A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
"Large-scale indiscriminate killing is a horror that is not just a feature of the modern and historic periods, but was also a significant process in pre-state societies," the researchers wrote.
- In 2007, a mass grave containing the ancient remains of 41 men, women, and children was discovered in Croatia.
- Initially, some researchers proposed the victims might have been killed due to xenophobia.
- However, a new genetic analysis suggests that the victims weren't newcomers to the area, leading researchers to note that climatic changes might have played a role in the killings.
In 2007, a man in Potočani, Croatia, was digging a foundation for a garage when he discovered a grisly scene: the 6,200-year-old remains of 41 people buried together in a mass grave.
The victims died violently, with almost every person showing at least one traumatic head injury. But what struck researchers was the demographics of the group, and the way they died.
The victims were men, women, and children. They shared a common ancestry, but most weren't closely related, and genetic analyses suggest they weren't new immigrants to the area. And, curiously, almost all of the victims suffered blows to the back of the skull, suggesting they didn't die in battle.
So, what happened, and why?
In a recent study published in PLOS ONE, which is the largest-scale genetic analysis of an ancient massacre to date, researchers propose an unsettling answer: The organized slaughter was indiscriminate.
Credit: Novak et al.
"Combined with the bioanthropological evidence that the victims were of a wide range of ages, these results show that large-scale indiscriminate killing is a horror that is not just a feature of the modern and historic periods, but was also a significant process in pre-state societies," the researchers wrote.
But that's not to say the massacre was completely random. The researchers noted that massacres, ancient and modern, are typically processes, not singular events. In other words, you can trace most massacres back to large-scale factors that begin to stress a society.
Novak et al.
It might start with a society that's facing dwindling resources. Over time, that society might start blaming another group for its suffering. And if the society's fear and hatred grows strong enough to dehumanize the other group, some in the community might be triggered to commit large-scale violence.
In the context of the Potočani massacre, the researchers noted that climate change—in combination with a potential population—might have depleted resources in the region. For example, extended droughts or flooding might have made it hard to grow or find food, which could've sparked tension between local groups and paved the way for a massacre.
(In other cases of prehistoric massacres, researchers have proposed climate change as a likely contributor.)
Still, there's no hard evidence for major climatic changes in the Potočani region at the time of the killings. And while previous explanations for the massacre include xenophobia, the recent genetic analysis suggests the victims weren't new to the area. So, the exact motive of the massacre remains a mystery, as do the identities of the perpetrators.
Credit: Novak et al.
But given that the perpetrators killed indiscriminately—at close range and without regard to age or sex—the massacre suggests that organized violence is a phenomenon deeply rooted in human psychology.
Mario Novak, lead study author and head of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Anthropology and Bioarchaeology at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia, told Live Science that he hopes learning about history's dark moments will enable modern people to better understand the roots of violence.
"By studying such ancient massacres, we might try to get a glimpse into the psychology of these people, and maybe try to prevent similar events today," Novak said. "We have evidence of ancient massacres going back to 10,000 years ago, at least. Today, we also have modern massacres — the only thing that's changed is we now have more efficient means and weapons to do such things. But I don't think human nature or human psychology has changed much."
How different people react to threats of violence.
"This question has been bothering me for quite some time," says Aidan Milliff, a fifth-year doctoral student who entered political science to explore the strategic choices people make in perilous times.
"We've learned a great deal how economic status, identity, and pressure from community shape decisions people make while under threat," says Milliff. Early in his studies, he took particular interest in scholarship linking economic deprivation to engagement in conflict.
"But I became frustrated by this idea, because even among the poorest of the poor, way more people sit out conflict instead of engaging," he says. "I thought there must be something else going on to explain why people decide to take enormous risks."
A window on this problem suddenly opened for Milliff with class 17.S950 (Emotions and Politics), taught by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. "The course revealed the cognitive processes and emotional experiences that influence how individuals make decisions in the midst of violent conflict," he says. "It was extremely formative in the kinds of research I started to do."
With this lens, Milliff began investigating questions anew, leveraging unusual data sources and novel qualitative and quantitative methods. His doctoral research is yielding fresh perspectives on how civilians experience threats of violence, and, Milliff believes, "providing policy-relevant insights, explaining how individual action contributes to phenomena like conflict escalation and refugee flows."
At the heart of Milliff's dissertation project, "Seeking Safety: The Cognitive and Social Foundations of Behavior During Violence," are connected episodes of violence in India: an urban pogrom in Delhi in which nearly 3,000 Sikhs died at the hands of Hindus, sparked by the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; and the bloody, decade-long separatist civil war by Sikh extremists in Punjab that began in the 1980s.
