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Are Genes Linked to Psychopathy?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Monday Nov 23, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

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It has been estimated by the top researchers in the area of psychopathy that about 1 out of every 100 people are psychopaths (Viding, McCrory, & Seara-Cardoso, 2014). This means that statistically speaking, we all have at least one and maybe two psychopaths in our lives. More often than not, psychopaths function within the rules of society and go unnoticed. In fact, their unique traits often allow them to excel at business, in positions of leadership, in the military, and in many areas of life (see ). The question about the genetic contribution to psychopathy is an important one for both moral and legal issues. For example, if psychopathy is a biological condition about which a "freewilled" agent can do nothing, should they be treated differently in the eyes of the law? If there is a genetic contribution, could some kind of gene therapy or biological intervention "cure" someone of their psychopathy? If we can identify genes associated with psychopathy, can these genes be identified before birth and perhaps removed? Clearly, there are many issues associated with a known genetic component to psychopathy. But before we can answer the question "are genes related to psychopathy" we should answer some related questions before the answer to this question can be fully understood. First, let's look at what psychopathy is, and what it is not.

The term "psychopath" is not a clinical term in the sense that it is not one of the officially defined mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by virtually all mental health professionals. It is, however, a term used to define a collection of traits that often occur together (comorbidity) with anti-social personality disorder as a necessary component. Several of the other traits are disputed among those who study psychopathy but generally include lack of empathy and guilt, shallow feelings, manipulation of other people and severe, premeditated and violent antisocial behavior (Kiehl & Sinnott-Armstrong, 2013). This is important to understand when discussing genetic contributions because psychopathy is ultimately a social construct identified by thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, not based on a biological marker that can be easily identified. To complicate the matter, the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings all exist on a continuum with no demarcation, meaning, for example, that we are all shallow to an extent, and there is no clear line where this shallowness constitutes a trait of a psychopath.

If there are genes linked to psychopathy, then the question "is there a genetic component to psychopathy" must have an affirmative answer. However, if there is a genetic component to psychopathy it does not mean that there are certain genes specifically related to psychopathy. Through decades of research, we know that there is a genetic component to anti-social personality disorder and the many traits associated with psychopathy (Raine & Glenn, 2014), although the extent of this component varies among studies and is debated among researchers. It is difficult to point to a specific gene as "the cause" for a specific condition, even for the simplest of physical conditions with a clearly defined set of biological markers. When we are dealing with psychopathy (1) there are no biological markers, that is, the traits are expressed in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; (2) the expressions of psychopathy are subjective and not clearly identified; (3) the expressions of psychopathy are not universally agreed upon to the extent that other mental disorders are; and (4) there are dozens of traits with (5) each trait being on a continuum. Taking just these five points into consideration, it should be clear that identifying one or more genes responsible for psychopathy would be a nearly impossible task.

To complicate the matter even more, genetics and the environment have a complex relationship—they interact with each other which sometimes leads to what is called gene expression, which in the context of psychology is the gene leading to a thought, feeling, or behavior. So imagine that there does exist a "psycho" gene. This gene might be dormant until a certain combination of environmental stimuli is present, such as high stress, loud noise, and extreme hunger—all occurring simultaneously. If the combination of these stimuli never occurs, then the gene for psychopathy might never be expressed. What we know about genetics is that no single gene is responsible for something as complex as a psychological disorder. The chances are, there are many genes that all interact with each other and the environment, that lead to the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that we call psychopathy.

What about those studies that "point to" a gene or "suggest" that a specific gene "plays a role" in psychopathy? Notice the wording used by the researchers. A gene being "linked to" a mental disorder is not the same as a gene being "responsible for" the disorder. Often, the media will exaggerate these kinds of claims either out of ignorance or a desire to attract more eyeballs to maximize their advertising revenues. If a specific gene is found to possibly contribute to psychopathy, in no way would this mean that the gene is "bad." The gene would most certainly have other uses that may be vital to normal function, or even be responsible for traits that make an individual excel in one or more areas of life.

So are there specific genes linked to psychopathy? According to some studies, there is preliminary evidence (Hunter, 2010) but even if the evidence were strong it would mean very little in practical terms because of the array of traits associated with psychopathy that is almost certainly a result of numerous genes and their complex interaction with environmental factors. At best, future research might help us to identify genes that would increase the likelihood an individual has psychopathic traits, but this still wouldn't tell us if the individual would be the kind of psychopath that functions within the rules of society or the kind that rips society apart.

Hunter, P. (2010). The psycho gene. EMBO Reports, 11(9), 667–669.
Kiehl, K. A., & Sinnott-Armstrong, W. P. (2013). Handbook on Psychopathy and Law. Oxford University Press.
Raine, A., & Glenn, A. L. (2014). Psychopathy: An Introduction to Biological Findings and Their Implications. NYU Press.
Viding, E., McCrory, E., & Seara-Cardoso, A. (2014). Psychopathy. Current Biology, 24(18), R871–R874.

Podcast Episode: Are Genes Linked to Psychopathy?

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