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Differentiating antisocial personality


disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy:
evolutionary, genetic, neurological,
and sociological considerations
a

Anthony Walsh & HueiHsia Wu

Department of Criminal Justice , Boise State University , Boise,


ID, USA
b

Department of Social Science , University of West Alabama ,


Livingston, AL, USA
Published online: 13 Jun 2008.

To cite this article: Anthony Walsh & HueiHsia Wu (2008) Differentiating antisocial personality
disorder, psychopathy, and sociopathy: evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and sociological
considerations, Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society, 21:2,
135-152, DOI: 10.1080/14786010802159814
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14786010802159814

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Criminal Justice Studies


Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2008, 135152

RESEARCH ARTICLE
Differentiating antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and
sociopathy: evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and sociological
considerations
Anthony Walsha* and Huei-Hsia Wub
a
b

Department of Criminal Justice, Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA;

Department of Social Science, University of West Alabama, Livingston, AL, USA

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(Received
GJUP_A_316147.sgm
Criminal
10.1080/14786010802159814
1478-601X
Original
Taylor
202008
21
twalsh@boisestate.edu
AnthonyWalsh
00000June
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Article
Justice
Francis
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Francis
(print)/1478-6028
2008
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version received ?? Month 200?)

This paper examines the separate but overlapping constructs of psychopathy, sociopathy,
and antisocial personality disorder from evolutionary, genetic, neurological, and
sociological perspectives. Evidence indicates that psychopaths are a stable proportion of
any population, can be from any segment of society, may constitute a distinct
taxonomical class forged by frequency-dependent natural selection, and that the muting
of the social emotions is the proximate mechanism that enables psychopaths to pursue
their self-centered goals without felling the pangs of guilt. Sociopaths are more the
products of adverse environmental experiences that affect autonomic nervous system
and neurological development that may lead to physiological responses similar to those
of psychopaths. Antisocial personality disorder is a legal/clinical label that may be
applied to both psychopaths and sociopaths.
Keywords: psychopathy; sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder; low fear hypothesis

Introduction
It has been said that psychopathy is the most important psychological construct relevant to
the criminal justice system (Harris, Skilling, & Rice, 2001, p. 247). Depending on whom
you ask, psychopathy, sociopathy, and antisocial personality disorder are synonymous
terms describing the same constellation of traits, or they are separate concepts with fuzzy
boundaries. This paper proposes to show that the weight of evidence favors the distinction
between psychopathy and sociopathy, each with their own causal mechanisms, with ASPD
being a clinical diagnostic term applicable to both.
Persons we now call psychopaths have preyed upon us since the dawn of time. Philippe
Pinel provided the first clinical term for these individuals in 1806 calling the syndrome manie
sans delire (insanity without delirium), implying that while psychopaths were insane they
could function normally if not morally in society. The first person to use the term psychopath
was the German psychiatrist Emile Kraepelin (1915). Although the term is relatively new,
those who have commented on the behavior of such people in classical, biblical, and medieval
works recognized the same characteristics in them that we do today (Hare, 1996a). For
instance, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle (384322 BC) wrote of a small minority of
individuals who have a brutish nature, which arises from three sources: by reason of injuries to the system, by reason of acquired habits, and by reason of originally bad nature (1947,
p. 453). Even small, closely knit preliterate cultures have their psychopaths. Eskimos have
*Corresponding author. Email: twalsh@boisestate.edu
ISSN 1478-601X print/ISSN 1478-6028 online
2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14786010802159814
http://www.informaworld.com

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A. Walsh and H.-H. Wu

long recognized a class of individuals, whom they call kunlangeta, who repeatedly lie, steal,
freeload, and who when the other men are out hunting, takes advantage of many women
(Murphy, 1976, p. 1026).
Several other clinical terms have been used to refer to serious antisocial behavior that
persists beyond adolescence. These terms include moral insanity, moral imbecility, sociopathy, antisocial personality syndrome, and antisocial personality disorder to describe
individuals who are morally bankrupt but do not show signs of mental illness (Lykken,
1995). Throughout most of the twentieth century, psychopathy has been the single most
widely used term. In the 1980s, the committee who devised the Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual (DSM) for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommended the use of
the term antisocial personality syndrome. In the 1994 DSM (DSM-IV) it is referred to as
antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
Leading modern researchers in this area believe that psychopathy is biological in origin
and that the psychopath may or may not engage in criminal behavior, and that the sociopath is the product of adverse environmental conditions interacting with genetic traits and
will inevitably engage in criminal behavior (Hare, Clark, Grann, & Thornton, 2000; Pitchford, 2001). Psychopaths constitute a small group of individuals whose numbers remain
fairly stable across cultures and time periods. They can come from any social class, family
type, or racial or ethnic group. The number of sociopaths, on the other hand, fluctuates
with environmental conditions and they tend to come primarily from the lower social
classes, from dysfunctional families, and from disadvantaged minority groups (Lykken,
1995).
Antisocial personality disorder
ASPD is described in the DSM-IV as a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of,
the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into
adulthood (APA, 1994, p. 645). ASPD is an umbrella term that could be applied to both
psychopaths and sociopaths. It is a clinical/legal label that psychiatrists apply to someone if
he or she consistently shows three or more of the following behavioral patterns since
reaching the age of 15:
(1) Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors indicated by
repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
(2) Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for
personal profit or pleasure.
(3) Impulsivity or failing to plan ahead.
(4) Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or
assaults.
(5) Reckless disregardful for safety of self or others.
(6) Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent
work behavior or honor financial obligations.
(7) Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt,
mistreated, or stolen from another.
Other criteria are that the individual must be at least 18 years old, must have been diagnosed
with conduct disorder prior to his or her fifteenth birthday, and his or her antisocial
behavior must not occur exclusively during a schizophrenic or manic episode (APA, 1994,
pp. 649650). The DSM-IV also mentions that ASPD is associated with low socio-economic

