Psychopathy is defined as a mental personality disorder in which an individual exhibits continuous anti-social behaviour. The individual also shows a lack of empathy, remorse and the capability to form a meaningful relationship. This essay will focus on psychopathy and to what extent it relates to the environment compared to genetics. The aim of this essay is to discuss the contributing genetic factors as to why the personality disorder exists and the environmental factors that allows it to. An example of genetics contributing to psychopathy can be shown in Caspi et al., (2002 pp. 851-854) where the study looked at a sample of maltreated males from their birth to their adulthood to see how the MAOA gene affected the individuals mood and behaviour and its possible links to influencing psychopathic traits, the results will be explained further in the essay. On the other hand, some environmental factors that may have contributed to the disorder could be violence, childhood neglect, childhood abuse and deprivation in infancy. Some of these important environmental factors will be explored in detail further on in the essay.
Although there is no definitive proof that genes alone cause psychopathy there have been numerous genes that have been linked to psychopathy. The gene that is popularly linked to psychopathy is the MAOA gene (Monoamine oxidase A) also known as the ‘warrior gene’; those who have the low activity MAOA gene are more likely to be violent, impulsive and aggressive. The MAOA gene controls the production of a protein that breaks down neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. Having low level activity of this gene results in key neurotransmitters such as serotonin (which is responsible to regulate mood, social behaviour and function) and dopamine (affects emotions) being abnormal because of low activity in this gene causing psychopathic traits such as lack of empathy, lack of remorse, impulsivity, irresponsibility and short-term relationships.
A study conducted by Caspi et al. (2002 pp. 851-854) looked at a large sample of male children from their birth to adulthood to see why some of the maltreated children grow up to exhibit anti-social behaviour whereas others do not. They found that the MAOA gene moderated the effect of maltreatment and those with abnormal production and regulation of MAOA were less likely to develop anti-social problems compared to those who had low levels of MAOA activity. This study supports the idea that those with low activity MAOA gene and those who have irregularity in the production and regulation of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are more likely to exhibit psychopathic (antisocial) traits. This shows that there is a compelling link of genes such as the MAOA gene with psychopathy or at a minimum that genes do play a significant role in psychopathy and antisocial behaviour.
Furthermore, Beaver et al. (2011, pp.426-432) used an adoption-based research design to see the genetic effects on those who had psychopathic personality traits. The adoptees were drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The results revealed that by having a biological father that was a criminal the male adoptees would either have a psychopathic personality or similar traits, however the female adoptees did not. The study also determined that there was no link between a biological criminal mother and the adoptee having psychopathic traits. The study proves at the very least that there is a partial genetic link that psychopathy is transmitted from father to the male offspring.
The environment is an important factor that needs to be considered when exploring the possible influence, it may have on psychopathy. Environmental factors such as violence at home, abuse from a young age and deprivation should be considered when discussing whether these factors are significant enough to influence psychopathy. A study (Blaszczak-Boxe, 2017) conducted by researchers studied prisoners at a prison in Wisconsin where they looked for psychopathic traits in 127 prisoners. The researchers had chosen the location of Wisconsin as psychopathy is much more prevalent in their population compared to the general population. The study used a scale that would evaluate the prisoner’s psychopathic traits where out of 40 scores of more than 30 would indicate the prisoner was a psychopath. The result showed that 40% of the prisoners were psychopaths and those who had witnessed abuse onto their siblings or parents at home were more likely to score highly showing they had psychopathic traits. Those who did not witness domestic abuse were least likely to score highly on the scale. The study is important in understanding that environmental factors do have a considerate amount of significance into explaining the causes of psychopathy. It raises controversial debates such as nature versus nurture as neither the nurture or nature theory can be proven to be the sole cause. This proposes the idea that psychopathy may be a combination of both the environment and genetics.
One environmental factor that has been proposed by psychologists for explaining the development of psychopathy is parental bonding. Bowlby (1969, cited in Gao et al., 2010, pp. 1007-1016) conducted a study where 44 male juvenile offenders were suggested to be affectionless psychopaths due to a poor mother-child bonding and maternal deprivation. An affectionless psychopath is an individual who shows little remorse, care and concern for those around them. They are shown to lack empathy and shame for anti-social behaviour. Bowlby believes that a child would suffer permanent consequences as a results of material deprivation such as intellectual consequences (e.g. low IQ) and emotional consequences (e.g. delinquency and becoming an affectionless psychopath.) Bowlby found that out of the 44 offenders 14 were affectionless psychopaths and 12 out of 14 had experienced early separation from their mother. Bowlby believed that there was a critical period of 2.5 years where a strong attachment must be formed between a mother and child or else they risk serious mental health issues. The studies of Bowlby (1969, cited in Gao et al., 2010, pp. 1007-1016) and (Blaszczak-Boxe, 2017) provide a useful insight when discussing the environmental causes of psychopathy. The studies provide empirical support for the argument that psychopathy is influenced by the environment.
Nature versus nurture is a common debate when discussing psychopathy and there is a possibility that psychopathy is a combination of both environmental and genetic factors. Environmental factors may contribute more than the genes in one case, however this could be vice versa. An example of this can be shown in Fallon (2005, cited in Lewis,2015) where James Fallon a neuroscientist, studied the brains of violent offenders such as murderers who were thought to be psychopaths, this is when he found out he had the brain of a psychopath which later led him to realise that he shared psychopathic traits. Fallon also discovered he possessed the MAOA-L gene which has been linked to aggression. Fallon confessed to sharing the trait of having a lack of empathy, but his cognitive empathy allows him to know how to react as though a ‘normal’ person would in situations where emotion and understanding are required. However, even though Fallon possessed a gene associated with psychopathy he lived a nonviolent normal life and had a good upbringing, Fallon does admit that had he not have had a good upbringing he could have turned out differently to how he is now. This case is particularly intriguing as it highlights how two of the most important factors that are; genes versus environment, can potentially influence psychopathy, differs in individuals. As some individuals possess the gene that is associated with psychopathy but have had a good healthy environment growing up compared to those who may not have the associated genes with psychopathy but rather have had a bad upbringing that may have consisted of some environmental facts (e.g. maternal deprivation or childhood abuse) that resulted in psychopathy.
To conclude, one important factor to consider when discussing the causes of psychopathy is genes such as the MAOA gene in the case of which low levels have been linked to aggression and antisocial behaviour. The disruption of the production and regulation of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are important in understanding that they do affect an individual’s mood and behaviour as shown in Caspi et al., (2002 pp. 851-854) which show they are linked to psychopathy. On the other hand, the environment is also an important factor when explaining psychopathy. As shown above in the study of Bowlby (1969, cited in Gao et al., 2010, pp. 1007-1016) where an abusive deprived childhood may result in possible psychopathy. Overall both arguments have case studies which provide empirical support for either one of the arguments. Lastly, Fallon’s findings indicate to a more compelling belief that psychopathy is in fact a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Although there might be a genetic predisposition, it will not lead to development of psychopathy if the child is raised in a healthy, loving environment.