I’ve been doing some research into psychopathy for a story I’m writing. Not a story about psychopaths really, but psychopath analogs. In a society where everyone has so much empathy they can not bear to kill, people who are at all capable of the act are sort of analogous to our psychopaths. The story hinges on genetics, the idea that this society was modified to be unable to murder, and anyone with a mutation in that modification is a born killer. A bit late in the creative process, I realized it was quite likely I was about to make a complete ass of myself. So I went and did some research. Here are a few interesting findings—think of this as a starter-kit for knowledge about psychopathy, with a focus on genetics.
First off, what’s the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths? Really they’re the same, but ‘sociopath’ refers more to people that are psychopathic because of environmental influences, as opposed to a genetic predisposition. A sociopath is always a psychopath, but a psychopath is not always a sociopath.
And someone with psychosis is not always psychopathic. Psychosis essentially means a disconnect with reality. There are lots of ways to disconnect with reality besides ASPD. That’s antisocial personality disorder, and it’s synonymous with psychopathy. Sort of.
Weird semantics aside, what qualifies someone, in cold, clinical detail, as a psychopath? The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, Revised—or the PCL-R as the cool kids call it. It’s a set of traits that must be fulfilled to a certain extent for someone to be considered a psychopath. The traits are organized into two categories, or “factors.” Factor one is covers lack of empathy, as well as narcissism and a manipulative personality. Factor two is about antisocial aspects, impulsivity, and irresponsible decision-making.
So, what about the genetics of psychopathy?
Well, there’s a lot of controversy there. Some believe there are primary and secondary psychopaths—the primaries develop psychopathy because of genetics, and the secondaries because of environmental factors. Another theory is that the genes for psychopathy are like genes for cancer. No one is predisposed to growing tumors, just predisposed to a higher susceptibility. That was an over-simplification, but you get the idea. Following that line of logic, another theory is that genetics can predispose someone to psychopathy, while environmental influences will determine how the psychopathy manifests itself—or if it manifests at all.
Despite these varying opinions, some things are clear. For a start, there’s not one psychopathy gene—it’s not that binary. A study using identical twins with fraternal twins as a control determined that callous-unemotional traits were over sixty percent heritable. In addition, “conduct problems” such as fighting, stealing, and lying appeared seventy to eighty percent of the time with individuals that tested high for callous-unemotional traits, and a lower thirty to fifty percent of the time with those who tested lower for the traits. This demonstrated that there is some genetic predisposition involved in psychopathy, or psychopathic factors anyway, and that while this predisposition often leads to conduct problems, it is not a required element for the problems to appear. So good news, folks—you don’t have to be a psychopath to misbehave!
And although there’s no catch-all psychopath gene, there is one that seems to increase likelihood of aggression and antisocial behavior. The MAOA gene (often called the ‘warrior gene’) codes for production of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A. One allele, or version, of the MAOA gene creates an MAO-A deficiency—this deficiency allele is what gives the gene that badass nickname. A 2007 study found that the functional version of the gene acted as a moderator of “early traumatic life events.” So if you didn’t have the bad allele, traumatic events in your formative years would be moderated by your MAO-A, and you wouldn’t become a psychopath when you got older. But if you had the allele that created a deficiency, the traumatic events in childhood would increase likelihood of aggression in adulthood.
That’s about as deep as my research got. Notice there are no perfect correlations—nothing’s a hundred percent or a definite cause-and-effect relationship. This makes all these concepts perfect subject matter for a story—gray areas like this are fertile ground for creating deep, intricate characters and fascinating societies. Plus, it means that this utopia of non-killers is kind of bullshit. That’s always fun.
Now let me give credit where it’s due. The majority of my research was done using wikipedia as a hub, and going to their cited sources for more in-depth information. Mostly I used the article and editorial here as well as the studies linked above. Of course I’m just some jackass with a blog, I’m sure I’ve made about fifty simplifications, false interpretations, and just plain screw-ups. This is a starter-kit, meant to clarify a few conceptions about psychopathy and do a bit of analysis on the role of genetics. More to the point, it’s only the amount of research I felt I needed to do for the story. I hope you found it interesting anyway.
Speaking of the story, I should probably get to writing it. Those early traumatic life events aren’t going to exposit themselves…