What "makes" a psychopath? From Hannibal Lecter to Patrick Bateman, pop culture often enjoys telling the “origin stories” of these cold-hearted, emotionless psychopaths. But is there any truth behind these sensational depictions?
Aina Gullhaugen and her team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology carried out a meta-analysis study, published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology in 2011, of all the research published over the past 30 years that looked at psychopathic offenders in criminal institutions. Gullhaugen has previously carried out her own studies into psychopaths within Norwegian high-security prisons.
Her analysis has controversially challenged some of the long-held assumptions about psychopathy. It also wheedled out two defining experiences that are common among psychopaths, both of which involve their parents and upbringing.
"Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers," Gullhaugen said in a statement in 2012. "And many of the descriptions made it clear that their later ruthlessness was an attempt to address this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way."
On top of physical abuse from a parental figure, many shared another experience: ”More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales. Either they lived in a situation where no one cared, where the child is subjected to total control and must be submissive, or the child has been subjected to a neglectful parenting style."
This could “show that these children feel rejected. To a much greater degree than in the general population, their parents have an authoritarian style that compromises the child's own will and independence," the researcher says. "This is something that can cause the psychopath to later act ruthlessly to others, more or less consciously to get what he or she needs."
Her theory suggests that psychopathy is not just a matter of nature, but also of nurture.
"The combination of the individual's biological foundation, temperament, personality, and vulnerability are important components," said Gullhaugen. “Of course, not all reckless behavior is explained by a bad upbringing, but we do not inherit everything either. That is my main point."
"When we recognize that the psychopath's upbringing and relationships are important, and that the psychopath's emotional life is more complex than what we have previously believed, we reduce the stigmatization of these individuals," she concluded. "Meanwhile, we also have a starting point for treatment."