Are sociopaths born or raised?

A psychologist explains how parents raise their children to be psychopaths

Brooke Palmer / NBC | 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLCNot everyone who is really nasty is a full-blown psychopath. Conversely, psychopaths can be eloquent, intelligent, charming, and fearless. You love adventure, are attentive, goal-oriented and act decisively.

However, they all share a dark side: psychopaths are ruthless, manipulative, and they don't have any compassion for their fellow human beings. "Four to five percent of people are psychopaths," says Niels Birbaumer in an interview with Business Insider.

Birbaumer is a psychologist and neuroscientist and heads the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology and the Center for Magnetoencephalography at the University of Tübingen. Since 2016 he has also been a Senior Research Fellow at the Wyss Center of Bio‐ and Neuroengineering in Geneva.

We asked the scientist how psychopathic personality traits arise and how much the upbringing and behavior of the parents can influence them.

Psychopaths have visible differences in the brain

“In a good half of all psychopaths, the parents do nothing wrong. They only pass on their genetic material, ”says Birbaumer.

Special brain areas, such as those for compassion or impulse control, are underdeveloped in psychopaths from birth. In addition, increased serotonin and dopamine levels are observed in psychopaths. This lowers the impulse control, whereby aggression can be acted out unchecked. In addition, “psychopaths are unable to feel fear,” says Birbaumer.

With magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can visualize human fear within a few seconds. Fear is an important feeling because it protects against possible danger. Our brain reacts immediately to frightening situations and stores the experience accordingly. Psychologists call this process of learning experience “conditioning”. If a similar situation then occurs again, the nerve cells immediately pass on information to the various brain areas - we are warned and can react better.

Birbaumer and his team in Tübingen found out: With psychopaths, there is absolute radio silence in frightening situations. “They can cognitively understand the consequences of their actions, but they cannot feel it,” explains Birbaumer.

An inconsistent parenting style and certain behaviors affect the development of the disorder

Nevertheless, parents have a considerable influence on whether and to what extent their child's tendencies towards psychopathy are later developed. "Even during pregnancy there are certain factors that significantly increase the risk," explains Birbaumer. "Alcohol, drugs, smoking - it damages the child's brain development".

Psychological factors are also involved in the disorder. "An inconsistent upbringing is particularly problematic," says the psychologist. This includes, for example, a contradicting and inconsistent parenting style. "Children must be able to recognize a connection between their behavior and punishment," says Birbaumer. Incidentally, the same applies to rewards.

In addition, an unstable environment, frequent abandonment of the child, divorce, a war of the roses between parents and experiences of violence can all increase the risk.

It becomes particularly problematic when one parent or, in the worst case, both parents themselves show psychopathic traits. "In this case, the parents live the psychopathy for their child - the child emulates its role models and ultimately takes over the behavior," explains Birbaumer.

Children with psychopathic tendencies are rarely treated

Most psychopaths have behavioral problems in childhood. The psychologist and neuroscientist believes that children who suffer from attention deficit disorder, for example, are at high risk of developing psychopathic tendencies. Typical behavioral problems include chronic boredom, a tendency to violence, enjoying the suffering of others or torturing animals.

“Simply giving these children medication to calm them down has no long-term effect.” Birbaumer therefore advocates starting behavioral therapy as early as possible: “The earlier, the better. Children's brains are much more plastic until puberty, ”he says. Adult psychopaths are much more difficult to treat.

Also read: "These 4 signs expose people as highly dangerous psychopaths"

Parents who are psychopaths themselves rarely sent their child to therapy. Due to their unscrupulousness, these people are often very effective and also wealthy. “In this case, the parents see no reason whatsoever to treat their child. After all, that led her to success herself, ”says Birbaumer. "Unfortunately, we see very few cases there."

If you suspect you are dealing with a psychopath, protect yourself above all else. Forget the idea that you could change or "save" the person on your own. Birbaumer also advises: "If in doubt, get out of the way as quickly as possible."