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status (1994, p. 647), which probably means that most of those diagnosed with ASDP are
sociopaths rather than psychopaths (Pitchford, 2001).
The most obvious problem with the APA criteria is that it would be difficult to find any
incarcerated criminal that didnt consistently evidence three or more of them. Indeed,
according to Shipley and Arrigo (2001) the base rate for ASPD among offenders is 5080%.
However, the requirement that the person must have been diagnosed with conduct disorder
as a child prevents ASPD from being synonymous with criminal behavior. The ASPD diagnosis has been criticized because it is made purely on the basis of behavior and neglects the
underlying personality basis for that behavior (Arrigo & Shipley, 2001, p. 339). While
behavior-based criteria may be useful for guiding decision-making for legal and correctional personnel, criminologists want to define individuals according to criteria that are
independent of their behavior and then determine in what ways those so defined differ from
individuals not so defined.
Psychopathy
Psychopathy is a personality disorder consisting of a cluster of traits that are anything but
prosocial. Indeed, this cluster is a veritable laundry list of traits all, with the exception of
good intelligence, are associated to some degree with criminal behavior. Table 1 gives a
partial list of these traits obtained from a wide variety of sources.
If we were to sum up these traits with a single word, it would be hard to find a better
one that emotionless. In his classical work on psychopathy The Mask of Sanity, Hervey
Cleckley (1941, p. 90) interprets how these traits manifest themselves in the cold and
emotionless life of the psychopath:
The [psychopath] is unfamiliar with the primary facts or data of what might be called personal
values and is altogether incapable of understanding such matters. It is impossible for him to
take even a slight interest in the tragedy or joy or the striving of humanity as presented in serious literature or art. He is also indifferent to all these matters in life itself. Beauty and ugliness,
except in a very superficial sense, goodness, evil, love, horror, and humor have no actual
meaning, no power to move him. He is, furthermore, lacking in the ability to see that others are
moved. It is as though he were color-blind, despite his sharp intelligence, to this aspect of
human existence. It cannot be explained to him because there is nothing in his orbit of
awareness that can bridge the gap with comparison. He can repeat the words and say glibly that
he understands, and there is no way for him to realize that he does not understand.

It has been estimated that between 1 and 3% of the male population and less than 1% of the
female population are psychopaths (Pitchford, 2001), although psychopaths make up about
Table 1.
Insensitivity to others feelings/lacking in empathy
Lack of emotional depth or conscience
Extensive history of pathological lying and deception
Impulsiveness and unreliability
Tendency to blame others whenever things go wrong
Failure to profit from adverse experiences
A parasitic lifestyle
Incapacity for love and other emotional relationships
High need for stimulation

Self-absorbed
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Relatively fearless
Good intelligence
Superficial charm/charismatic
Manipulates others
Lack of long-term life goals
Promiscuous sex life
Prone to boredom

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20% of the American prison population (Weibe, 2004, p. 24). The gold standard for
measuring psychopathy is the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) developed by Robert
Hare, arguably the leading expert in psychopathy in the world today (Bartol, 2002). This
instrument has been validated in forensic populations worldwide by a wide variety of
independent research teams (Williams & Paulhus, 2004).
To make a diagnosis using the PCL-R the diagnostician must be a doctoral level
clinician with special training with the instrument. During interviews that may last up to two
hours, clinicians rate patients as either having or not having each of 20 traits such as those
listed in Table 1. Ratings are made on a 3-point scale ranging from 0 to 2, with persons
receiving a score of 30 or higher out of a possible 40 considered psychopaths (Hare, 1996a).
To put this number in perspective, offenders in general have a mean PCL-R score of 22 and
non-offenders a score of 5 (Hare, 1996b). Only about 1525% of offenders diagnosed with
ASPD fit the PCL-R criteria for psychopathy (Hare, 2000).
Factor analysis of the PCL-R reveals that psychopathy is comprised of two factors, one
describing a constellation of personality traits that point to insensitivity to the feelings of
others, and the second a generally unstable, impulsive, and deviant lifestyle (Forth, Brown,
Hart, & Hare, 1996). While these two factors sometimes exist independently, usually both
are present together in the same individuals. In terms of what has previously been said about
the cross-class origins of psychopaths vs. the lower class origins of sociopaths, it is
frequently found that the physiological anomalies associated with psychopathy correlate
with high scores on factor 1 (personality traits) but not necessarily with factor 2 (unstable
and antisocial lifestyle), and that low IQ correlates with high scores on factor 2 but not on
factor 1 (Harris et al., 2001; Patrick, 1994). Additionally, criminal individuals who score
high on factor 1 are more likely than those who score high on factor 2 to be violent, to be
more intelligent, and are less likely to improve (become less antisocial) with age (Meadows
& Kuehnel, 2005, p. 86).
What causes psychopathy?
Recall that unlike sociopaths, psychopaths constitute a relatively stable portion of any
population and can be from any sociocultural background. They are far from all being coldblooded killers. They can be successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, lawyers, cult leaders, or
politicians who while they may exploit and manipulate others may never commit any
violation of the penal code. A number of people who some scholars have considered to be
psychopaths were actually heroic figures. Lykken lists astronaut Chuck Yeager, Lyndon
Johnson, Winston Churchill, and Sir Richard Burton among his possible good guy psychopaths, and adds: the hero and the psychopath may be twigs of the same genetic branch
(1995, pp. 116118). Nineteenth-century British explorer Sir Richard Burton has been
described as an Adventurer, linguist, scholar, swordsman, rogue, deviant, genius he
possessed wild, monstrous talents and was burdened by defects almost as grave (Spalding,
2004, p. 1). Fixing the psychopath labels to individuals based on aspects of their biographies
is highly speculative, however.
The stability of the prevalence of psychopaths over time and their existence across class
lines has led to the virtual dismissal of sociocultural or developmental causes of psychopathy (but not for sociopathy) by those most seriously engaged in this line of research (Cleckley, 1941; Kinner, 2003; Mealey, 1995; Pitchford, 2001). As Hare (1993, p. 170) remarks:
I can find no convincing evidence that psychopathy is the direct result of early social or
environmental factors. This does not mean that such factors are irrelevant to understanding
psychopathic behavior. If Richard Burton had been the son of a London butcher instead of

