IntroductionEverybody commits misdemeanours, whether bycrossing a road on a red light or by streaming their favourite show online froma non-official source. We know we should not commit these mini-crimes, but wedo not mean any harm, nor do we generally give them much importance. On theother hand, crimes such as murder, are entirely different and cannot beshrugged off or ignored, at least to a normal and balanced mind, but what aboutthe abnormal mind? Does murder, kidnap and robbery mean the same to them as aparking ticket to you or me?Psychopathy is an often-misunderstood concept.
There is a tendency to use the words psychopath, or its close cousin,sociopath, as an insult or even as a light-hearted tease, without any realunderstanding of the disorder itself. In general terms, both can be used todescribe people suffering from a chronic mental disorder along with abnormal orviolent social behaviour. Psychopaths have distinct and widely diverse traits.These can be complex and subtle and not at all like the idealized image oftendepicted in the movies, such as the mega mastermind or the manipulative genius.Crucial to realize is that not every psychopathis violent or murderous, and not all murderers are psychopaths.
Manypsychopaths live regular normal lives like you and me, they have families, goshopping, take exercise and it is likely that you have encountered manypsychopaths throughout your life without realizing. Nevertheless, there existdirect correlations between psychopathy and crime. According to Dr Robert Hare,a researcher and expert on criminal psychopathy, one percent of the generalpopulation are psychopaths and twenty to twenty five percent of prisoners arein fact psychopaths.In this essay I intend to describe how acriminal psychopath views their misdemeanours and how they distinguish betweenright and wrong. I will explain the differences between a psychopath’s mind andthose of sound mind. Finally, what it is that tilts the balance between thosethat lead a regular life from those that fall into lives of crime.MoralityMoralityis defined as “being concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour”.(Oxford English Dictionary).
It may be measured by our responses toevents, the feelings and sensations that arise from some action. For example,if we are helped when we fall, we feel gratitude, and we can conclude that theaction was good, it was right. If, onthe other hand, we are punched and pushed to the floor, we feel upset and hurt,meaning we perceive the action as bad, it was wrong. Takinga moral position relies upon rational thinking, it requires the skill toobserve actions and then sense and link those actions to the emotions arising (Keysers, 2011). Therefore,by rationalizing these actions and with the ability to empathise (to internaliseother people’s sensations), we can determine what we perceive to be right orwrong.
Psychopaths can also rationalize actions, but it is questionable as towhether the state of mind of the psychopath allows them to arrive at similar moralconclusions to someone of a sound mind.Thesituation is not entirely black and white, a psychopath will experience bothgood and bad thoughts, whilst non-psychopaths can act according to pure andimpure intentions. Thoughts, choices andmoral positions are guided and shaped by past and present experiences. Ifsomebody has grown up with the right kind of role model or has been nurturedfrom an early age in a positive environment, healthy perceptions of right orwrong can be further developed. Withsuch influences a psychopath can be taught to understand the logical andrational differences between right and wrong.
Nevertheless, the innate inability to emotionally understand may leadpsychopaths to simply not care about others’ perceptions of morality, in such away that norms of morality govern and drive acceptable behaviour.The brainStudiesof the brain give important clues as to why a psychopath may not possess an innateability to moralise according to the norms of society. To understand how brain activity could affectemotional responses the brain has been studied through a variety of experimentalmethods. Scientistshave compared the emotional reactions of those said to be on the psychopathspectrum with others.
The emotional responsesare quite different as are the physical responses of the body and the brainfunction. Such differences can be observed measured and compared. Oneexperiment conducted in a Dutch forensic clinic (Keysers, 2011) was performedto investigate the different brain patterns of a psychopath, specifically tounderstand why a psychopath might lack empathy, a trait that is crucial in ouridea of morality.
