Behavior genetic studies of children, adolescents, and adults all report that the overlap of antisocial tendencies (broadly defined) with other psychopathic traits (e.g., interpersonal, affective) can be explained by common genetic factors.-Robert Hare, Ph.D.
The most profound things researchers say about reality are often so difficult to understand that the average person wants to turn and run away when the researchers begin to speak. The statement above might have that affect on you but stick around because I want to explain it this week. This statement gets to the heart of the most important controversies regarding sociopathy/psychopathy.
First I will give you a definition of antisocial behavior that one of my students came up with. I think it is very good:
Antisocial behavior means things people intentionally do that infringe on other people’s rights to live their lives. Antisocial behavior is hurtful.
Notice that antisocial behavior is purposeful and reflects the person’s underlying motives. The link to personality lies in this link to motives. Many personality traits are a reflection of an individual’s preferred motives and pleasures.
Antisocial tendencies don’t reflect a simple callous indifference, they reflect behavior that is motivated and goal directed.
With that out of the way, I will give you a simple translation of the statement:
People who hurt others a lot have similar personalities. The same genes produce both the hurtful behavior and the “hurtful personality type.”
The above statement appears in an article entitled, “The role of antisocial tendencies in the psychopathy construct.” In this paper Dr. Hare lays out an argument that antisocial tendencies and the psychopathic personality type are inseparable. You can’t separate habitually hurtful behavior from the personalities of the people who have this habit. Furthermore, the same genes play a role in the development of habitually hurtful behavior and the development of the hurtful personality.
I’ll say it again another way. You cannot separate the evil someone does from the evil someone is. It also appears there is an evil gene or more likely, evil genes. If you are wondering if a person you know is a “sociopath/psychopath” use this statement to guide your thinking.
If a child you love has the genes of a sociopathic/ psychopathic person you should be motivated to understand all of this. As I considered the implications of genetics for myself and my family I asked a number of questions.
1. Many papers say the “psychopaths” as diagnosed by a checklist interview (The PCL-R) are different from “sociopaths” or those who have “antisocial personality disorder.” Well if that is true, do they have different genes?
2. What do we know about the evil genes themselves and what they are doing?
With these questions in mind, I read the scientific literature looking for evidence that psychopaths have their own special genetics. In the end, I discovered what Dr. Hare says, that there are genes that increase the likelihood of antisocial behavior including its extreme- criminal behavior. There are also genes that link to the personality traits of hurtful people and criminals. The genes appear to be the same genes.
Furthermore, there is a genetic connection between hurtful behavior, addiction and ADHD. That is why I decided to subtitle my book “A guide to overcoming your child’s genetic connection to antisocial behavior, addiction and ADHD” and NOT “A guide to overcoming your child’s genetic link to a psychopath.”
The bad news is that since all these disorders are genetically linked we have to worry about our kids’ risk for ADHD and addiction in addition to their risk for sociopathy/psychopathy. The link between alcoholism/addiction and psychopathy/sociopathy has been known since the 1940s, early writers like Dr. Cleckley (author of The Mask of Sanity) commented on it.
Now what do we know about the nature of evil genes? In my book, I explain that studies seem to show that these genes code for certain temperaments. The list of temperamental traits I came up with is on page 166 of my book and is given below:
|Aloof||Difficulty forming and enjoying attachments|
|Impulsive||Defective impulse control|
|Fearless||Lack of fear|
|Outgoing||Strong desire to explore social and physical environment|
|Dominant||Strong desire to be at the top of the pecking order|
|Anger-Prone||“Hair-trigger” for anger|
I am always on the lookout for other people’s lists of the genetically determined temperamental traits associated with antisocial behavior and sociopathy/psychopathy. In their book, the Psychology of Criminal Conduct, Drs. D.A. Andrews and James Bonita discuss the search for the “crime gene.” They summarize the findings as follows:
“The findings from family lineage, twin, and adoption studies also converge and conclude that there is a genetic component to criminal behavior. It is not criminal behavior per se that is inherited but temperamental characteristics such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and negative emotionality that are inherited.”
Notice the overlap between their list and mine. Outgoing and sensation-seeking are the same thing. Being anger-prone is part of negative emotionality.
If you have read my book, you know that it paints a picture of hope for the kids that carry these genes. Just look at the list for yourself. Probably the most worrisome temperamental trait on the list above is aloofness. However, an inborn tendency toward aloofness does not have to translate into antisocial behavior. If a detached child can be taught to engage in prosocial goals, then the detachment won’t be as much of an issue. For example, there are many interesting occupations that do not require a lot of social interaction. These are ideally suited to those with a tendency toward being aloof.
An awareness of the list of temperamental traits a child may have been born with is an important first step in guiding that child. If you know the list, you know what to look for and you can come up with strategies to make the best of your own child’s temperament. Rather than trying to make a child into someone he/she is not, it is better to try to work with who he/she is.
Notice that several of the traits are also associated with leadership potential. So the same list of genetic traits can lead to the development of a contributing prosocial person or an antisocial person depending on environmental factors. Genetics plays a role in antisocial tendencies and psychopathic personality traits but a person is not only the product of genes. Parenting, adult mentors, peers, educational opportunities and physical health may all make a difference.
A child with poor impulse control does not have to live with a high level of disability any more than a dyslexic child has to live with an inability to read. Both groups of children require special education to overcome their genetics.
The radio just quoted “a joke” from the late night talk show host Conan O’brien, “They have had a hard time finding jurors for the upcoming OJ Simpson armed robbery trial… They are having a hard time finding a jury of his peers… those who have gotten away with a double murder.”
OJ Simpson exemplifies all the writings about inborn temperaments, antisocial behavior and psychopathy. He has a history of antisocial behavior including domestic violence and more. He also has psychopathic personality traits. No one will deny that the man has a number of gifts that likely have a strong genetic basis. These gifts range from athletic talent to interpersonal charisma. It appears from my vantage point that all of these gifts have been used directly and indirectly for evil.
To summarize then, the temperamental traits that lead to the evil a person is and the evil a person does can also can lead to the good a person is and the good a person does. The direction that any given person’s life takes is influenced by many things including parenting, peers, trauma and perhaps most importantly, personal choice. Genetics puts a person at risk but does not necessarily determine his/her destiny.