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the son of an army colonel his monstrous talents may have been utilized for criminal
purposes instead of those to which he actually put them and he may have ended up with a
rope around his neck rather than the sash of knighthood around his shoulders. We are not
saying that poorer social circumstances would have caused his psychopathy, only that they
might have led him to express it in less heroic ways.
Evolutionary explanations
Psychopaths are probably what Cesare Lombroso had in mind with his morally insane
category of born criminals; that is, those who appear normal in physique and intelligence
but cannot distinguish good from evil (cited in Gibson, 2002, p. 25). If most modern psychopathy researchers believe that psychopaths are born rather than made, we have come
full circle to evolutionary explanations of why these individuals exist. The modern understanding of evolutionary mechanisms is much more sophisticated than it was in Lombrosos
time; there is no more talk of criminals being atavistic evolutionary throwbacks whose
behavior is pathological or unnatural. Rather, many evolutionary scientists are viewing the
psychopath as behaving exactly as he was designed by natural selection to behave (Harris
et al., 2001; Pitchford, 2001; Quinsey, 2002). Of course, even if it is normal from an
evolutionary perspective for psychopaths to behave the way they do, it does not mean that
their behavior is acceptable or that we cannot consider it morally pathological and punish it
accordingly.
In an influential paper, Linda Mealey outlined a two-path evolutionary model that posits
what she calls primary sociopaths and secondary sociopaths who are products of two different causal mechanisms. Following commentaries on her paper from 42 other scientists, she
felt that evidence and terminological consistency warranted renaming her primary sociopaths as psychopaths and her secondary sociopaths as simply sociopaths. Both psychopaths
and sociopaths engage in high levels of cheating behavior (a general term used by animal
biologists to describe the exploitation of conspecifics for their own advantage). According
to Mealey, traits conducive to cheating are normally distributed in populations of any social
species, but there are a small but stable percentage of individuals at one extreme of the
distribution for whom cheating is an obligate (genetically mandated) strategy. This obligate
strategy is said to result from frequency-dependent, genetically-based individual
differences in the use of a single (antisocial) strategy (Mealey, 1995, p. 526).
Frequency-dependent refers to a special evolutionary selection mechanism in which the
fitness payoff accompanying a particular trait or behavioral strategy depends upon the
number of organisms in a population having that trait or practicing that strategy. Frequencydependent selection is a mechanism that genetically maintains more than one type of individual in species: a predominant type whose average fitness is superior in the long run and
an alternative type whose average fitness is superior when there are relatively few organisms
of that type. The alternative strategy Mealey was concerned with was a mating strategy that
involves high levels of cheating behavior in order to gain copulation opportunities (Gaulin
& McBurney, 2001). Cheater males avoid the time and energy used in normal courting
processes and thus enjoy a disproportionate degree of reproductive success, thus passing on
the genes for their deceptive strategy. Frequency-dependent strategies eventually result in
organisms that are genotypically, not just phenotypically, different; that is, a separate
discreet, taxon of a species, not simply individuals at one end of a continuum.
After a few generations the process reverses itself because a cheating strategy enhances
the fitness of those who practice it only up to a point. As cheater phenotypes increase in a
population, the fitness advantage of the strategy decreases. The fluctuating levels of

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reproductive success attending a frequency-dependent strategy combined with the evolution


