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The Roots of Evil

Psychopaths are made, not born.

Key points

  • People with dark triad traits have often experienced childhood trauma and emotional deprivation.
  • From serial killers to brutal fascist dictators, there is a pattern of childhood trauma and neglect.
  • Some children respond to deprivation and trauma by "closing in" on themselves, switching off empathy.
  • If we could somehow reduce childhood emotional deprivation and trauma, then we could reduce human brutality.
Saddam Hussein
Source: GlamorousQtr/Flicker

Why do some people become violent criminals, serial killers, or brutal fascist dictators? Or, more generally, why do some people completely lack empathy and conscience, behaving cruelly to others while selfishly pursuing their own desires? Are such people born or made?

I attempt to answer these questions in my recent book, DisConnected.1 Many researchers believe that psychopathy is at least partly heritable, but there is no clear link to any specific genetic or neurological disorders. As a recent study pointed out, "The genetic background [of psychopathy] is unclear. The underlying molecular mechanisms have remained unknown."2 In contrast, the environmental aspects are much clearer: People with dark triad traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism almost always emerge from childhood trauma and a prolonged lack of attention and affection during early childhood.

This links to the "attachment theory" of British psychiatrist John Bowlby. After studying children brought up in orphanages and other institutions in the 1930s and 1940s, Bowlby developed what he called the "maternal deprivation hypothesis." He suggested that if a child’s attachment to a mother figure is broken, it damages their social, emotional, and intellectual development. Most pertinently, Bowlby found that a lack of attachment resulted in what he called "affectionless psychopathy," the inability to empathize with other people or to form meaningful relationships with them.​​​​​​​3

From serial killers and violent criminals to fascist dictators and psychopathic business magnates, there is a similar pattern of childhood trauma and neglect. In some cases, this is due to the death of parents, or parents' alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental or physical illness. In some cases, there is severe trauma due to physical and sexual abuse.

Serial Killers and Dictators

One study found that 50% of serial killers experienced psychological abuse during childhood, while 36% experienced physical abuse, and 26% experienced sexual abuse.4 Serial killers such as David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, and Joel Rifkin were rejected or abandoned by their mothers. Others (such as Edmund Kemper) were tormented, abused, and even tortured by their mothers. The female serial killer Aileen Wuornos (portrayed by Charlize Theron in the film Monster) was abandoned by her mother at the age of four and brought up by her grandfather, who abused her physically and sexually.

Similarly, Adolf Hitler’s father was a violent alcoholic, while his mother was traumatized by the loss of three previous children and incapable of giving him attention or affection. Hitler’s contemporary European dictators, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, were also the children of violent alcoholic fathers. From a young age, Mussolini and Franco both showed signs of psychopathic cruelty and complete indifference to the feelings of others. As a child, Mussolini was a violent thug who was expelled from school for stabbing a classmate. He also stabbed a girlfriend and led a gang that raided local farms. Saddam Hussein’s father and older brother both died shortly before his birth, leaving his mother so traumatized that she rejected Saddam, who was taken in by his uncle. As the only child of a single mother, he was constantly bullied and beaten as a child and learned to be violent to defend himself.

The ‘Switching Off’ of Empathy

Why do trauma and emotional deprivation create dark triad personalities? Put simply, if a person receives little empathy and affection during their early years, it may impair their ability to experience empathy and express emotion during their later years. As a defense mechanism, some children respond to deprivation and trauma by "closing in" on themselves and unconsciously disconnecting themselves from other people and from the world. They don’t allow themselves to make emotional connections to other people, who could be a source of further pain and trauma. They build a kind of armor around themselves to protect themselves from emotional pain and from other people. This armor also helps them to cope with the challenges of their lives, giving them a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Effectively, then, some children who go through deprivation and trauma unconsciously "switch off" the ability to empathize. Obviously, this doesn't always occur; many people emerge from trauma and deprivation as decent, empathic human beings. But once empathy has been switched off, it usually stays off. Once a psychological armor has been built, it usually stays in place and leads to a permanent state of disconnection.

Evil Is Not Innate

Despite all the horror associated with the above individuals, there is one consoling factor. The fact that psychopathic traits emerge from childhood trauma and emotional deprivation suggests that they are not innate. They arise when something goes wrong with human nature—namely, when empathy is switched off—rather than when human nature expresses itself directly. In this sense, evil is aberrational. People who have harmonious childhoods, who are raised with a steady and stable flow of affection and attention from their parents, rarely, if ever, develop dark triad traits. In contrast, they typically become altruistic, empathic, and responsible individuals.

This shows how deeply childhood experiences form human character. It also offers some hope: If we could somehow improve child-raising conditions—if we could somehow take measures to reduce emotional deprivation and trauma during childhood—then we could also reduce human brutality.


1. Taylor, S. (2023). DisConnected. Iff Books.

2. Tiihonen, J., Koskuvi, M., Lähteenvuo, M. et al. (2020). Neurobiological roots of psychopathy. Mol Psychiatry 25, 3432-3441.

3.. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. Basic Books.

4, Marono, A.J., Reid, S., Yaksic, E. & Keatley, D.A. (2020). A behaviour sequence analysis of serial killers’ lives: From childhood abuse to methods of murder. Psychiatry, Psychology, and Law 27(1), 126-137.

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