As an example of a psychopath, Oakley talked about a seven year-old boy who killed the family cat, hung it up in the foyer, and then hid to see his mother’s reaction when she walked in the door. Psychopaths enjoy watching people get hurt. They “can lie and con other people.” The most disturbing thing about psychopaths is that they cannot be identified easily: “they look just like we do.” And why are they doing these evil things? They are doing this “because things are weird differently in their brains.” They have a sluggish limbic system but other areas in their brains have unusually high functioning.
People with borderline personality disorder have an “impaired emotional toolkit” and “can do nasty stuff.” However, they often regret their troubled, hurtful behavior later. Some of the behavior characteristics Oakley mentioned:
- “Gaslighting:” Denying reality repeatedly until others start doubting themselves
- Projection and blame shifting: They “can’t accept they’ve done anything wrong,” so they blame someone or something else.
- It’s all about ME (narcissism): The “sense-of-self circuit is turned way up.” Narcissistic people see themselves as their “good cause,” and thus their selfish behavior “is really for a good cause.”
- Chameleon like behavior: They change their behavior depending on whom they are with.
Brainscans of people with BPD show an emotional over-responsiveness that explains why others feel like walking on egg shells around them. A person with BPD can seemingly unprovoked explode, yet their brains show that the provocation to them was strong because of their over-responsiveness.
These two personality disorders – borderline and antisocial – are spread fairly evenly amongst gender, though more women are diagnosed with borderline PD and more men with antisocial PD.
The confluence of these two disorders creates a unique disorder often called “borderpath.” Hitler is one of the most well-known representatives of this disorder. What makes Hitler so ‘special’? He, like other borderpaths, had good looks, charm, and an exceptional memory. A good memory is one of the most important tools for climbing a social hierarchy. Oakley stressed that having those three traits does not make one a borderpath because they can also be found in people who did a lot of good. For example, although Hitler and Mussolini had remarkable memories, so did Roosevelt and Clinton.
Despite the title of her book and the talk, Oakley emphasized that “genes aren’t evil.” There is not one gene that is responsible for evil deeds (thus, we cannot simply remove that gene and be done with evil). “In fact, every single personality trait is influenced by genes,” she said, adding that “it takes thousands of genes to create our personality.” There needs to be “a confluence that unites in just the right way to get someone evil.” Oakley observed that “some of our worst genes are also responsible for our best things.” How our brain is wired can affect our personality. Yet, the brain has also remarkable plasticity, which allows us to make real changes in how our brain functions. For example, both anti-depressant drugs and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can physically change the way our brains work. The problem for borderpaths (and the people around them) is that they don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, so they do not embark on therapy. (In the Q&A that followed her talk, Oakley recommended Stop Walking on Eggshells as one resource for getting help when you’re dealing with someone with BPD).
The borderpath research raises the classic nature or nurture question. Oakley pointed out that on average “it’s 50/50:” On average, 50% of personality comes from nature and the rest is nurture. However, Oakley reminded us, if we “look at one person, things can be very different.” Orphans in Romania had been raised under Ceausescu without anything touchy-feelie. The tragic result were children with grossly delayed mental and motor development. Nurture had a profound effect on their development. Oakley’s sister is an example of a person with a personality disorder created mostly by nature. The sister had polio as a child, which affected her brain and contributed to her inability to connect to other people. This rewired brain caused her behavior, “it’s not something that she was consciously doing.” Clearly, the environment and genes act together to influence personality.
Oakley summarized her research by underscoring that our “brain’s wiring profoundly affects every aspect of our personality.” And “there is only a limited range of what we can change within,” especially since “some people have more free will than others.” People with borderline or antisocial personality disorders, for example, are wired so that they are mostly unable to change their behavior, especially because they do not perceive that there is a problem. Oakley finished by reminding us that “you can’t change others; you can only change yourself.”