of counter pressures against cheating in the population assures that obligate cheaters are rare
between 2 and 10% in any species (Moore & Rose, 1995). Thus cheating is a useful
strategy for getting what you want when only a few members of the population practice it.
When there are too many cheats, there is no advantage as cheaters come more and more in
contact with each other, usually resulting in a net loss to both. Once the cheater genotype is
in a population, however, it is not likely to be eliminated; it becomes what biologists call an
evolutionarily stable strategy. It is stable because as non-cheats become more numerous
relative to cheats the remaining cheats have rich pickings again and the evolutionary game
starts over.
This line of thought posits that psychopaths are the human equivalent of cheater males
found in other animal species. Although obligate cheater reproductive strategies with their
own distinct genetic basis exist in numerous animal species (Alcock, 1998), criminologists
may find the assertion that the psychopath is the human equivalent difficult to swallow.
There is some evidence that psychopathy constitutes a discrete taxonomic class phenotypically (Harris, Rice, & Quinsey, 1994; Skilling, Quinsey, & Craig, 2001), but it is not the
same as saying that they constitute a distinct geneotype, although behavior genetic research
has shown that the various components of psychopathy have strong genetic underpinnings
(Viding, 2004; Viding, Blair, Moffitt, & Plomin, 2005).
Cohort studies tend to support the claim that psychopaths constitute a fairly stable
proportion of any population in that they are remarkably consistent in reporting roughly
similar percentages of chronic offenders. The 1945 Philadelphia birth cohort studies of boys
born in 1945 (Wolfgang, Figlio, & Selin, 1972) and 1958 (Tracy, Wolfgang, & Figlio,
1990) showed that a very few boys (6% in the first cohort and 7.5% in the second) committed the vast majority of the crimes in the cohort. Six percent (18% of the subset of delinquents) in the 1945 cohort committed 71% of the homicides, 73% of the rapes, 82% of the
robberies, and 69% of the aggravated assaults. The corresponding percentages in the 1958
cohort were 61, 75, 73, and 65%. Similar cohort studies in other US cities and in other Western countries have found almost identical figures (Moffitt & Walsh, 2003). The fact that
most of the chronic offenders were poor minority youths confounds the taxonomical argument and suggests sociopathy rather than psychopathy, although of course sociocultural
status does not preclude the presence of psychopaths in these cohorts.
Psychopathy and the social emotions
If psychopathy is an alternate reproductive strategy forged by natural selection, there must
be a number of identifiable physiological markers that distinguish them from non-psychopaths. The greatly reduced ability to experience the social emotions of shame, embarrassment, guilt, empathy, and love has marked psychopaths across time and cultures. One of the
most consistent physiological findings about psychopaths is their inability to tie the
brains cognitive and emotional networks together (Scarpa & Raine, 2003; Weibe, 2004).
But how would this reduced ability to experience the social emotions be useful for psychopaths in following their strategy?
The social emotions are distinguished from the so-called primary emotions such as
anger, joy, and happiness, all of which the psychopath experiences. The social emotions
have evolved as integral parts of our social lives that serve to provide clues about the
kinds of relationships that we are likely to have with others (cooperative vs. uncooperative) and serve as commitment devices and guarantors of threats and promises
(Mealey, 1995, p. 525). Barkow (1989, p. 121) describes them as involuntary limbic

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system overrides that serve to adjust our behavior in social situations. Social emotions
thus focus and modify brain activity in ways that lead us to choose certain responses over
others. They move us to behave in ways that enhanced our distant ancestors reproductive
success by overriding decisions suggesting alternatives to cooperation (i.e., cheating) that
may have been more rational in the short term, but fitness reducing in the long term
(Walsh, 2006). Feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and empathy arising in the
limbic system prevent us from doing things that might be to our immediate advantage
(steal, lie, cheat) but would cost us in reputation and future positive relationships if
discovered. Thus, the positive and negative feelings we experience when we survey the
possible consequences of our actions keep most of us on the straight and narrow most of
the time. The weaker we feel them, the more likely we are to exploit others, the stronger
we feel them the less likely we are to exploit others. This is the emotional component of
our consciences coming into play.
The social emotions are also the evolved mechanisms for detecting cheats that help us
to avoid being exploited by them. But as our ancestors got better at detecting and punishing
cheats, cheats evolved mechanisms to become better cheaters. This process is an arms race
similar to the co-evolution of predator and prey in which the adaptations of one species are
molded by the adaptations of the other. As cooperators underwent evolutionary emotional
tuning for detecting cheats, cheats evolved mechanisms that served to hide their true intentions (Mealey, 1995). One probable adaptation aiding cheats was the dampening of the brain
and hormonal mechanisms that regulate the social emotions. The more these mechanisms
were dampened, the less real understanding of what it is like to feel guilt, shame, anxiety,
and empathy cheats have.
Numerous researchers have studied emotional responses in psychopaths compared to
non-psychopaths using brain wave patterns revealed in electroencephalograms (EEG). The
EEG is a reflection of the brains arousal levels in response to the persons internal
(thoughts and emotions) and external (situations that evoke thoughts and emotions) environments. For instance, researchers may present psychopaths and non-psychopaths with a list
of emotionally neutral and emotionally laden words while they were hooked up to an EEG
and compare their brain wave responses. With emotionally neutral words (cup, apple) both
psychopaths and the non-psychopaths show a small spike in their alpha waves indicating
that they have recognized the word. When non-psychopaths are presented with emotionally
laden words (cancer, death, mom) there is a much higher spike indicating that they have
recognized the word and made associations that have led to pairing the cognition with
emotions. When psychopaths are presented with those same emotional words, they tend to
process them in ways similar to processing apple or cup. That is, recognize it and pass on
to the next word without involving the emotions. Hundreds of other studies using many
different kinds of methods have revealed over and over that the defining characteristic of
psychopaths is their inability to tie the brains cognitive and emotional networks together
(Levenson, Patrick, Bradley, & Lang, 2000; Patrick, 1994; Scarpa & Raine, 2003). These
emotional deficits are particularly related to the PCL-Rs factor I (Kosson & Newman,
1995).
Richard Weibe (2004, p. 33) sums up the literature on emotional processing of psychopaths as follows:
Unlike non-psychopaths, psychopaths tend not to react autonomically to either faces or words
that convey emotions. Further, they do not recognize fear and disgust as readily, although they
can identify other basic emotions. These features allow the psychopath to cold-bloodedly
pursue selfish interests, without being distracted by emotional signals, especially the fear and
disgust of another person.

