The psychology of psychopathy: An inside look at the psychopathic brain
A 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison study was the first of it's kind to show structural differences in the psychopathic brain.
- According to a 2017 study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, psychopaths have reduced connections in the areas of the brain that control fear, anxiety, empathy and sentimentality.
- Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
- Psychopathic tendencies could be considered "warning signs" of psychopathy, but it's important to note that not everyone who shows psychopathic tendencies becomes a psychopath.
Psychopathy is defined as a condition (sometimes referred to as a personality disorder) characterized by the absence of empathy and the bluntness of other affective states. Psychopaths can be highly manipulative, often coming across as typical or even charming.
According to Psychology Today, callousness, detachment and a lack of empathy are key traits of a psychopath, but underneath the facade, they lack any semblance of a conscience.
Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
Photo by FGC on Shutterstock
Psychopathy, like many other conditions, is a spectrum. Common traits of psychopaths can include things like superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulation, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, behavioral problems in early life, impulsivity, and shallow affect (reduced emotional responses) to name a few.
Psychopathy is typically diagnosed using a 20-item checklist called the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This list features questions that gauge common traits such as a lack of empathy, pathological lying, and impulsivity (among many others).
Each question on this scale is then scored on a three-point scale: The item doesn't apply (0), the item applies to a certain extend (1), or the question fully applies (2). The bar for "clinical psychopathy" is 30 points on this test.
For reference, here are some of the scores of notable evaluations:
Ted Bundy - 39/40
Richard Ramirez - 31/40
Brian David Mitchell - 34/40
Differentiating psychopathy and sociopathy
The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are often used interchangeably but they aren't the same - and the difference is quite important. A sociopath is someone with antisocial tendencies that are specific to social or environmental factors. A psychopath is someone whose traits are more innate.
A psychopath will be more manipulative but can be seen by others to lead a charming, "normal" life - whereas sociopaths tend to be more erratic, rage-prone, and are unable to keep up the facade of normality.
Psychopathic tendencies versus psychopathy
A psychopath may be able to create a seemingly typical personality and life to fool others. Psychopathic tendencies don't always extend into psychopathy.
Photo by FGC on Shutterstock
What causes psychopathy?
Brain anatomy, genetics, and the person's environment may all contribute to the development of psychopathic traits. However, it's important to note that not all psychopathic traits and tendencies mean the person will grow into a psychopath.
What are psychopathic tendencies?
Psychopathic tendencies could be considered warning signs of psychopathy, but it's important to note that not everyone who shows psychopathic tendencies becomes a psychopath. Some, with the intervention of various therapies and strong, nurturing relationships, can assimilate to a relatively normal way of life.
The most well-known case of this would be the case of Beth Thomas. The subject of a 1990 documentary entitled "Child of Rage," Beth began to show psychopathic tendencies extremely early in life after suffering physical neglect and sexual abuse at the hands of her birth father before the age of one.
Later moved into an adoptive family where she could get the help she needs, the documentary (which you can view here, be warned, this footage may be disturbing to some) showed the disturbing thought process of a young 6-year-old girl struggling with an attachment disorder that led to psychopathic tendencies.
However, Beth, with the help of her adoptive family and professionals, became a relatively typical young woman who works as a nurse and has co-authored a book called "More Than a Thread of Hope" with her adoptive mother.
Psychopaths' brains show differences in structure and function
According to a 2017 study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, psychopaths have reduced connections in their brains between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the amygdala.
This is noteworthy because of the functions of both parts in play - the vmPFC is responsible for sentimentality, empathy and guilt and the amygdala mediates fear and anxiety.
Not only did the research here show there were differences in how these parts of the psychopathic brain functioned, but this was the first study of it's kind to show physical (structural) differences in the brains of psychopaths.
How common is psychopathy?
While there may never be a specific answer to this, there have been several studies that can give us insight into how common psychopathy is. According to most research, psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population. Additional research claims up to 15 percent of the U.S prison population may meet the criteria for being psychopaths.
- Study sheds light on why some psychopaths are successful - Big Think ›
- A Neurobiologist on Understanding Psychopaths - Big Think ›
- Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test. - Big Think ›
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."