Empathycan be measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, measuring theactivity in motor, somatosensory1 and emotionalbrain regions. Such measurements haveproven that reactions to being directly touched or attacked are equivalent tothose reactions which occur when the same subject observes the same touch orattack on another subject. Would thesame matching responses apply to that of a psychopathic subject? Duringthe experiment a mixed group of criminals, some diagnosed as psychopaths andothers not, were asked to watch a movie of people hurting each other. The psychopathic subjects showed littlemeasurable reaction to the scenes in comparison with the normal subjects. Later the subjects were slapped (safely on theirhands) to activate the brain regions and sensory systems in charge of pain andtouch. The measured reactions werecomparable across normal and psychopathic subjects. The reactionsof the psychopathic brain to the two scenarios, first observing the video andsecond receiving the slap, showed a greater variance than those of the normalsubjects.
The normal subjects measured a more-or-less equal response to bothscenarios. The psychopathic subjectsexperienced a much lower reaction to the video, this demonstrated a much lowertendency towards the empathic responses.Interestinglythe experiment was then repeated, however with the psychopathic subjects encouragedto imagine how it would feel to be the victim in the video. This time the psychopathic subjects’reactions were far more aligned with those of the normal subjects withmeasurements showing a stronger empathic reaction. This suggested that somehow thepsychopath was able to voluntarily turn on and off the empathic response. This mayexplain how many psychopaths can commit atrocities without feeling any remorseor empathy. The psychopath being able to separate their feelings and responsesto neutralise the pain a normal subject would feel.Furtherstudies by neuroscientists have been able to observe and confirm physicaldifferences in brain patterns of some psychopaths via scans.
They havediscovered the main difference being in an area of the brain called theamygdala, the place responsible for secreting emotions like fear and anxiety. Thedeficient amygdala shows a low empathic response to dread when compared to ahealthy and normal brain. (Brain Difference In Psychopaths Identified, 2009)We canconclude therefore that the brain itself can reduce the physical capacity foremotional responses. However as mentioned, not in all cases is a psychopathunable to feel empathy, rather they are able to turn on and off empathyvoluntarily.
(Cima, 2010)TraitsSocietytends to sort people into different groups, and different personality traitsare associated with these social groups. For example, society can be grouped by social classes based on esteemand prestige acquired through economic success and accumulation of wealth withthose in the upper class exerting influence and power. They are likely to livein wealthy areas and drive expensive and luxurious makes of cars. These assumptions are always widelygeneralized but they do also carry traces of truth.
Equallythe term psychopath is used to categorize a group with certain common behavioursand traits. We commonly use psychopath to refer to somebody with violentbehaviours and we associate them with criminal behaviour, but the truth ispsychopaths have a whole range of different traits and attributes that mostpeople are unaware of. Robertd hare, an expert renowned in the field of psychopathy, declared that “sciencecannot progress without reliable and accurate measurement of what it is you aretrying to study. The key is measurement, simple as that”.
Hare established atool (R.D, 1990) knownas the Psychopathy Checklist or PCL. PCL is used to measure and assesspsychopathy as well as giving an insight into whether future violent behaviouris likely.
This tool is commonly used by psychiatrists and psychologists andmany other trained examiners to assess if a criminal is likely toreoffend. Thechecklist consists of twenty symptoms divided into two subcategories, onereflecting the emotional features and the other the social deviant behaviours apsychopath can exhibit. Each trait is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on howmuch the trait is associated with the behaviour of the patient. 0 being itdoesn’t apply, 2 meaning it applies somewhat and 3 meaning it applies. Thelist contains the following traits: glib and superficial charm, grandiose(exaggeratedly high) estimation of self, need for stimulation, pathologicallying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect(superficial emotional responsiveness), callousness and lack of empathy,parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural controls, sexual promiscuity, earlybehaviour problems, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity,irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, manyshort-term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, revocation ofconditional release and finally, criminal versatility.Many psychopathsscoring very high on the scale, there are those that have scored 40.
