The Developmental Stage that Psychopaths Missed

So, first of all, this post is not meant to malign psychopaths. Psychopathy is known to be a biological “disorder.” Also, I don’t want to raise any unnecessary alarm that your child is a “psychopath.” It is very unlikely, but if you DO suspect that, I hope to bring some comfort. I’m posting this largely to note something possibly interesting about human development. And to show that the evolution of human consciousness has already taken place. Some of us go through quite different developmental paths.

So, I read Without Conscience by Robert Hare. Hare is the authority on psychopathy. He started studying it when he found himself as a counselor in a prison. He had firsthand reason to study it. Inmates broke the brakes to his car, etc.

One of the most interesting things he found is that psychopaths have virtually no fear. The ones he studied were hooked up to a machine intended to deliver an electrical shock. Subjects were told they would receive this shock. The psychopaths barely winced. They showed some reaction during the shock but none before and it was not nearly as big as other non-psychopathic people. They are wired completely differently.

One of the things Hare says about psychopaths is their brains are “Mental Scrabble.” They purposely keep facts discrete in their mind. Then, when the situation calls for it, they can play fast and loose with them. They can put together just the right amount of plausibility, self-deprecation, and lies to tell a convincing, fabricated story, in an attempt to get what they want. Their brains are literally designed to lie.

Several of the milestones I document for child development in the late threes involved segmenting large data and then putting it together into a theme. At Segmented Knowledge, around 3.7, children start to take an enormous amount of data and segment it into chunks. They are at first way too segmented. They get really choosy and particular from then until their early fours.

Immediately after this, they go through a milestone that I called Themes, around 3.8. They take the segmented knowledge and put it into an overall theme. They might take what they know about simple machines and draw a roller coaster. They also see themes better. They can understand the basic plot of an adult-themed movie. Their favorite theme is themselves. Who are they? They can take a string of events and have an idea of their character. “I am responsible because I help my mom do the dishes,” or “I am funny because I make people laugh,” etc.

I propose psychopaths skipped this stage altogether. They don’t take discrete events and put them into a theme. Well, they do. But they keep those facts loose, by default. They put them into themes on the spot, when needed. Whereas other people put things into a theme and keep it there. Similarly, their character is not set in place like it is for other “healthier” children. They don’t develop a constant personality. They have one that can fit any situation at any time. They are chameleons.

It gets even worse when you think of the next stages. At Two Alternatives, around 3.9, children start to size others up. By default, they distrust others. They are certain you are going to get their food order all wrong. They become extremely egotistical and boss you around as in a way to decide what is good for you versus what is good for them. This goes on until they settle into realizing that you also have some good ideas, your own preferences, they can trust you, and maybe they need to persuade rather than dictate others. But what happens when a psychopath goes through this stage? When they went through what should have been the stage of “Themes,” but didn’t. They almost instantly start to learn to lie and manipulate as an effective strategy.

Hare says mothers can tell when their three year olds are psychopathic. It’s extremely disconcerting for them. I don’t mean to alarm you here or malign three year olds. My point though is that it is biological. You can see the charm, the lack of empathy, and the cunning even at 3.

It’s my hope that in understanding this that maybe more effective solutions can be found. Psychopathy shouldn’t necessarily be seen as “bad.” I have read several stories now of people who openly admit they are psychopathic. Many of them actually make better friends and spouses than others, because they have to work so hard at it. And they call other’s bluff like no other. Don’t lie to a master liar. And while so many people are drowning in people pleasing or fear or anxiety, these don’t afflict the psychopath whatsoever. They are sometimes the strength and the pep talk others need.

But there is obviously a dark side to psychopathy. And our society is woeful at handling it. We handle it one of two opposite ways. One, with sympathy. We are convinced they must have had a bad youth or troubled background. We thus give them the benefit of the doubt. This isn’t so. And if you read what psychopaths themselves say, they simply don’t care to change or regard other people. If their succeeding, why change? Psychopaths need to be held accountable.

The other way of handling them is with intense shame. Hare’s book is called “Without Conscience.” He describes the “importance” of making sure “children see all the damage they do when they [fill in].”

You see that’s where he goes wrong. As he says, psychopaths have no conscience. So all the shame in the world has no impact whatsoever. In fact, I think psychopaths may have been bred in cultures steeped in shame. Most people wilt under intense shame. It takes away their vitality. They may learn to “behave,” but they also fail to learn how to live or thrive. The only people who survive this are either people who don’t mind if they don’t thrive (are extremely docile) or psychopaths. I think psychopathy may be the biological result of years and years of improper nurturing. Basically, narcissism gets hardwired into a person. But, unlike narcissists, psychopaths have no shame.

Basically shame never works. For people who do feel guilty, they already feel it. It wasn’t necessary. And for people who can never feel guilty, it doesn’t work anyway. What do conservatives like Hare want? He eventually says we should convince them that not hurting others is in their self-interest. We need to convince them jail time is bad, basically. I think it needs to be taken further: we need to see where their natural skills have benefit. Sympathy nor shame nor even “positive education” are the ways to handle this disorder.

Raw evil does exist. We are constantly lectured to “see the positive,” “assume positive intent,” and “give the benefit of the doubt.” Pop psychology tells us that “hurt people hurt.” It’s not true. Hurt people can manage to NOT hurt others. And people who feel perfectly good inside can hurt. Sometimes “people who have no issue squashing others like a bug” hurt.

One way other, if we understand it, I hope we can deal with it better. And be amazed by the evolution of human consciousness. And if you know where the “gene” is that regulates psychopathy, you might also know what governs the developmental timeline of human maturation.

Amber studies the age-related developmental stages of children. Send your friends to

Leave a Reply