Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nature vs. nurture

This New York Times article states the obvious -- bad parents can't take all the credit for good children and good parents can't take all the blame for bad children. Interestingly, it goes out of its way to say that bad behavior does not necessarily equal sociopathy:
“I don’t know what I’ve done wrong,” the patient told me.
She was an intelligent and articulate woman in her early 40s who came to see me for depression and anxiety. In discussing the stresses she faced, it was clear that her teenage son had been front and center for many years.
When he was growing up, she explained, he fought frequently with other children, had few close friends, and had a reputation for being mean. She always hoped he would change, but now that he was almost 17, she had a sinking feeling.
I asked her what she meant by mean. “I hate to admit it, but he is unkind and unsympathetic to people,” she said, as I recall. He was rude and defiant at home, and often verbally abusive to family members.
Along the way, she had him evaluated by many child psychiatrists, with several extensive neuropsychological tests. The results were always the same: he tested in the intellectually superior range, with no evidence of any learning disability or mental illness. Naturally, she wondered if she and her husband were somehow remiss as parents.
Here, it seems, they did not fare as well as their son under psychiatric scrutiny. One therapist noted that they were not entirely consistent around their son, especially when it came to discipline; she was generally more permissive than her husband. Another therapist suggested that the father was not around enough and hinted that he was not a strong role model for his son.
But there was one small problem with these explanations: this supposedly suboptimal couple had managed to raise two other well-adjusted and perfectly nice boys. How could they have pulled that off if they were such bad parents?
To be sure, they had a fundamentally different relationship with their difficult child. My patient would be the first to admit that she was often angry with him, something she rarely experienced with his brothers.
But that left open a fundamental question: If the young man did not suffer from any demonstrable psychiatric disorder, just what was his problem?
My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.
But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.
For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.
But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.
When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic. . . .
I often tell readers that not every asshole ex of theirs is a sociopath, and the same applies for misbehaving children. In this situation, though, I actually think it is foolish to discount the potential role of sociopathy. There is a strong genetic but weak environmental link to sociopathy, which is consistent with having two normal sons and one sociopathic one. Furthermore, although inconsistent discipline may not be enough to cause anyone to become a sociopath, it could trigger sociopathy in someone who was genetically predisposed to it, as sociopath children are particularly sensitive to incentive structures and perceived fairness (i.e. consistency and reciprocity). I obviously don't know the full story, but just based on the article, the description fits sociopathy, at least for this kid.

After spending time with my family recently, I am more convinced that nurture had a significant role to play in my development into a sociopath. When people ask me whether I had a bad childhood, I tell them that it was actually relatively unremarkable, however I can see how the antisocial behaviors and mental posturing that now define me were incentivized when I was growing up -- how my independent emotional world was stifled and how understanding and respect for the emotional world of others died away. Still I don't think I was "made" into a sociopath, nor was I born one. I feel like I was born with that predisposition, that I made a relatively conscious decision to rely on those skills instead of developing others, and that the decision was made in direct response to my environment and how I could best survive and even thrive in that environment. It's a bit similar to this author's description of her own survivalist adaptations:
If you’ve read much about writers, you know that many of us grew up with an alcoholic parent or in some otherwise dysfunctional home. Me, too. Kids who are raised in households where feelings of safety and predictability are up for grabs might be more likely to turn into storytellers. We spend a lot of emotional energy trying to guess what might happen next, and mentally drawing up different contingency plans. It puts us in the “what if” habit early.
Genetics are important for sociopathy, but environment plays a crucial role as well. Although the NY Times article notes that "[f]or better or worse, parents have limited power to influence their children," such that they should be reluctant "to take all the blame — or credit — for everything that their children become," unfortunately (or luckily?) they can still take quite a bit of blame (or credit) for sociopathic children, particularly with new "studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching." Knowledge is power.


  1. I would like to see more articles like this. I think enviroment plays a crucial role. When you experience anything over and over again it loses its effect. When you grow up in a enviroment where you must survive, you must adapt or become broken. There was a earlier article written saying that sociopaths don't understand consequences. I would say sociopaths have stopped caring about consequences. In prison they have a saying that a person is 'institutionalised'. It is when they have gone in and out so many times that they almost prefer being in prison. In the same sense I've noticed some consistency with sociopaths having difficulty growing up.
    I have a theory that narccisists were told they were never good enough as they grew up by their parents, teachers, peers, or people in authority. Perhaps sociopaths had the same, plus added percieved injustice from those in power over them and this is the reason for seeking it.

