Ponerology for those interested, as well.

  • Grey

    @20
    “I’m sorry, but what you’re saying has no basis in reality. The oldest traditional criminal justice method execution or no penalty at all, given prison wasn’t really feasible. Even up until a few centuries ago”

    Yes, i should have specified i meant the system that developed in western countries up until the post-60s cultural shift. As you say you need the money for the prisons before it becomes viable.

    ##
    @29

    “is that to the extent we can tell, large industrialized countries seem to have higher psychopathy rates. For example, there were problems applying the Hare checklist to Ireland & Scotland because of their lower apparent rates…Reputational effects are powerful in small societies…was a con artist who just moved from church to church, changing identities and ripping off members, until he was finally caught.”

    I think you may find psychopaths from smaller communities / countries move to larger communities / countries because it’s easier to hide.

  • Grey

    Random thought

    Say for the sake of argument your premises are

    1) Where possible it’s more adaptive if as many people as possible in a human group are non-violent (defined as finding it hard to kill)
    2) Human groups have always needed a percentage of the group to be warriors (defined as people who don’t find it as hard to kill)with the percentage varying according to need
    3) psychopathy along a spectrum is one of the traits somehow connected to (2)
    4) psychopathy is part-regulated by childhood trauma

    Then human groups could vary the percentage of warriors / psychopaths within their group by varying how much they traumatize their children.

  • muhr

    Perhaps there are both mutational load psychopaths and behavioral strategist psychopaths. What psychologists define as psychopathy might be messy enough that 2 or more things are defined as 1 thing, after all the definition from wikipedia states psychologists disagree on the symptom criteria and essential features.

    If that is the case mutational psychopaths may be over represented in the lower levels of a society such as prison whereas behavioral types may be either evenly distributed or over represented at higher levels of a society.

  • UnderMinHatt

    Is there any data on the prevalence of psychopathy, psychopathic traits, or average psychopathy test scores for nations, religions, ethnic groups, classes, etc?

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Gene Expression

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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