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The Making of a Psychopath – The Greatest Thrill Seeker of All

Guest Post by Kassandra Lamb.

Thanks so much for holding down the fort, Kass. Take it away!

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist/psychology professor turned mystery writer.

While Stacy’s off gallivanting around the blogosphere talking to folks about her new book coming out on November 30th, she let me squat here asked me to come visit here at Turn the Page and talk about a topic near and dear to both of us at the moment–psychopaths!

Okay, you may be thinking that’s a little sick.

Let me explain. Stacy and I are so fond of psychopaths because they all too often play a very pivotal role in the novels we write. They are our bad guys.

I’m frequently asked, by students and fellow mystery/thriller authors, whether psychopaths are born or made. The answer is “Yes, all of the above.”

Lots of research has been done on this and that research tells us there’s a strong genetic predisposition to antisocial behavior, i.e., behavior that goes against society, that defies the rules, breaks the law.

This predisposition doesn’t usually come to fruition, however, unless that child is placed in a very unhealthy environment. Full-blown psychopaths always come from abusive backgrounds, with harsh and often inconsistent parenting.

Scientists are still trying to tease out some of the inherited components in antisocial personality disorder (the official diagnostic term for psychopaths) and how they interact with the environment. But here’s what we know so far:

  • There seems to be something inherently wrong with the wiring of psychopaths’ brains, because they never develop much in the way of a conscience. Most children, by age five, are starting to feel guilty when they break the rules they’ve internalized from their environment. But not budding psychopaths. They intellectually understand what the rules are, but they have no qualms about breaking them. They don’t feel remorse or guilt.
  • Another area where the wiring may be lacking to begin with is empathy, our natural ability to feel what others are feeling. Psychopaths lack empathy for others.The smarter ones may become quite skilled at reading other people’s emotions for the purpose of manipulating them, but they feel little or no concern or sympathy for others.This is one of the areas where environment interacts a good bit with genetics. On the mild to moderate end of the genetic predisposition continuum, the child often is capable of feeling empathy. With the guidance of a patient, loving parent, this empathy can be nurtured. I’ve seen a couple real-life examples of this! But in a highly dysfunctional abusive environment, that glimmer of empathy gets snuffed out early on.
  • While scientists aren’t sure exactly what goes wrong biologically in the conscience or empathy development arenas, they do know that there are other inherited factors. One is a high tendency to be impulsive. This personality trait is about 60% inherited and 40% influenced by environment. A child who inherits a high tendency for impulsivity is going to be a challenge for the best of parents. If that child grows up in a very dysfunctional, abusive environment where little effort is made to teach self-control, he or she is going to be extremely impulsive!
  • Also, the vast majority of people with antisocial personality disorder have learning disabilities, especially attention deficit problems. Seventy-five percent have full-blown ADHD (which we’re pretty darn sure is genetically transmitted). The ADHD child does not make the connection between behavior and consequences nearly as readily as children normally do (Please take my word for this so I can spare you the long, boring brain-malfunction explanation). Children with ADHD often don’t get it that what they just did is the cause of the punishment the parent or teacher is inflicting on them. From their perspective, the adult is just being mean, for some inexplicable reason.

Again, put a child with these learning deficits in an environment where discipline is very inconsistent and often way too harsh, and where out-of-control anger is often exhibited, and you end up with a very confused and pissed-off kid.

  • A third genetic piece, and this is the biggie for those of us who write and read mysteries and thrillers, is that people with antisocial personality disorder (i.e., psychopaths) inherit a nervous system that is not easily stimulated. It takes a huge amount of stimulation for them to feel excitement, or any other feeling. Everyday life, that most of us find quite satisfying, bores them and makes them feel “dead inside.”

So psychopaths are constantly looking for a thrill that will make them feel alive! They may find it in a variety of activities–dangerous sports, reckless driving, drinking and drugging, gaining power over others in their family or in the workplace, stealing, pulling off a con or getting away with other criminal behavior, physical violence, sexual aggression… You get the picture.