    1. Remember to try to back your theories up with facts, sources or arguments. Also remember that it is always easy fall for the fallacy of unrealisticly adjusting the interpretation of a theory to ones beliefs and wants, so that it may seem more consistent and real then it might really be. This is why there is a general rule for many thinkers, researchers and scientists that you should try to contradict and disproof your theories as a means to validate them instead of actually validating them.

    2. UKan, I once met such a man, such an "institutionalised" criminal. At one point he did something with the full intent to get caught. he wanted to spend winter in jail. All he was worried about was that he would be sent to a jail were he already knew the whole library. His first arrest was with 16 when he stole a small motorbike to get home faster. He recommended I read something which turned out to be a big revelation for me, although not quite how he wanted me to understand it, much less whom he probably
      wanted me to identify with in a Dostoyevsky novel.

      You can find pretty much the same pattern in some people that have a long institutionalization history in psychiatric wards. I once met someone who threw a pots of flowers down into the street to be taken back in. There was no other reason for it.

  2. apparently studies on siblings (esp identical twins) that were adopted into different families show that personality is ~50% genetic, 5% environment, and 45% unknown.

    if you think you have socio traits, have a critical look at your relatives and odds are you'll spot the signs of someone else who thinks like you.

  3. if you think you have socio traits, have a critical look at your relatives and odds are you'll spot the signs of someone else who thinks like you.

    My dad. He was the first to clue me in.

    I also have several uncles and at least one aunt that apparently had a thing for killing cats when they were younger. One of the cat killing uncles “borrowed” thousands of dollars from grandma. Emotional manipulation is the name of the game, etc. And that’s just on my mom’s side. My dad’s side were more the wife-child beater/convict types. Gang violence when they were all younger, an uncle with a penchant for fraudulent lawsuits, an aunt who likes to game the welfare system, that sort of thing. (And I strongly suspect at least one murder...)

    Can’t find an intellect quite like mine on either side though.

    1. Studies show that in general the most average individuals have the greatest belief in theyr cognitive abilities, while those most doubtful tend to score best on cognitive tests.

      If you make it better then the rest of your family, make the best of yourself and excel in life and society, breaking that tendency of fault in your family, I will agree with you that you are "different" in a positive way.

    2. My aunt. Utterly charming woman, sweet-voiced and soft-spoken; she'll cook you a marvelous meal whilst pumping you ever-so-gently for information to be used against you later. (She doesn't need much, she's quite the creative wordsmith, really.) She seems to live and breathe for sowing the seeds of dissension amongst our kin. If you know how to look for them, it's simple to find her fingerprints whenever there's a family row.

      She has a real talent for making sure she's written into the wills of her elderly kin. As a nurse, she's managed this trick with patients as well. She lacks finesse at times, of course, and has a number of strong detractors within the family. The people at her church thinks she's absolutely lovely, however, and we get along famously. :D

      Bearing this genetic component in mind, however, my upbringing was what you might call 'Dickensian.' My mother was committed to a psychiatric facility whilst I was an infant, and I was passed from one put-upon relative to the next. I wasn't abused, but I was quite unwanted and well aware of it. I could continue, but it's a dreary tale. Suffice to say that little Freddie soon learnt how to get by. :D

      Nonetheless, nothing makes me smile more savagely than parents who tell these tales of their innocence and their utter shock at having produced a 'bad seed.' This refrain in one of my aunt's favorites. Use your imagination as to how her sons turned out! Fortunately she has her loving nephew to leave her earthly possessions to someday. :D

    3. Wow! You're a great writer yourself. Interesting. You should write a book

  4. Here is something interesting.

    My mother may or may not be a sociopath. She has some of the traits, like impulsivity without caring about concequences (and behold, here I am), lack of empathy etc.

