We’ve all seen the quintessential psychopath as portrayed in Hollywood films such as American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs as suave in demeanour and intellectually advanced, capable of murder and mayhem without hesitance or remorse, but what really defines a true psychopath, and more importantly, what makes them tick?
According to the Encyclopedia of Mental Health, “psychopathy describes a set of personality traits and behaviors frequently associated with lack of emotional sensitivity and empathy, impulsiveness, superficial charm and insensitivity to punishing consequences.” Sounds about right, but nowhere in that definition, as Hollywood would have you believe, is murder an essential feature; apparently a psychopath without blood on his hands makes for a boring movie.
Now, they may not all be murderers, but many psychopaths engage in criminal activity. In a study completed by Kent A. Kiehl and Morris B. Hoffman, it was found that psychopaths make up a significant 16 per cent of the American adult male population in prison, equivalent to 1,150,000 men.
So, if there are so many psychopaths in prison, what makes them criminally predisposed?
Dr. Nigel Blackwood and his colleagues of King’s College London conducted an experiment determining a person’s understanding of consequence on 12 psychopathic violent criminals, 20 violent criminals with anti-social personality disorder, and 18 non-criminals with no known issues. Using an MRI machine, the participants had their brains scanned while they played a game designed to expose their behaviour in the face of rewards or punishment. What they discovered was that in the areas of the brain responsible for moral reasoning, empathy and the processing of feelings like embarrassment and guilt, there was a lower amount of grey matter (component of the brain responsible for processing information) than the other participants. Furthermore, there were irregularities in the white fiber connections to the prefrontal cortex, a structure associated with one’s ability to grasp reward and punishment.
“Offenders with psychopathy may only consider the possible positive consequences and fail to take account of the likely negative consequences,” Sheilagh Hodgins, a co-author of the paper said in regards to their experiment. “Consequently, their behavior often leads to punishment rather than reward as they had expected.”
In another paper published in the journal Brain, researchers Harma Meffert et. al decided to focus on the empathetic capacities of psychopaths. While observing the brain activity of 18 psychopathic offenders and 26 control subjects, they asked the participants to view video clips of emotional hand interactions. These interactions consisted of hand caresses, hand slaps, hand rejections and neutral hand interactions. The idea was that the first would be associated with love, the second with pain, the third with exclusion and the fourth as a neutral zone of emotion.
At first, they were asked to simply view the interactions. In a normal individual, mirror neurons, or neurons responsible for feelings of empathy, will light up regardless of whether or not the individual is asked to try to empathize. As the paper reports, “for most of us, seeing someone get hurt triggers vicarious activity in pain areas. This vicarious pain gives us an ‘egoistic’ reason to refrain from antisocial behaviour; do not hurt others because it (vicariously) hurts you.” For the psychopaths that were analyzed, their scans showed a reduced ability to empathize.
However, when the experiment was conducted again, they asked the participants to try to empathize with the people in the videos. Rather remarkably, a noticeable difference was seen in the psychopath’s empathetic brain regions; they were able to empathize.
As stated in the paper, “our results suggest that psychopathy is not a simple incapacity for vicarious activations but rather reduced spontaneous vicarious activations co-existing with relatively normal deliberate counterparts.”
So it is possible for psychopaths to empathize, but they need to actively attempt to empathize in order to do so.
Though many psychopaths are criminals, many are not as well. Even though one may assume their issues with consequence and empathy may get them into trouble more often than not, some psychopaths have counterintuitively flipped the table on these problems and utilized them as solutions.
Take renowned neuroscientist James Fallon for example. In a piece written by Roc Morin of VICE, Fallon explains what he describes as a necessity for psychopaths in society. “In a sense, we need psychopathy. We don’t need full-blown psychopath dangerous *******, but having a prevalence of psychopathic traits is associated with leadership. It’s in presidents, and prime ministers, and in people who take risks.”
Fallon gained significant notoriety after he outed himself as a psychopath, a revelation he made while studying the brain scans of other psychopaths and comparing them to his own. Striking similarities in the lack of activity in the temporal and frontal lobes tipped him off initially, but after some serious digging into his genetics, he found many red-flag markers of various psychopathic traits. His sleuthing took him even further down the rabbit-hole where he discovered that he was related to seven known murderers, including the infamous Lizzie Borden.
Known as a pro-social psychopath, Fallon spends his days like most people, and aside from a certain callousness, is otherwise indistinguishable from any other person you would meet on the street.
So psychopaths are not all murderers. They do not all spend their days plotting to rape, kill and pillage, but they still share many of the characteristics one would see in a film; a callous disregard for others, a propensity towards risky behaviour and criminal activity. If there is anything of value to take from these analyses, its that the modern psychopath comes in many forms, with each individual existing on more of a spectrum, and less a distinct classification, and that there is still hope for even the most horrendous of society’s supposed monsters. Biology determines some, but not all; it is not what we are made of, but the decisions that we make that truly define who we are.