Invariably, once we realize we’ve been conned by a psychopath, this person has lied to us from the very beginning, and we fell for all of it, we ask why? Why did we believe? Why did we trust?
The short answer is that we did what we, as social animals, are biologically designed to do. Human beings have evolved over millennia to live in community, and trust is the glue that holds us together.
I just finished reading The Moral Molecule — the source of love and prosperity, by Paul J. Zak. Zak spent 10 years researching a brain chemical called oxytocin and its role in human behavior. He says oxytocin inspires trust; trust is connected to morality; and morality is connected to the survival of the human race.
The video above gives an overview of the points he makes in his book. Zak briefly refers to psychopaths in the video, and the discussion about this personality disorder in his book isn’t much longer. I’m going to extrapolate from his work to discuss the role that oxytocin probably plays in why psychopaths do what they do, and why we respond the way we do.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter, sending signals within the brain, and a hormone, carrying messages in the bloodstream. It plays a huge role in pair bonding, especially for monogamous mammals. It has long been associated with sex, childbirth and breastfeeding.
Research now shows that both men and women release oxytocin, although women release far more. The substance is integrally involved with love and empathy. An article in Scientific American describes oxytocin as nature’s “love glue.”
Be mine forever: Oxytocin may help build long-lasting love, on ScientificAmerican.com.
Intimacy and sex trigger the release of oxytocin. So do feelings of empathy. An easy way to spark the release of oxytocin in people is to give them a hug. Another way is to show that you trust them. Conversation creates a sense of community, which builds trust, which leads to oxytocin release.
In his book, Zak describes a behavioral feedback loop based on oxytocin:
Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.
But it’s not all love and roses. Oxytocin also helps people know when to be wary. Zak says, “oxytocin maintains the balance between self and other, trust and distrust, approach and withdrawal.”
Testosterone is a hormone associated with aggression, motivation and drive, especially sex drive. Men have more testosterone than women, and young men have twice the level of testosterone as older men. Testosterone is elevated in all psychopaths, both male and female. Hold that thought.
Testosterone is the opposite of oxytocin. In The Moral Molecule, Zak says:
Testosterone specifically interferes with the uptake of oxytocin, producing a damping effect on being caring and feeling. (Page 83 — emphasis by Zak.)
Zak also talks about a high-octane version of testosterone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which stimulates areas of the brain associated with aggression. Zak writes:
DHT’s affect on the brain is about five times larger than testosterone’s. It not only unleashes aggression, but also increases dopamine, which makes the aggression feel good. (Page 84)
Here are a few more points about testosterone:
High-testosterone males divorce more often, spend less time with their children, engage in competitions of all types, have more sexual partners (as well as learning disabilities), and lose their jobs more often. (Page 90)
Winning too big too often can have a corrosive effect by bathing an individual in testosterone. Always coming out on top, consistently and over time, can reinforce some of the more obnoxious stereotypically male behaviors associated with the hormone. (Page 94)
Administering testosterone has been shown to actually inhibit people’s ability’s to pick up the social cues that eye contact conveys. (Page 95)
Putting this together: Psychopaths have excess testosterone. Testosterone blocks caring and feeling, increases aggression, inhibits the ability to pick up on social cues and correlates with the type of behavior we’ve all seen in psychopaths.
Oxytocin works by connecting with “oxytocin receptors,” which are present in the mammary glands, uterus and in the central nervous system. However, Zak says that “5 percent of any population lack the oxytocin receptors necessary to bond and behave morally without external reinforcement.” Of course, 5 percent is remarkably close to official estimates for antisocial personality disorder — 4 percent of the population.
Zak explains that oxytocin receptors need to be stimulated, starting when humans are babies, in order for them to grow. If the receptors are not stimulated by love and attention early on, they fail to develop, which contributes to a lack of empathy. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Zak says that psychopaths seem to lack oxytocin receptors.
Can one chemical be the basis of all morality? on Spectrum.IEEE.org.
In The Moral Molecule, Zak writes:
Psychopaths can have incredible social competence on the cognitive level — the trouble is that they simply don’t care bout anyone but themselves. Their lack of empathy allows them to treat others as objects, and their cognitive skill enables them to get away with it. (Page 128)
Oxytocin and the psychopathic experience
Psychopaths do not form authentic, caring love bonds with other people. But they are very good at pretending that they do.
When psychopaths target us for romantic relationships, they shower us with attention and affection. They spend a lot of time talking with us, and conversation builds trust. They say and do things to indicate that they trust us, and we should trust them. They tell stories about themselves designed to appeal to our empathy. They rush us into emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.
All of this causes the release of oxytocin in our brains, which is absolutely normal. Because of the oxytocin, we feel calm, trusting, empathetic and content. We especially feel trusting of the person who caused this reaction in us — the psychopath.
The psychopath, however, does not have the normal number of oxytocin receptors. Plus, the psychopath has elevated testosterone, which blocks the release of oxytocin. Therefore, he or she does not experience the effects of the oxytocin, and does not feel trust or empathy.
Researchers are finding many biological components of psychopathy, including the problems with oxytocin. But the oxytocin system operates just fine in many of us who have been targeted by psychopaths. So they love bomb us; we don’t know they are lying; we respond as human are intended to respond to displays of trust and affection, which releases oxytocin.
Psychopathic seduction hijacks the normal human bonding system. That’s an important reason why we get hooked.
If you’d like to know more about oxytocin and how it is supposed to work, read The Moral Molecule, by Paul J. Zak.
The Moral Molecule – the source of love and prosperity, is available on Amazon.com.