    She had three children. I know how to act around people and it doesn't take any extra energy, I'm possibly a sociopath/narcissist/whatever. My younger brother has autistic traits, wouldn't look people in the eyes before i taught him that he should. I also taught him how to converse normally with people and how to get laid. Our youngest brother is normal. He shows emotions and is completely genuine in his interaction with others.

    If I'm a sociopath and my brother is an autist, and we both have this from our mother, does it mean there is a link?

    1. Would guess not. You can have blue eyes, and your brother brown eyes. No link other then the fact that genes for both colors are being inherited through your parents.

      A person with brown eyes can be a carrier for genes with blue eyes. Brown eye genes are dominant to blue eye genes, in cases where both exist - then the dominant genes will be used.

      Several other factors affect the outcome of who we physically are predespositioned to be. Sigarettes, alcohol, and drugs affect the development of a fetus. There are also several studies done on how emotions, food and even the seasons of the year we are born in affect not only our development but our genes also.

      The mix of factors that might contribute to a result is pretty great to be clear about such a link that you are mentioning.

      I am no psychologist, and one would propably give you a better answer, but it is true that many diagnosis overlap in symptoms without them being the same

  5. Nature vs Nurture is a false dichotomy I'll never understand why so many people are given to such black and white thinking. In my case it's nature, I was born this way, but in some nurture can play a larger role and I'm sure there's a sliding scale between.

    I find it interesting that sociopaths are always discussed in the media in the context of criminals or delinquents though.

  6. Two chapters from Donald winnicot's book The 'Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment' fully explain how psychopathy develops:

    - Chapter 1. Psycho-analysis and the sense of guilt
    - Chapter 6. The Development of the Capacity for Concern

    These chapters are as important to this topic as are Cleckey's or Hare's work, but almost nobody has picked it up. Do yourselves a favour and read them if you want to understand how psychopathy develops. in particular read all Winnicott's writings on the subject of 'cuncern'.

    1. 'Concern' not 'cuncern'.

    2. This sounds really interesting. Thanks, I didn't know the man: Donald Winnicott

    3. Thank u LeanDer , for that link.

  7. I am a sociopath and so is my mother. I've been raised this way and it is who I am. My mother brought me up differently and I always knew our home was different. To say she was curt was an understatement. She never had time and was brutally honest nor did she didn't see the point of the existence of others. She never cared about consequences and played on the emotional vulnerability of her children. I don't need love nor do I want it so in that arena our relationship worked perfectly. Throughout my life I was taught how to play the system and work the minds of those lesser than me. As I was analyzing myself the other day when I began to wonder, was I born a sociopath or raised into one? Is it possible that I would have been 'normal' if I had been brought up in another environment? I hope not

  8. Interesting read. I do not believe you fall into the sociopathic definition as I have read it. I do see why you have made that conclusion, some aspects of that are similar. A thought proposition to consider. A genetic predisposition towards analytical and rational thinking as opposed to emotional expression as a decision making tool. I myself experience that. My mind wrapped around logic as a way of life based on the Spock character after a series of traumatic events occurred in my childhood. Eventually the logic approach went from being a self defense mechanism to being a fully chosen belief system. I have few friendships because of this as most are looking for an emotional connection and as such would feel pain from my very presence unless they are able think analytically beyond those feelings. Because my highest logical ethic is to do no harm except to prevent bodily harm to myself or another, I usually break off the friendship as a means to protect them. As I can no more change my basic mechanisms to suit them anymore than they could change theirs to suit me, it would only be catastrophic and destructive to try to force change, so logic dictates severing the emotional connection when pain in the other is clear.

  9. According to psychology regarding the old philosophical question of nature vs nurture, it can be a complex mix of both. If one was born from a long line of cannibals then it seems acceptable behavior and considered nurture, yet flight or fight responses would still be nature. Nature and nurture appear to be linked in many circumstances. From my understand of serial killers and sociopaths this unusual form of psych can be caused by either.
    One thing I do find common among sociopaths and others is their cognitive dissonance, oh the irony!

