"Horizon" is a longrunning and respected BBC documentary series that focuses on science. I have watched it avidly since I was a child. This week it was about psychopaths. Here are some interesting facts:

Psychopaths lack the chemical in the brain that enables us to empathise with others. There brains are markedly different to those of non-psychopaths and this difference shows up clearly on cat-scans. They are born psychopaths. The condition is genetic but does not effect everybody in a family line.

If a psychopath has a happy non-abusive childhood they will not grow up to be killers. If they have an unhappy childhood they will definitely grow up to have the potential to kill. Although, in theory, it is possible for psychopaths who are potential killers to stop themselves killing it is extremely difficult for them to do this.

Babies who are not psychopaths are not only born innocent they are born with the knowledge of what is a good action and what is a bad action. They automatically approve of selfless actions in others and disapprove of selfish actions.

Psychopaths of all propensities are often found in positions of power in business organisations. Although about half of their staff will view them as good leaders they are not and they are not good at business either. They are just very good at persuading people they are.

There are far more psychopaths among us than we had ever previously imagined. You might be one. I might be one.

This is all very fascinating and begs lots of questions about the way we punish psychopaths when they do what psychopaths do. It shows clearly the importance of nurture in the formation of an individual's adult destiny. It also scuppers the Western Christian doctrine of "original sin."



  1. I’m not sure I follow you on how this scuppers the idea of original sin. Can you explain a wee bit further?

  2. The Orthodox Church has been right all along. We are not born sinful. In fact, most of us are born with an overwhelming urge to do the right thing. We develop the ability to go against these natural urges as grow up and how we turn out is mainly down to our childhood experiences.

  3. How would you define a psychopath? It’s a word which is much misused, and while I think you’re probably using it in its correct sense, it’s as well to make that clear. I agree there are a lot out there, and the better adjusted ones are hard to spot. What I don’t understand is why so many people admire them.

  4. I wouldn’t, Robert. But they did on “Horizon.” What is important here is that they defined it by physiology rather than psychology. But the emotional symptom seems to be a complete lack of empathy (not having a conscience).

  5. I assume you mean ‘genetic’ and not ‘generic’ in first paragraph. Re: Original sin, I think we all are born with it, because it is self-centeredness. It’s bred into us, it’s our self-preservation instinct. It results in fear and fear is the root of all sin, I think…

  6. Yes, “genetic.” Thanks, Craig. But I’m not so sure about your comment on original sin. If psychopathy is bred into the psychopath but only becomes dangerous if they have an abusive childhood, perhaps self-interest only becomes sinful due to nurture as well. Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. But I don’t believe any human trait is sinful in itself. I believe that there needs to be actual harm caused for a sin to have occurred. I’m no believer in condemning people based on their potential to sin.

  7. Given my work with kids, I have no problem at all with the observations of the program, but the semantics are quite specific enough for me.

    The word “empathy” is typically used to mean the ability to understand and share the feelings/perspective of another, and clearly in the case of a psychopath, more is going on than that. I work with many students who are on the “autism spectrum” and empathy is a challenge for many of them, and none a potential psychopath. However, in the 27 years I’ve been in practice, I have had two clients who clearly understood the feelings of others, but did not share them, and took particular delight in the real or perceived distress of another. That was another thing all together.

  8. Thanks, KJ.
    One question: Are those children for whom empathy is a challenge incapable of empathy or are they avoiding it because of their autistic symptoms?
    I think the documentary made a clear point that psychopaths are incapable of feeling empathy because they physically do not have the means to do so.

  9. A lot of them will be psychopaths, Larry. But then a lot of the top people in the Democratic party will be also. Psychopaths are perfectly capable of playing any game to get what they want for themselves. That was in the documentary as well.

  10. I have a question for KJ: Is Asperger’s syndrome a real thing? It’s not just…made up?

    I’m not KJ, but . . . it depends who you ask – for the Mayo clinic, and most of the medical community, yes it is. It’s part of the autistic spectrum. If you ask me, yes it is, as it’s where I fit in that spectrum.

    If you ask the creator of Law and Order, no, it’s a dodge for people to commit crime and get away with it.

  11. They didn’t mention the term “sociopath” from what I remember.

    Yeah, that’s the thing. The way they’re using “psychopath” here, is what I was taught was the definition of sociopath (no empathy). [Whereas being a psychopath is (I think) to be pathologically afflicted w/ the sense-distortions of schizophrenia, and some other mental conditions]

    MP, I would think you would be interested—if it’s not too distressing for you (and it may well be)—in the connection between this No Empathy condition, and the abuse of animals. I’ve heard that abuse of animals by the young is THE most dead-on predictor of whether they will, in the (near) future, commit violence against other humans.

  12. Yes, Asperger’s is very much a reality, and info regarding it easily available. It is its identification that has furthered the thought that autism, as Mark has pointed out, is presents as a “spectrum” vs. “present/not present.” You can find the diagnostic criteria here: This is my particular niche in the spectrum, as I specialize in language/learning disabilities in school-aged children. The nuances of abstraction can often be a challenge in social communication and in literacy skills. I provide ample opportunities for identifying sarcasm.

    To answer your question, Mad One, the challenge of empathy (And here I do not mean conscience.), the lack of which is often called “mind blindness” in this context, is not a choice at all with this population. Such a choice would be a behavioral concern, I believe. Whereas, with most of my clients for whom this is a concern they, depending on their level of capability of insight, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” aside, typically wish to be more like their peers, and not less. Rather than learning the skills of empathy and perspective taking in the “osmotic” like way most of us do, the skills are taught explicitly through a variety of methods and experiences.

  13. Sometimes the words “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used interchangably. The usage is not always consistent, however.

    May I recommend The Sociopath Next Door as an excellent way of comprehending all this. Interestingly, it was suggested to me by someone who was also being bullied by the same person who was bullying me a couple of years ago. It was HER therapist who insisted she read the book.