One myth about psychopaths is that they are often brilliant. Nope, that’s a Hollywood-generated misconception. They run the gamut from stupid to brilliant, just like the rest of us. The dumb ones engage in high risk behaviors and criminal activities early on. They either get killed or get caught and spend a lot of time in jail (although not all criminals are psychopaths).

The smarter ones become politicians, business executives, lawyers, cops, con artists, etc. They may be very successful in their chosen professions because they are quite ruthless; it doesn’t bother them a bit to climb over others to get to the top. (Again, not all politicians and business executives are psychopaths, and definitely this is not most lawyers or police officers!)

1910 mugshot of con artist Charles Ponzi, after whom Ponzi schemes were named.

Another myth about psychopaths is that they are obvious monsters or highly dysfunctional loners. Most are neither. Most look like everybody else on the surface. They get married, hold down jobs, may even be civic or church leaders! They figure out how to fit in, but behind closed doors they are seeking those thrills.

This perfectly normal-looking house belonged to Ted Bundy.

The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, killed ten victims in and around Wichita, Kansas. He sent sixteen written communications to the news media over a thirty-year period, taunting the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church. –July, 2008, FBI symposium report on Serial Murder.

The degree of antisocial tendencies also exists on a continuum. On the milder end, we have the guys (antisocial personality disorder is twice as common in men as women) who get their thrills through sports, drinking and using recreational drugs on the weekends, and controlling their families. In the moderate range, we have more heavy-duty drug abuse, more violent behavior in the wife battering-barroom brawls category, and more of a tendency to engage in criminal behavior.

Many rapists and a fair number of those more ruthless politicians and business executives are in this group. This is where the bad guy in my latest novel falls (and then my protagonist, Kate, and her private investigator husband discover they have a second psychopath in their midst!)

On the severe end of the continuum, you have the very violent criminals, the totally ruthless business executives and politicians, those who are brutally abusive to their own families, and the serial killers. These are the bad guys that Stacy loves to conjure up in her thrillers.

Unfortunately people with antisocial personality disorder are 3% of males and almost 2% of females in this country. (Yes, you probably know several!) Fortunately, only a very small percentage of people with ASPD become serial killers. What would motivate your average run-of-the-mill psychopath to become a serial killer?

One of the most thrilling things for psychopaths is having power over others. And there is no greater thrill than having power over the life and death of another person.

Most often the serial killer starts out killing for financial gain–robbing people and then killing them to eliminate witnesses, for example–or they kill as part of a gang or drug culture they are immersed in. Then they discover that killing gives them a rush of excitement, and they start to kill for that reason. These are the hardest killers to identify and capture because their victims often have little or nothing in common.

Another major element is rage. Abused children grow up harboring a lot of rage about that abuse. The vast majority of them turn that anger inward and it becomes poor self-esteem and depression. A small percentage deal with that rage by becoming abusive themselves. An even smaller percentage, the full-blown psychopaths (i.e., those who have a strong genetic predisposition to ASPD), discover that killing is a great outlet for that rage. These are the serial killers who have a specific victim type. Their victims usually, in some way, shape or form, symbolize the abuser, or sometimes the passive parent who let them be abused, or the lover who jilted them and set off their rage.

A very small percentage of serial killers are not only psychopaths but they also have other mental disorders. They may lose their grip on reality completely and act out truly bizarre fantasies with their victims. These fantasies are usually based in some triggering event in their histories that tipped them over the edge into psychosis. (Note: psychopath and psychotic are two very different things, but they do sometimes coexist in the same person.)

You’re probably checking the locks on your doors and windows about now. Keep in mind that psychopaths are a relatively small percentage of the population and serial killers are a small percentage of that group. And totally psychotic serial killers are a very small percentage of that small percentage.

But… (You didn’t really think I was going to leave you on a cheery note, did you?)

Psychopaths feel little or no fear. That’s part of their high arousal threshold. The situation’s got to be pretty damn terrifying before they feel even a flicker of fear.

So they don’t fear going to jail, or even dying. Indeed, some view dying as the ultimate thrill! And they can pass lie-detector tests with flying colors, while lying through their teeth. Because those tests are based on the premise that people are anxious when they lie. Not psychopaths! They’re not afraid of getting caught in a lie, because they’re not afraid of much of anything.