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Weibe also reminds us that the defining traits of chronic offenders evolved not for the
purposes of carjacking, stock market fraud, arson, drug dealing, robbery, or any other act
we call criminal, but for successful mating effort. Because of this, cads and crooks are
woven from the same evolutionary cloth, and the traits useful to such individuals must
involve the social emotions. Because chronic cheats operate below the emotional poverty
line (Hare, 1993, p. 134), they do not reveal physical clues, such as blushing, looking away,
or other signs of nervousness that would allow others to judge their intentions. Lacking an
emotional basis for self-regulation, chronic cheats make social decisions exclusively on the
basis of rational calculations of immediate costs or benefits (Mealey, 1995; Trivers, 1991).
David Rowe (2002, pp. 6263) provides us with an excellent thumbnail sketch of the traits
useful in supporting the cad mating strategy.
A strong sexual drive and attraction to novelty of new sexual partners is clearly one component
of mating effort. An ability to appear charming and superficially interested in women while
courting them would be useful. The emotional attachment, however, must be an insincere one,
to prevent emotional bonding to a girlfriend or spouse. The cad may be aggressive, to coerce
sex from partly willing partners and to deter rival men. He feels little remorse about lying or
cheating. Impulsivity could be advantageous in a cad because mating decisions must be
made quickly and without prolonged deliberation; the unconscious aim is many partners, not a
high-quality partner.

There is strong empirical evidence supporting the link between an excessive concentration
on mating effort and criminal behavior. A review of 51 studies examining the relationship
between number of sex partners and criminal behavior found 50 of them to be positive, and
also that age of onset of sexual behavior to be negatively related to criminal behavior (the
earlier the age of onset, the greater the criminal activity) in all 31 studies (Ellis & Walsh,
2000). A cohort study of over 1100 British twin pairs found that the most antisocial 10% of
males in the cohort fathered 27% of the children (Jaffee, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor, 2003),
and studies of gang members find that members have more sex partners than non-gang
members in the same neighborhoods and that gang leaders have more sex partners than
other gang members (Padilla, 1992; Palmer & Tilley, 1995).

The low fear hypothesis


The low fear hypothesis advanced by Lykken is another explanation for psychopathy.
Lykken writes: Like the ability to experience pain, the fear mechanism is especially useful
early in life before the individuals judgment and reason are sufficiently dependable guides
to behavior (1995, p. 144). Fear and anxiety are emotional components of the conscience,
the strength of which has a lot to do with the autonomic nervous systems (ANSs) typical
level of arousal. Lykkens basic premise is that psychopaths are difficult to condition
because they are relatively fearless, and that they are relatively fearless because they have
hypoarousable ANSs. This low fear quotient can account for the characteristics of psychopaths (deceitfulness and superficial charm; and the lack of nervousness, shame, empathy,
and remorse) that enable them to cheat and manipulate others. Numerous laboratory studies
indicate that relative to control subjects, psychopaths have low electrodermal activity
(subjectively experienced as anxiety or fear) in anticipation of the presentation of painful or
noxious stimuli (Patrick, 1997).
Fearlessness makes it difficult to visualize the negative aspects of impending events,
much of which relies on emotional processing. In other words, psychopaths have a tendency
to take risks that most of us would rather avoid because of the negative consequences

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associated with them. The approach/avoidance aspects of our behavior are regulated by two
opposing mechanisms, the behavioral activating system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition
system (BIS). The BAS is associated chemically with the neurotransmitter dopamine, and
anatomically with pleasure areas in the limbic system such as the nucleus accumbens (Gove
& Wilmoth, 2003) and the BIS is associated with serotonin and with limbic system
structures such as the hippocampus (the seat of memory) that feed into the prefrontal cortex
(Pinel, 2000). Dopamine facilitates goal-directed behavior and serotonin generally
facilitates neural processes that lead to the inhibition or modulation of that behavior (Depue
& Collins, 1999).
The BAS is sensitive to reward signals motivating a person to seek rewarding stimuli
and the BIS is sensitive to threats of punishment and prevents the person from seeking
rewards that contain significant threat of punishment. Most people are more or less equally
sensitive to both reward and punishment because they are in a state of dopamine/serotonin
equilibrium most of the time, but for some people one system might dominate the other
(Ruden, 1997). A normal BAS combined with a faulty BIS, or vice versa, may lead to a very
impulsive person with a craving brain that can lead him or her into all sorts of physical,
social, moral, and legal difficulties, such as obesity, gambling, sex addition, and alcohol and
drug addiction (Ruden, 1997).
A third system of behavior control is the flight/fight system (FFS), which refers to ANS
mechanisms that mobilize the body for vigorous action in response to threats by pumping
out epinephrine (adrenaline). Fear and anxiety at the chemical level is epinephrine shouting
its warning: Attention, danger ahead; take action to avoid! Having a weak FFS (low
epinephrine) that whispers rather than shouts combined with a BAS (high dopamine) that
keeps shouting Go get it, and a BIS (low serotonin) too feeble to object, is obviously very
useful when pursuing all kinds of criminal and antisocial activities, especially those with
high levels of risk and danger (Gray, 1994). Regardless of what trait or traits (low empathy,
guilt, fear, anxiety, etc.) are emphasized to characterize psychopathy by one theorist or
another, they all boil down to low peripheral nervous system (ANS) arousal and/or central
nervous system (BAS/BIS) abnormalities.
Sociopaths
Unlike psychopaths, all sociopaths are criminals by definition, and have been colorfully
described as: feral creatures, undomesticated predators, stowaways on our communal
voyage who have never signed the Social Contract (Lykken, 1995, p. 22). According to
Mealey (1995, p. 539), sociopaths are individuals who employ a cheating strategy not as
clearly tied to genotype (as is that of the psychopath). Lykken (1995, p. 23) holds a similar
view, stating that sociopaths possess impulse peculiarities or habit patterns that are traceable to deviant learning histories interacting, perhaps, with deviant genetic predilections.
For these researchers, sociopaths develop the kind of emotional calluses that psychopaths
are apparently born with primarily through inadequate socialization and hostile childhood
experiences.
Figure 1 presents my interpretation of Lykkens diathesis-developmental model showing the placement of psychopaths, sociopaths, normal offenders (neither psychopaths nor
sociopaths), and non-offenders on continua of biological propensity and parenting
competency. Parenting competence has little or no effect on the development of psychopathy given the assumption that the syndrome is strongly determined by biology.
Sociopaths, with their assumed lesser degree of biological predisposition, are primarily the
result of incompetent parenting in this model. So-called normal offenders may have a

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Competent Parenting

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__________ ________________________
High
Biological

_____________
__
Propensity

_________
Low

Incompetent Parenting
= Psychopaths.

