Why some people become narcissists or psychopaths

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Consider this: Children from poor families tend to perform better than children raised in foster homes, as I noted in a previous article for Psychology Today.

This is striking, because when it comes to important outcomes such as graduation rates, drug use, future income, and criminal behavior, a lot of our focus is on economics.

But in fact, family instability appears to be a stronger predictor than family socioeconomic status for a child’s life trajectory. Highly educated people constantly focus on the influence of wealth on standardized test scores. Less frequently, we discuss how instability in childhood gives rise to harmful behaviors in adulthood. For example, the effect instability in childhood on adult criminal behavior is equivalent to the effect the socio-economic status of the family on the SAT scores.

It is possible that such harmful behaviors are the result of changes in two important personality constellations: The dark triad and the light triad. The Dark Triad includes three traits:

  • Narcissism (grandiosity, sufficiency, uprightness)
  • Psychopathy (insensitivity, cynicism, impulsiveness)
  • Machiavellianism (strategically exploitative, duplicity, manipulator)

In a 2016 study published in Evolutionary Psychology title “Resources, Rigor, and Unpredictability: Socio-economic Conditions Associated with Dark Triad Traits,” the researchers measured black triad traits in people. Participants rated their level of agreement with statements such as:

  • “A lot of group activities tend to be boring without me” and “People see me as a natural leader. (Narcissism.)
  • “People who bother me always regret it” and “I like to take on losers”. (Psychopathy.)

  • “It is wise to keep track of what information you can use against people later” and “Avoid direct conflict with others as it can be useful in the future. »(Machiavellianism.)

Participants also responded to various statements regarding their childhood, including:

  • “My parents had a difficult divorce or separation during this time,” and “People often moved in and out of my house quite randomly. (Infantile instability.)

  • “I grew up in a relatively wealthy neighborhood” and “My family usually had enough money for things when I was growing up.” (Socio-economic status of childhood.)

The researchers found that instability in childhood significantly predicted the three dimensions of the Dark Triad in adulthood. The strongest link was with psychopathy (r = 0.23). Across the Dark Triad scale, the correlation was r = 0.20. It’s not particularly big, but it’s still remarkable. The effect is roughly equivalent to connect between school grades and future income.

The effect of childhood unpredictability was particularly strong for men, compared to women. That is, boys raised in unstable homes were particularly likely to have high Dark Triad scores as adults compared to girls raised in unstable homes.

It is important to note that the socioeconomic status of childhood had no association with the Darth Triad traits in adulthood. Being poor does not have the same effect as living in chaos. The researchers concluded:

“All people can have the potential to be high or low on dark triad traits… exposure to specific conditions is the trigger, which determines the activation of people’s traits and position on the continuum of. the dark triad.The experiences (or at least, the memory of) the unpredictability of childhood may be one of the prerequisites for the activation of dormant selfishness, competitiveness and antisociality found in the traits of the Dark Triad.

Still, many might question the role of genetics when it comes to these traits. In his book, Machiavellianism: the psychology of manipulation, Tamás Bereczkei writes: “Although genetic factors may have some role in the development of the Machiavellian way of life and thought, Machiavellianism is mainly the result of environmental effects.

Essential readings for child development

He shares research from studies of twins showing that genes make up only 31% of the differences between people for the personality trait of Machiavellianism. In other words, the environment is more important than the genes for this Darth Triad trait.

Additionally, others have suggested that environmental factors may affect the behavioral expression of psychopathy.

In his book Without conscience, Forensic psychologist Robert Hare argued that “Social factors and parenting practices help shape the behavioral expression of psychopathy, but have less of an effect on the inability to feel empathy or develop awareness. No amount of social conditioning per se will generate a capacity for benevolence. “

Hare says the psychology of psychopaths cannot be changed. Nonetheless, the behavioral expression of psychopathy can be shaped and contained by parental and environmental factors. For fans of the TV series Dexter, that was the reasoning behind “Harry’s code. “Dexter’s adoptive father admitted that Dexter would still have murderous urges, so he diverted his son’s impulse from innocent people.

In a real case of psychopathy a few years ago, a neuroscientist named James Fallon discovered that he himself is a psychopath. Once a self-proclaimed genetic determinist, he changed his mind when he reflected on how his warm upbringing limited his malicious impulses. “I was loved and it protected me,” he said. Explain.

Fallon believes that if he had been raised in a different environment (i.e. not in an intact middle-class family) his life would have been very different.

It is important to note that the Darth Triad is not a diagnostic tool for personality disorders. It measures subclinical psychopathy and narcissism. However, if someone scores on the higher end of these subscales, they could qualify for an official diagnosis.

Now let’s move on to the triad of light. It is a constellation of three prosocial traits:

  • Humanism (appreciation of the successes and creations of others).
  • Kantianism (tendency to behave with integrity and honesty rather than deception and charm).
  • Faith in humanity (believing that people are generally good and trustworthy).

To be clear, the concepts of light and dark triad exist on a spectrum. There is a bit of both in each of us. But a person who scores particularly high on either would be someone to trust or avoid.

In a 2019 to study, a team of researchers led by Scott Barry Kaufman asked people how much they agreed with statements like:

  • “I tend to applaud other people’s successes” and “I like to listen to people from all walks of life. (Humanism.)
  • “I prefer honesty to charm” and “When I talk to people, I rarely think about what I want from them. »(Kantianism.)
  • “I tend to see the best in people” and “I tend to believe that others will treat me fairly. (Faith in humanity.)

Participants also responded to statements regarding family income from their childhood and the unpredictability of their childhood. The researchers found that instability in childhood predicted inferior light triad traits in adulthood (r = -0.21).

Crucially, the socioeconomic status of childhood had no relation to the traits of the light triad in adulthood. This reflects the finding that childhood socioeconomic status did not predict dark triad traits in adulthood. The conclusion is consistent with the idea that growing up in poverty does not have the same effect as growing up in chaos.

In short, family instability in childhood appears to lead to increased deception, coldness, impulsiveness, and aggression. Conversely, instability in childhood is linked to a decrease in kindness, trust, generosity and honesty. If we want less psychopathic behavior and more humanistic behavior, then promoting stable and safe families for children could be a cost-effective approach.

A version of this article also appears on the Institute for Family Studies website.

Facebook image: J. Quendag / Shutterstock


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