  10. It's not what you "do," it's what you are. Because, long-term it is
    NATURE that determines behavior. You've already mentioned the story
    of a boy who was mutalited through the slip of a scapel who was raised
    as a girl, but couldn't be changed, (He later on reclaimed his manhood.)
    Listen to the song: "It's A Family Affair," by Sly And The Family Stone.
    "One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn. Other child
    grows up to be somebody who just loves to burn..."
    There are two possible reactions of a person coming from an abusive
    enviornment. One, is to emulate his abuser and to carry on the abuse
    to future generations. The other, is to actually be spurred on to
    excellence and achievment. President Clinton came from an abusive
    enviornment and this only was the catalist for achievement.
    M.E. also turned out a lot better then what one would have expected from
    her backround.
    It is necessary to provide a child with an initial set of "basic rules"
    to follow so they know what is expected of them. This helps the child
    to be accepted by society. It's like the book "All I Needed To Learn, I
    Learned In Kindergarden." You don't have to be bound by these rules once
    you attain "adulthood," but you do have to have some expectations placed
    on you, an ethical code. The trouble is, people attempt to get other adults to subscribe to their code, causing strife. Once you really are
    an adult you should review the code and see what parts still apply.
    You have to have receptivity and flexability because life is NOT set in
    stone. It's kind of like the Old Testament restrictions that were called
    "A school teacher to bring us unto Christ." Once we graduate, we are
    no longer bound by "childish regulations." If we stay with the 10
    commandments we begin to worship the commandments in place of God, and
    deprive ourselves of the living vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

  11. It's not what you "do," it's what you are. Because, long-term it is
    NATURE that determines behavior
    ether you take responsibility or you blame it on nature
    free will versus fate

  12. We all have behavior traits and behaviors that can be considered good or bad depending on circumstances. What distinguishes a person is their choices. It is a choice to act with immoral or emotionally destructive intent the same as if one acts with compassion. It all depends on how you define "winning". Obviously the kid thinks "winner take all" is a good life strategy.

  13. A neat little theory that fits the post 911 universe. Biologically spoken the "bad seed".

    Why would anyone with such a perspective (see below) start thinking about the more hidden systemic troubles that occasionally cause the "black sheep" to surface? But nothing possibly wrong with the system or the family? Drugs is all we need.

    Richard A Friedman

    Richard A. Friedman, MD is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic. He specializes in Anxiety and Mood Disorders and has expertise in Psycho-Pharmacology and Refractory Depression.

  14. A simple equation:

    Authoritarian and power hungry parent + offspring that is smarter than parent - biological predisposition on child's part to be less emotionally labile than authoritarian parent=

    High Probability of sociopathic personality structure developing

  15. correction to above equation: the - should be a +

  16. Normal people have a hard time "letting go" of their kids and allowing them to be independent - if they show their independence by being cruel, greedy, resentful, addicted, hateful, etc.

    I wish everyone could look at our fellow humans (even the ones that come out of our vaginas, or the ones we sire) with more rationality and acceptance.

    For obvious reasons, we've evolved to not be that way about our children, relatives, tribes, etc.

    1. 'Normal' people' don't have a hard time letting go. 'Normal' people tell their kids that the door's wide open when they turn 18.

      Sociopaths are the ones who don't let go because they want to drain the last bit of life from their kids if they can.

      Lucky kid if it manages to escape them (mentally or physically).

  17. Sociopaths? There are no such things.

  18. With regards to nature versus nurture, I often see the argument made "how can the same parents have two very different children?" and I want to argue with the author and say, "what makes you think that "nurture" is just one's parents?" Clearly we don't grow up in a vacuum. We have daycare, we have school, we have cultural entertainment, we have extended family, we have friends and friend's parents, we have religious leaders, we have respected people in the public eye - we have a vast range of experiences we learn from; so even a psychologist shouldn't be assuming that "nurture" is simply the behaviour of the parent. And then this confuses the debate - if whenever people hear "developmental model" or "socialization model" they interpret it as "I blame the parents" they're more likely to just reject it out of hand on purely emotional grounds (especially if they're a parent who is feeling accused). It's like a hyperagency of parents - where was the rest of society in all that?

  19. Im doing a paper on nature vs nurture in sociopaths and this is very useful.

  20. Because sociopaths have a limited ability to feel emotion; love, guilt, compassion, etc...I'm wondering if sociopaths are more likely to become drug addicts which is a short cut to feeling emotions??


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