Some ofthose with a high score have been notorious criminals, committing many crimeswithout being caught. The avoidance ofdetection has been aided by their ability to turn off emotion, a tendency forperfection and the ability to manipulate without feeling any remorse (alltraits on Hare’s list). TakeJeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer, who was responsible for taking thelives of seventeen males between the years 1978 and 1971. His first kill consisted of the manipulation ofan innocent hitchhiker whom he offered to back to his father’s house for abeer. When he least expected, Dahmer hit him on the back of the head with adumbbell. To rid himself of evidence hedissected, dissolved and pulverized the body and finally scattered the remainsover his backyard.
Later,the reason he gave to the enforcement authorities for his behaviour was that hesimply wanted the hitchhiker to stay longer. After nine years of inactivity, hebegan the killings again and pursued men at bars, bathhouses and otherlocations to drug, rape, strangle them and then to do other disturbing actswith the bodies such as photographing them, having intercourse with them, andpreserving parts for display. “It’sa process, it doesn’t happen overnight, when you depersonalize another personand view them as just an object. An object for pleasure and not a livingbreathing human being.
It seems to make it easier to do things you shouldn’tdo.” (Dahmer, 2003) Thisshows how Jeffrey Dahmer felt no remorse from his actions, because of theremarkable ability he had to block his emotions and see people as objects asopposed to living human beings.WhilstJeffrey Dahmer is an example of a notorious psychopath, not all people on thepsychopathic spectrum commit murder or atrocities. Some traits associated withpsychopaths can, in certain contexts, be considered qualities. Such traits likethe single-minded ability to focus, high self-confidence, the ability to blockemotions such as fear and doubt, can come in handy in the workplace. Forexample, such traits would help a surgeon needing to perform urgent surgery onsomebody who’s life is threatened. The lack of fear and doubt would aiddecisive and objective actions unhindered by a nervous response and increasethe chance of saving the victim’s life. Theabove example demonstrates an acceptable manifestation of psychopathic traits.
However,those whom have been able to do this have usually had a very good early rolemodel and no experience of early trauma. NeuroscientistJames Fallon, discovered he was a psychopath almost by pure coincidence. In2006, during scientific and clinical studies of murderers, psychopaths andtheir genetics, James Fallon discovered that he had the same brain patterns andgenes as a psychopath.
After this discovery he further researched, delving intohis past by consulting family, friends and experts. His mother confessed toworrying about his behaviours as a child. He realised the same traits hedisplayed matched with those from Hare’s checklist: “I was devilish for sure,but a sort of tolerable lovable devil.
The pranks and manipulations and partymayhem got riskier and would involve tens and hundreds of others as I gotolder.” (Fallon, 2014) When he realised he was putting others indanger, he decided to treat his loved ones with more care and to be moredeliberate and conscious of his actions. Fromthis experience and a lot of research as a scientist James Fallon developed hisThree-Legged Stool Theory (Fallon, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain , 2013). This theory is composedof three main factors: the importance of genes, their environment in amolecular level and the effects of hidden personal life experiences. His theoryclaims that what makes a psychopath criminal is not just a lack of empathy buta combination of genetics, brain patterns and early trauma. Nor is a psychopath the victim of certain brainpatterns, but a combination of interplaying factors.A life of crimeThere are two well known theories that can helpto explain how psychopathy can develop as well as giving an insight intowhether it can lead to problematic and criminal behaviour later in life.
Theattachment theory and the schema theory. TheAttachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) is based on the attachments we make throughoutlife, especially focused on the child and caregiver relationship. Earlyattachments affect how we see life and our outlook on the world. Theseattachments begin in the earliest stages of a child’s life, when we can createrelationships and durable memories. Take a child who grows up in a secureenvironment, whose parents are their key point of security. The child will exhibitsigns of engagement with the parent. When separated they will miss their parent and they will seek comfort fromthe parent when they are upset. This child will go on to value relationshipsand assess these relationships objectively.