Gerard John Schaefer (note that he is smiling in a mug shot!) boasted privately of murdering over 30 women and girls. He was a deputy sheriff at the time of his arrest.

Which brings me to the last Hollywood myth I’ll debunk before leaving you. Serial killers are not hoping someone will stop them; they are not trying to get caught. They would have to feel remorse in order to want to be stopped. And they are incapable of remorse.

But they will sometimes escalate to contacting the police or newspapers with taunts or even hints as to where they might strike next, or they may intentionally leave clues behind at crime scenes.

They do this to enhance the thrill! Killing is starting to lose its buzz so they have to up the ante.

If you’d like to read more about psychopaths and serial killers, check out this 2008 report by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (the real one, not the one portrayed on Criminal Minds, which is, by the way, one of my favorite TV shows).

If you have any questions, I promised Stacy I’d hang around until she stops gallivanting gets back later, so ask away!

Celebrity Status, A Kate Huntington Mystery (Book 4)





Kate Huntington’s new husband has built up a thriving private investigating agency and he’s attracted his first celebrity client, a pop singer whose anonymous stalker has a twisted concept of love. Before Skip Canfield realizes just how twisted, he involves first his psychotherapist wife and then their lawyer friend, Rob Franklin, in the case. Soon they are being hounded by paparazzi and someone is planting evidence to convince Skip that Kate and Rob are lovers. Struggling to deal with this onslaught of unwanted attention and a stalker who will stop at nothing to remove the obstacles in his path, Kate and Skip must face the reality that you can’t always keep those you love from harm.

35 comments on… “The Making of a Psychopath – The Greatest Thrill Seeker of All”

    • Creepy is definitely the word, Louise. Yeah, I’ve had a couple bosses who qualified for this diagnosis. Not high on my list of favorite jobs!

  1. Pingback: Are Psychopaths/Serial Killers Born or Raised? Yes, All of the Above. | Misterio Press

  2. Great info here. Thanks. You’ve clarified some of the stereotypes. Is the anti social personality disorder the same as Narcissism?

    • Thanks, Lisa, for asking that question because it is easy to get the two confused. Indeed, there’s a lot of overlap between those two personality disorders. Many psychologists consider them to be on the same continuum.

      The key difference is that narcissists, while very self-centered, are capable of empathy and remorse. You just have to get them to realize that what they are doing is hurting others whom they care about. That doesn’t mean that they are able to change their behaviors all that easily (personality disorders are very deeply engrained in the person’s make-up, thus the name), but the remorse and empathy can sometimes be motivators to get them to try to change.

      With psychopaths, the only thing that may motivate them to change is convincing them that their behaviors are not in their own best interests, because they only care about #1.

      • Thanks Kassandra. NPD is much talked about these days and I’ve just been learning about it (since my ex has certainly shown the patterns) but that clarifies the differences.

  3. Shannon Esposito

    Oh my god, that photo of the sheriff turned killer is about the creepiest thing I”ve ever seen. *shiver* Anyway, great post, Kass! This is one of my favorite subjects, the way our brains get shaped and pruned into socially functioning (or not) humans is just fascinating. I think the link between our nervous system and personality disorders is something that needs to be researched more. I’ve just recently discovered that some of my anxiety stems from an over-active nervous system. I can’t imagine what it would be like to “need” to seek out stimulus. Yikes.

  4. Happy to help, Lisa, and that would explain why he is your ex!! Narcissists and psychopaths are often quite charming, but when the dust settles, they both make lousy partners.

    Yes, Shannon, as hard as anxiety is to deal with, it’s better than the opposite end of the arousal/stimulation continuum. Scientists are working hard to figure out the nervous system/psychological connections and we’re getting more answers all the time. The problem is that there are so many questions!

  5. Fascinating, Kassandra! I knew about the abused childhood link, but I didn’t realize so much could be traced to genetic predispositions. I assumed serials killers were “made.”

  6. I find mental illness so fascinating. It really helps authors to understand the motivation of their antagonists in thrillers. There is so much misinformation out there!

    • It is fascinating, Susie. And you are so right about the misinformation. I cringe whenever I read a novel and they’ve got the psychology all wrong.

