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Is psychopathy an evolutionary strategy rather than a disorder?

Psychopaths are manipulative, violent, impulsive, and lack empathy — but if psychopathy encourages more frequent reproduction, is it, then, an advantageous strategy?

Is psychopathy an evolutionary strategy rather than a disorder?
Photo credit: Isai Ramos on Unsplash
  • It's tempting to think of psychopathy as a kind of aberrant mental condition, but several studies suggest that it may be an evolutionary strategy.
  • A study compared the genetic profiles of psychopaths with individuals who were more likely to have children younger and more frequently and found significant overlap.
  • This suggests that the qualities that bring about psychopathy are also qualities that encourage more frequent reproduction, making psychopathy an advantageous strategy.

From an evolutionary perspective, it seems odd that we would have psychopaths among our numbers at all. A great deal of what's made humanity a successful species is our social cohesiveness, our empathy toward one another, and our understanding of right and wrong. What benefit could there be for individuals to simply lack these socially binding qualities and to feel a tendency toward violence to boot? The evolutionary role of psychopaths becomes even stranger when you consider the fact that psychopaths are at higher risk for becoming disabled or dying early owing to their impulsivity and reckless behavior.

It's tempting to say that psychopathy is simply the result of a short circuit in the complicated wiring that makes up our brains. However, it may be the case that psychopaths are simply employing a different reproductive strategy than the rest of us. At least, that's what Jorim Tielbeek and colleagues argue.

Looking at the genome

While psychopathy is believed to have some environmental causes, much of what brings it about is genetic. We know that there are certain mutations that encourage psychopathic personalities. Tielbeek and colleagues were curious as to whether these mutations also conferred some other kind of benefit. So, they looked at two large databases containing genotypic data on over 31,000 individuals. A prior study had also uncovered the genetic profiles of individuals who were more likely to have children younger and to have more children overall. By looking at the overlap of these two genetic profiles, the research team was able to see whether there was any correlation between the two sets.

They found that there was, indeed, a fairly significant overlap. The genes associated with having children earlier and more often are also associated with the genes that give psychopaths the characteristics that make them psychopathic, like a lack of empathy.

Why psychopathy exists

Photo by Jesús Rocha on Unsplash

It seems counterintuitive, but this finding fits well with what we understand about psychopaths. Previous research has found that psychopaths are often superficially charming, which enables them to attract others in the short term. In the long term, though, this façade crumbles over time. Psychopaths are also prone to greater disinhibition than others, meaning they have problems with impulse control and tend to seek immediate gratification. Combined, these traits would make psychopaths sexually promiscuous, and their disregard for social norms makes them more prone to poaching others' mates or sexual assault, a theory that has been supported by a number of other studies.

But if psychopathy can be a way to have more offspring, why aren't there more psychopaths? After all, Tielbeek and his colleagues' study showed that psychopaths are more likely to have more children, and we know that there is a significant genetic component in psychopathy. Wouldn't the psychopathic gene out-reproduce the non-psychopathic gene?

Why we aren't all psychopaths

One theory is that there's a kind of balancing act going on in the human genome. Highly psychopathic individuals make up about 1 percent of the human population. According to this theory, this number is so low because psychopaths are a kind of social parasite that can only thrive in groups predominantly made up of people who can be taken advantage of; that is, environments made up of moral, empathetic, socially-minded individuals. In groups like these, its easier to take advantage of others' trust to gain resources, like access to sexual partners. If there were too many psychopaths, then this system wouldn't work, and a given social group might become stricter about enforcing group norms. It should be noted that this a difficult theory to test directly.

There's also the idea that the "fast" lifestyles of psychopathic individuals may encourage them to reproduce more frequently, but it doesn't encourage them to invest any of themselves in their offspring's success. Individuals with "slow" lifestyles have fewer children but tend to stick around to make sure their children develop into healthy, competent, and successful adults. The psychopath wouldn't care about that — they demand instant gratification and aren't particularly attracted to the promise of future rewards. In this way, fewer offspring with the psychopathic genome would go on to be in a position to reproduce.

Evolution doesn't have a perspective or an opinion on things. It's a neutral process that selects what works. What these studies show is that, at least when it comes to human evolution, psychopathy is more of a feature than a bug.

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Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
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  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

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Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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