In contrast a child without the example of aparent or other caregiver may eschew relationships, will show less distresswhen left alone, and will seek distance from those around them. This absence ofcontact will lead someone to devalue relationships and dismiss any kind of careoffered to them. In the worst of cases, a child will becompletely resistant, will not want to explore, and will be distressed onseparation from the environment that they know. When the same child is withpeople who offer contact the child will show signs of anger, exhibit tantrumsand will fail to be comforted. The future adult is likely to be emotionallyunsettled, lack objective assessment, preoccupied with past relationships,fearful, angry and conflicted. This theory is important because it shows howhumans will better survive when they are cared for and nurtured from a youngage. Those who have not experienced the same contact and care will in mostcases be detached from other and will not seek the kind of strong relationshipshumans are designed to have.
As mentioned before, early trauma is especiallyconnected to a psychopath developing into a dangerous criminal. A parent whoignores their child, perhaps as a consequence of their own issues such as drug abuse,can be traumatic for the child and trigger the type of antisocial behaviourcommon in many psychopaths.TheSchema Theory was first usedby Frederic Bartlett who suggested that our world outlook is formed by mentalstructures called schemas. The theory is related to the attachment theory as itis another way of understanding how people see the world based on their experienceswhich have shaped their thoughts. Schemas are the framework of the mind, basedon adaptive and maladaptive2 models also known as Internal Working Models (IWMs). These models createa pattern of connections between thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories andimages during childhood which are linked to recurring behaviour.
In otherwords, the IWMs that emerge in childhood influence what schemas we develop asadults. Maladaptive schemas emerge when a child’sprincipal needs are not met. These essential needs include security, love,communication, happiness and guidance.
When a person develops maladaptiveschemas, they can create many problems for themselves and for others. On theother hand, when someone develops adaptive schemas, they are more likely tohave less problems and are more able to thrive in the world.For example, if a child is raised without enoughaffection and a feeling of abandonment from their parent it may be the casethat, in a future, he will portray such abandonment toward his own children.This is an example of a maladaptive IWM. However, in the case of an adaptiveIWM, when a child is shown love and care from his environment he will reflectsuch love and care to others.These theories help to understand that whilst apsychopath may have a predisposition towards immoral and criminal behaviour,their past experiences, role models and the resultant adaptive models can steera psychopath towards a normal and crime-free life, perhaps without even knowingthey have a disorder.
As we have seen, psychopaths have differentopinions and views from the rest of society, perhaps resulting from physicaldifferences in the brain, early role models and the experiences that haveshaped them. Can we expect the same punishments given out to those with anormal mind to be equally effective for the psychopath? A psychopath who commits a crime will go toprison like any other person who commits crime and is found guilty. However, studies have found that judges willadapt their sentencing according to the type of information available. Forexample, the introduction of expert testimony concerning a biological evidenceof psychopathy would lead to a decrease in the sentence, the judgesinterpreting the data as an aggravating factor, a “reduced culpability due tolack of impulse control”. On the otherhand, without such evidence the judges were more likely to increase the sentencein comparison with non-psychotic offenders. (Psychopaths get a break from biology: Judges reduce sentences if genetics, neurobiology are blamed, 2012)ConclusionThis report provides evidence that the biologyof psychopaths is different.
They lackempathy and have a propensity to be detached. The innate inability to emotionally understand norms of morality canlead to dangerous behaviour and a life of crime. However, studies have also shown thatpsychopaths are able to have sensitivity to another’s feeling when prompted,they can switch empathy on and off. Furthermore, their formative years andexperiences will guide will shape their future selves and a psychopath may evenbe unaware of their disorder and can use their distinctive characteristics tosociety’s advantage. Psychopaths are different and as such theirtreatment at the hands of the justice system is a challenge. There is a need to consider how sentencingshould be adapted to balance the need to protect the public whilst consideringthe specific circumstances and background of the psychopathic offender. A life of incarceration is not inevitableproviding early years support are available and close, healthy relationshipsare formed.
1 A sensory system involved in the inter-relatedsensations of touch, body position, temperature, and pain, the somatosensorysystem is a diversified processing complex. It includes many sensory receptorslocated all over the skin, bones, joints, skeletal muscles, internal organs andthe parts of the cardiovascular system.2 Not providing adequate or appropriate adjustment to the environment orsituation.