  7. Great post, good information. I love hearing from experts what the media gets right and what it gets wrong!

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. I do cringe sometimes when watching TV, sometimes even the news. All too often they’re not dead wrong as much as they over-simplify things. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  8. I’m sorry I didn’t get to read this until today. Yesterday was a booger.

    I loved reading this. Some of the information I knew; some of it was new to me. I love learning new things–especially when I think they’ll help me write better characters.

    One of the things I liked about Celebrity Status is that your portrayal of the personality types (even the good guys) was spot-on. I knew you had worked in this field and know that helped, but I still think you did a good job.

    I have encountered three people whom I strongly suspect were either psychopaths or narcissists. Two of them were in positions of power–a boss and a relative by marriage. The boss was easy; I just quit the job. But I had a nervous breakdown.

    The relative by marriage was harder to escape; she finally died. Before she did, though, she wreaked a great deal of havoc in our lives. At the time when it was all going on, it was commonplace. Now, fourteen years after her death, I wonder how we survived it.

    The third person was someone who befriended me. She was slick. She insinuated herself into my life so skillfully that it took me about 18 months to realize what she was. I ended the relationship by cutting her off completely. There was no point arguing with her or trying to make her understand why. The only thing to do was damage control.

    Anyway. Great post. Thanks, Stacy, for inviting Kassandra to your blog.

  9. Hey Catie, happy to see you here today!

    The line between narcissist and pscyhopath is quite blurry sometimes and yes they can definitely be very slick. Sounds like you’ve had more than your share of them causing problems. Glad to hear you cut this last one out of your life.

    And thanks for your kind words about Celebrity Status 🙂

  10. As someone who feels like they fall somewhere in that spectrum, I found this topic particularly interesting. I’m curious though, are you using the term psychopath and sociopath as the same thing? What you describe I’ve always heard refered to as a sociopath.

    Either way, I enjoyed reading your post. I especially appreciate your discussion of it being a spectrum, as opposed to on or off, as I’ve often seen it portraid.

    • Those two terms are quite similar in meaning and neither are currently considered true “psychological terminology.” The word psychopath pretty much replaced sociopath awhile back in psychobabble. Antisocial personality disorder is, however, the official diagnostic term (at the moment; a new diagnostic manual is due out this spring). The definitions of these three terms have minor variations in them, so not quite synonymous, but close.


  12. Wow, this was fabulous! Scary, but fabulous. I have studied some of this with my psych educational background, but not in much detail. It is frightening to deal with people for whom the regular societal motivators hold no sway. Great post!

  13. Pingback: Mind Sieve 11/26/12 « Gloria Oliver

  14. Pingback: Thriller Thursday: Narcissist or Psychopath? | Stacy Green – Get Twisted!

  15. Pingback: Deciding on a Killing | Catie Rhodes

  16. Pingback: Can Psychopaths Be Cured? | Misterio Press

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  18. Most of this describes me quite well. Except for the abusive part, my parents weren’t necessarily abusive, but very inconsistent. One day I wouldn’t even get recognized for dropping the F bomb, and the next day suddenly “Don’t say that or else I’ll take your computer away”, so there’s that. Same goes with being loud, sometimes they don’t care if I scream and rage and other times I can’t even mumble out my anger in the most calm way I can think of without hearing a booming raging hypocritical voice telling me I’m annoying. I usually never cared about getting punished, but now that the stakes are higher, it’s not worth it anymore, as in instead of a scolding like I would have used to have gotten as a younger kid, I’d now get my computer and phone taken away for a few days for breaking even the most simple rules. The best part is when my mom decides out of the blue to come up with a new rule, something that I was previously allowed to do, but no warning like “Don’t stay out past 6 anymore”. I’m supposed to be able to figure it out because I’m older. The full-blown ADHD thing didn’t surprise me because for the longest time I used to have every single symptom of ADHD (no joke, I checked every website I could and found out I had it, even though my mom wouldn’t tell me that I did no matter how many times I asked). Good riddance once I get old enough to hold a steady source of income and live on my own, and be able to follow a consistent rulebook.

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