Psychopath has become a household word in spite of the fact that it is still not formerly recognized as a
in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Revision (DSM 5). While the term is undoubtedly overused (typically to pejoratively describe a person who has engaged in bad behavior), it does appear to be a legitimate cluster of unpleasant traits such as a lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others. The concept of psychopathy has been tossed around since the 19th century and has been observed cultures. Shouldn’t then, a psychopath born in Brussels be the same in Bahrain?
New research raises doubts. It’s true that there may be a central cluster of personality traits that survive across cultures. But the behavioral expression of these traits may be influenced by the culture in which s/he grows up. For example, in a study of 7450 psychopathic criminal offenders in the United States and the Netherlands, researchers found that psychopaths in the United States, for instance, tended to stand out for their callous interpersonal style; they tended to be more actively unkind and cruel in their expression of a basic lack of concern for others. In contrast, while psychopaths in the Netherlands also lacked empathy, they tended to express it through a parasitic lifestyle, i.e., passively manipulating and exploiting others to meet their financial and emotional needs by behaving irresponsibly, lacking motivation and lacking self-discipline.
Culture: The Wind That Blows the Psychopathic Storm
If we accept that psychopathy is likely caused by a cauldron of certain genetic predispositions, early experiences (disruptions in early relationships, mistreatment) and social factors (poverty, exposure to violence, cultural values), it makes sense that changing one of these ingredients could influence the outcome. Societies that emphasize cultural values such as competition, success and achievement, such as the United States, may encourage its genetically prone citizens to ruthlessly focus on self-interest and personal gain.
In contrast, as a society, the Netherlands tend to promote collaboration, consensus, and sympathy for the weak; it’s rude to stand out too much from others and important to pull one’s own weight so others don’t suffer. As such, a psychopath in the Netherlands may take advantage of these cultural values by, for example, pretending to be an underdog to get others do what he wants or manipulating others to financially support him.
There also appears to be some evidence that certain cultures tend to promote, or suppress, the behavioral expression of psychopathic traits. For example, in a study comparing Scottish and U.S. psychopathic inmates, they found that the Scottish inmates who engaged in similar antisocial behaviors as their American counterparts tended to score higher on the interpersonal (glib, superficial charm, cunning and manipulative) and affective (shallow emotional response, lack of remorse or guilt) measures of psychopathy. This suggests that strict social or cultural taboos against certain antisocial behaviors in some countries may effectively reduce how often they occur and it might take greater personality dysfunction to overcome them.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot we don’t know about psychopathy, including exactly what causes it. New research, however, suggests that no matter how much genetics may set a person up for a maladaptive life, anatomy is not destiny. There will always be environmental factors that can alter the course of a person’s life, either for better or worse, especially during their formative years.