= Sociopaths.

= Normal offenders.

= Non-offenders.

Figure 1. Situating psychopaths, sociopaths, normal offenders, and non-offenders on biological


propensity and competency of parenting according to David Lykkens diathesis-developmental model. The vertical axis represents a continuum of parental competency. The horizontal axis represents
a biological propensity continuum for criminal behavior from high to low.

weak-to-moderate biological predisposition, but in common with Gottfredson and Hirschis


self-control theory (1990), incompetent parenting is the main culprit. Finally, non-offenders have low biological propensity and have received competent parenting for the most
part. Even with incompetent parenting, individuals with low biological propensity are
unlikely to offend.
Lykken views sociopaths as more of a threat to society than psychopaths because they
are just as dangerous and much more numerous, and he asserts they are increasing at an
alarming rate. He attributes this increase to increasing levels of poor parenting and the
increase in poor parenting to the increase in the number of children being raised in fatherless
homes. He is particularly concerned with the rates of out-of-wedlock births, and considers
this phenomenon to be driving numerous problem behaviors (drug abuse, poverty, illiteracy,
homelessness, and so forth) other than crime.
The crime rate did grow almost in direct proportion to the illegitimacy rate in the USA
(Lykken, 1995) and Britain (Himmelfarb, 1994) during the 1960s to the 1990s. While this
does not establish a causal connection, there is a great deal of cross-cultural evidence that
supports the contention that being raised in a fatherless home substantially increases
childrens risk of antisocial behavior. For instance, a Finnish cohort study found that living
in a single parent home roughly doubles a childs probability of becoming criminal
controlling for many other risk factors (Rasanen et al., 1999), and two British longitudinal
studies found that boys born out of wedlock to be involved in delinquent and other
behavioral problems at a much higher level than children born in wedlock (Maughan &
Pickles, 1990; West & Farrington, 1977).
Figure 1. Situating psychopaths, sociopaths, normal offenders, and non-offenders on biological propensity and competency of parenting according to David Lykkens diathesis-developmental model. The vertical axis represents a continuum of parental competency. The horizontal axis represents a biological propensity continuum for criminal behavior from high to low.

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This is not to equate single parenting (which may be superior to double parenting in
some cases) with poor parenting, although in most cases rearing in a two-parent home is
obviously preferable. A number of studies have shown that unwed mothers tend to come
from economically deprived single parent families themselves, and to be younger than
women who bear their first child in wedlock (Vedder & Gallaway, 1993; Zuravin, 1988).
Being unmarried also means that they probably lack the same level of financial and social
support that most married mothers enjoy which, in turn, increases the probability of child
abuse and neglect (McLeod, Kruttschnitt, & Dornfield, 1994; Walsh, 1991). Fatherless
rearing also decreases informal familial control of children and increases the number of
unsupervised teenagers free to congregate in gangs of other youths of similar background
(Messner & Sampson, 1991).
The relationship between unwed motherhood and criminal behavior cannot be
accounted for simply by family structure (single parent vs. intact home) alone. According
to a behavior genetic study of 1524 sibling pairs from different family structures taken from
the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Cleveland, Wiebe, van den Oord, and Rowe
(2000) found that heritable traits associated with antisocial behavior may select individuals
into different family structures and these traits are then passed on to offspring. Cleveland et
al. assert that, on average, unmarried mothers have a tendency to follow an impulsive and
risky lifestyle, be more promiscuous, and to have a below average IQ. They found that
single mothers with children fathered by different men, a family structure suggesting high
mating effort, to be the family type that put offspring most at-risk for antisocial behavior.
The two-parent family with full siblings, which suggests high maternal and paternal parenting effort, is the family type that placed offspring at lowest risk for antisocial behavior.
Cleveland et al. found that genetic differences accounted for 94% of the difference on
an antisocial subscale between the most at-risk group (single parent, half siblings) and the
least at-risk group (two parents, full siblings). Similar findings and conclusions from a
large-scale British behavior genetic study have been reported (Moffitt & the E-Risk Study
Team, 2002).
David Rowe emphasizes the traits of the feckless boyfriends who abandon their
pregnant girlfriends rather than the traits of mothers. These traits include: strong hypermasculinity, early sexuality, absence of pair bonding capacity, and other hallmarks of
psychopaths are all passed on genetically to offspring (1997, p. 257). Thus, according
to Rowe, the important factor in understanding the relationship between out-of-wedlock
birth and criminal behavior is not anything intrinsic to single parenting but rather the genetically transmitted traits of fathers. Not everyone would agree with this, of course, but studies
of fathers of illegitimate children have been found to be more than twice as likely to be
involved in delinquent and criminal behavior as non-fathers in the same neighborhoods
(Stouthhamer-Loeber & Wei, 1998; Thornberry, Wei, Stouthamer-Loeber, & Van Dyke,
2000).
Of course, it takes two to tango, and most of us tend to tango with mates who are like
us. Rowe and Farrington (in Rutter, 1996) found a correlation of 0.50 between husbands
and wives criminal convictions in Britain, and a New Zealand study found substantial
correlations (average r = 0.54) between husbands and wives for a variety of antisocial traits
(Krueger, Moffitt, Caspi, Bleske, & Silva, 1998). Assortative mating (like seeking like)
results in children born to antisocial parents receiving genes for heritable characteristics
predictive of antisocial behavior from both parents that may lead to the intergenerational
transmission of criminal behavior via both genetic and environmental routes. That is, they
receive genes underlying traits that make them vulnerable to antisocial behavior, and a
home environment that models and facilitates the development of those traits. Jaffee et al.

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(2003, p. 120) believe the situation to be worse when an antisocial father actually resides
with mother and offspring than when he does not because children experience a double
whammy of risk for antisocial behavior. They are at genetic risk because antisocial behavior
is highly heritable. In addition, the same parents who transmit genes also provide the childs
environment.
Despite the work of those stressing genetic transmission of traits, we cannot dismiss the
effects of the home environment. The home environment is the first of the critical links in
a causal chain of environmental influences that will affect the childs development across
the lifespan. The main environmental factors accompanying out-of-wedlock childrearing
are the closely related variables of poverty and child abuse/neglect, both of which are
related to childrens antisocial behavior.
Poverty
Poverty has been considered a cause of crime for so long that it is now something of a
truism. Raising children in wretched slum conditions surrounded by violence is certainly not
to be recommended, but what is the cause of poverty? Able-bodied people living in poverty
lack good jobs, and they typically lack good jobs because they lack a good education. This
is an obvious but important point because a male of any race is virtually assured of avoiding
poverty in the USA if he does just two things: finishes high school and secures and maintains steady employment. Fewer than 3% of white or black males who work full-time yearround are in poverty (McWhorter, 2000; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1997). For females of
any race, avoiding unwed motherhood is an added provision. Among African American
females who worked full-time year-round in 1995, 7.5% were in poverty compared with
2.2% of similarly situated white females. This difference in black/white poverty rates for
females probably reflects the greater likelihood of black females having to support young
children without the benefit of a male partner (McKinnon, 2003).
According to the US Census Bureau, single-parent household is a better predictor of
poverty than any other factor. The Census Bureaus breakdown of family types by race
and income (McKinnon, 2003) indicates that white single-parent female-headed households were more than twice as likely as black two-parent households to have an annual
income of less than $25,000 (41.1% vs. 18.8%). To state it in reverse, a black two-parent
family is less than half as likely to be in poverty as a white single-parent family. These
figures constitute powerful evidence that high rates of single-parenting is a major cause of
family poverty for all racial/ethnic groups. According to the 2005 World Almanac (in
Elder, 2005), in the USA nearly 70% of black children, 45% of Hispanics, 30% of whites,
and 15% of Asians, are born out of wedlock. The prevalence of single-parent families is so
high in the black community that: [A] majority of black children are now virtually
assured of growing up in poverty, in large part because of their family status (Ellwood &
Crane, 1990, p. 81).
Do sociopaths develop physiological responses similar to psychopaths?
Poverty is soul wrenching; it breeds anger, envy, hopelessness, and despair, all of which in
turn lead to an elevated risk of violence, including violence against children. The issue is
if these kinds of responses can mold children into sociopaths, and if so, can we identify
them independently of their behavior. In other words, if the path to sociopathy is mainly
developmental is it possible that sociopaths may develop the kinds of physiological
response patterns we see in psychopaths? One study compared psychopaths, sociopaths,

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and a control group of non-offenders on shock avoidance, galvanic skin response, and on a
fear scale, all of which are related to ANS reactivity (Lykken, 2000). Lykken found that
sociopaths scored significantly lower than non-offenders on all measures, but higher than
psychopaths on the fear scale and shock avoidance. They scored similar to psychopaths on
galvanic skin response anticipation, however. We thus have some evidence that sociopaths
are intermediate between non-offenders and psychopaths on physiological measures that
are predictive of antisocial behavior. But how might these physiological response patterns
develop.
Child abuse and neglect is an important risk factor for antisocial behavior (Caspi et al.,
2002; Heck & Walsh, 2000). A proposed mechanism by which protracted history of severe
abuse and neglect may lead to antisocial behavior of sociopathic proportions is through the
development of brain hemispheric imbalance and/or of muted ANS functioning
(Buikhuisen, 1982; Teicher, Ito, Glod, Schiffer, & Gelbard, 1997; Wyrwicka, 2000). Both
of these outcomes may be indexed by an intellectually imbalanced IQ profile in the
direction of PIQ > VIQ. Clinical psychologists have used this profile as a rough marker of
sociopathy ever since David Wechsler, the designer of the most popular of the modern IQ
tests, wrote: The most outstanding feature of the sociopaths test profile is the systematic
high score on the performance as compared with the verbal part of the [IQ] scale (1958,
p. 176). In terms of its relationship to antisocial behavior, Miller (1987, p. 120) remarks:
This PIQ > VIQ relationship was found across studies, despite variations in age, sex, race,
setting, and form of the Wechsler [IQ] scale administered, as well in differences in criteria
for delinquency. Brain scan studies show that VIQ items are associated with functioning of
the left hemisphere of the brain and PIQ items are associated with right hemisphere
functioning (Chase et al., 1984; Duara et al., 1984). A significant PIQ > VIQ discrepancy
might therefore be indicative of right hemisphere functioning superiority relative to the left
hemisphere.
Such a neurological profile may develop because abused/neglected children spend a
great deal of time in a low-level state of fear leading them to focus their attention on looking
for nonverbal cues of imminent threat. This tendency has been referred to as frozen watchfulness (DeLozier, 1982, p. 98) and is a right hemisphere motor skill. The motor skill areas
develop earlier than the left hemispheres language areas (Pinel, 2000), so if abuse and
neglect is experienced during the brains earliest organizational periods the individual may
develop a tendency to emphasize right brain functioning throughout life. It has also been
suggested that abuse and neglect may be associated with greater left-hemisphere dysfunction, which may lead to greater dependence on the right hemisphere. Increased right frontal
function, in turn, may lead to enhanced perception and reaction to negative affect (Teicher
et al., 1997, p. 197). A study comparing two groups of male delinquents born in and out of
wedlock examined the links between abuse/neglect, PIQ > VIQ, and violent delinquency
found that the boys born out of wedlock had a mean PIQ > VIQ discrepancy of 19 points
(compared with 6.4 for delinquent boys born in wedlock). The boys born out of wedlock
were also twice as violent, and were significantly more deprived on all measures of social
and economic well being (Walsh, 1990).
Being in a chronic low-level state of fear may also lead to the slowing down of the
reactivity of the ANS. Wouter Buikhuisen suggests that:
The continuous stress he [the abused child] is experiencing makes it necessary to look for
defense mechanisms. To avoid being hurt, he develops a kind of flat emotionality, a so-called
indifference with its psychological pendant: low reactivity of the autonomic nervous system.
(1982, p. 214)

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The ANS may be conditioned through physiochemical adjustments (i.e., a steadily decreasing level of arousal) to frequent stressful conditions as a survival mechanism (Wyrwicka,
2000). As Michael Wadsworth has put it:

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Children who in early life lived in surroundings of stress and emotional disturbances are more
likely to develop some kind of mechanism for handling the effects of stress, and this may be
reflected in later [reduced] autonomic reactions to stressful stimuli. (1976, p. 246)

The most stressful, disadvantaged, and crime-ridden neighborhoods in the USA today are
African American inner-city neighborhoods (Anderson, 1999; Clarke, 1998). These are
also the neighborhoods with the highest rates of out-of-wedlock births (Patterson, 1998)
and with the highest rates of abuse and neglect (Child Trends Data Bank, 2000). An inner
city pediatric clinic survey of children found that almost all of them had witnessed violence
many times in their homes or in the neighborhood, and 10% of them had witnessed a
shooting or stabbing before they were six years old (Taylor, Zuckerman, Harik, & Groves,
1994).
Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are organized (softwired) by environmental
experiences (Quartz & Sejnowski, 1997) and that brains organized by stressful and traumatic events tend to relay subsequent events along the same neural pathways carved out by
those events because pathways laid down early in life are more resistant to change than
those laid down later (Restak, 2001). As Perry and Pollard (1998, p. 36) note regarding the
importance of early experience on brain development: Experience in adults alters the organized brain, but in infants and children it organizes the developing brain (emphasis added).
A brain organized by negative, violent, and abuse events experienced in early life is primed
for antisocial behavior. If our brains develop in violent environments we expect hostility
from others and behave accordingly. By doing so we invite the very hostility we are on
guard for, thus confirming our belief that the world is a dangerous and hostile place and
setting in motion a vicious circle of negative expectations and confirmations.

Summary and conclusion


This paper has surveyed evidence that psychopathy, sociopathy, and ASPD are three different but overlapping constructs. There appears to be an emerging consensus that psychopathy
is a stable trait with a constant prevalence across time, culture, and socioeconomic status.
This constancy has led psychopathy researchers to posit that the construct is an evolutionarily stable trait forged by frequency-dependent selection analogous to what biologist call
cheater males in non-human animal species. The proximate mechanism apparently forged
by this process is the muting of the social emotions made possible by the damping of the
autonomic nervous system, which also endows psychopaths with reduced fear and anxiety.
It is important to realize that this mechanism was not forged for criminal behavior but as a
mechanism that enhanced mating opportunities, but once in place also proves useful for
cheating behavior in all social domains.
Sociopathy appears to be a condition less strongly tied to genotype than psychopathy
and more tied to development in extremely adverse environments rife with abuse, neglect,
and violence. The number of sociopaths therefore fluctuates with changes in socioculture
environments, particularly with the rate of children born into fatherless homes. These kinds
of developmental environments tend to produce a physiology (i.e., a hyporeactive ANS)
roughly similar to that of psychopaths as well as an intellectually imbalanced profile (P > V
imbalance) that is consistently linked to criminal behavior.

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Given the many and severe deficits faced by many children born out of wedlock,
particularly to inner-city teenage girls, it is no surprise that Gottfredson and Hirschi (1997,
p. 33) conclude that reducing illegitimacy is the policy recommendations deducible from
their self-control theory: Delaying pregnancy among unmarried girls would probably do
more to affect the long-term crime rates than all the criminal justice programs combined.
This view is shared by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
(OJJDP), which claims that delaying pregnancy until 2021 years of age would lead to a
3040% reduction in child abuse and neglect, and could potentially save $4 billion dollars
in law enforcement and corrections costs because offspring of teenage mothers are 2.7
times more likely than offspring of adult mothers to be incarcerated (Maynard & Garry,
1997).
Notes on contributors
Anthony Walsh is professor of criminal justice at Boise State University where he teaches criminology,
statistics, and law. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 articles.
Huei-Hsia Wu is associate professor in the department of social science at the University of Western
Alabama where she teaches statistics, research methods, demography, and sexuality. Her interests
and journal publications are in these subjects.

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