In search of first-person testimony to illuminate people's fight-or-flight choices, Milliff lucked out: He located taped oral histories for a large population of Sikhs who had experienced violence in the 1980s. "In these 500 taped histories, people described at a granular level whether they organized to defend their neighborhoods, hid in houses, left the city temporarily or permanently, or tried to pass as Hindu." He also pursued field interviews in California and India, but didn't get as far as he'd hoped: "I arrived in India last March, and was there for two weeks of an intended three-month stay when I had to return due to the pandemic."
This setback did not deter Milliff, who managed to convert the oral histories into text and video data that he's already begun to plumb, with the help of natural language processing to code people's decision-making processes. Among his preliminary findings: "People typically appraise their situations in terms of their sense of control and of predictability," he says.
"When people feel they have a high degree of control but feel that violence is unpredictable, they are more likely to fight back, and when they sense they have neither control nor predictability, and more easily imagine being victims, they flee."
A Chicago launchpad
Milliff drew inspiration for his doctoral research directly from an earlier graduate project in Chicago with the families of homicide victims.
"I wanted to learn whether people who become angry in response to violence are more likely to seek retribution," he says. After taping 90 hours of interviews with 31 people, primarily mothers, Milliff shifted his focus. "My initial assumption that everyone would get angry was wrong," he says. "I found that when people suffer these losses, they might get sad instead, or become fearful." In unsolved homicides, family members have no perpetrator to target, but instead turn their anger at government that's let them down, or worry for the safety of surviving family members.
From this project, Milliff took away a crucial insight: "People respond differently to their tragedies, even when their experiences look similar on paper."
Political violence and its consequences seized Milliff's interest early on. For his University of Chicago master's thesis, he sought to understand how many long-running, brutal independence movements fizzle out. "I came away from this program believing that I'd enjoy the day-to-day work of being a professional political scientist," he says.
Two research experiences propelled him toward that goal. While in college, Milliff assisted in the National Science Foundation-sponsored General Social Survey, a national social survey headquartered in Chicago, where he learned "how a big quantitative data collection exercise works," he says. Following graduation, a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace immersed him in South Asian military conflict and Indian domestic politics. "I really enjoyed working on these issues and became greatly interested in focusing on the political situation there," he says.
Attracted by MIT's security studies community, especially its commitment to research with real-world impact, Milliff came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, primed to delve deeper into the subject of political violence. He first had to navigate the graduate program's thorough quantitative sequence. "I came to MIT without having taken math after calculus, and I honestly feel fortunate I ended up somewhere that takes the classroom portion of training seriously," he says. "It has given me new tools I didn't even know existed."
These tools are integral to Milliff's analysis of his singular datasets, and provide the quantitative foundation for informing his policy ideas. If, as his work suggests, people in crisis make decisions based on their sense of control and predictability, perhaps community institutions could bolster citizens' abilities to imagine concrete options. "Lack of predictability and a sense of control encourage people to make choices that are destabilizing, such as fleeing their homes, or joining a fight."
Milliff continues to analyze data, test hypotheses, and write up his research, taking time out for biking and nature photography. "When I was headed to graduate school, I decided to take up a hobby that I could do for 15 minutes at a time, something I could do between problem sets," he says.
While he acknowledges research can be taxing, he takes delight in the moments of discovery and validation: "You spend a lot of time coming up with ideas of how the world works, diving into a pit to see if an idea is right," he says. "Sometimes when you surface, you see that you might have come up with a possible new way to describe the world."
Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.
- Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
- The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
- The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.
Where do your enemies come from? That's the topic of a new article published in the American Journal of Sociology, which investigates school bullying, a social phenomenon that affects millions of children every year. Despite the belief that bullies are existential foes, it turns out that the bully and bullied are likely to be friends—at least, "frenemies."
Looking at 14 middle and high schools at two points in the year, the research team of Robert Faris, Diane Felmlee, and Cassie McMillan concluded that social proximity is not enough of a reason to abandon status elevation. Kids often climb over those closest to them in order to acquire greater standing in their networks—a power play that has adverse mental health effects on the bullied.
Their analysis began by comparing two parallel cohorts that create linear dominance hierarchies: chickens and summer campers. This game of dominance and ritualized submission is apparent in the barnyard and by the forest lake, as well as in high school, places where "overt aggression is not the only means by which status is attained." Prom queens, they note, "do not fight their way to their thrones." Subtler forms of bullying are often recruited.
Common wisdom has it that balance theory—the idea that enemies and friends share distinct social spaces—defines much of adolescent posturing. Not so, says this team: positive and negative ties are not as far apart as you might imagine. That's where the concept of "frenemies" comes in. Cruelty is a strange bonding tool that serves the purpose of status elevation, at least for the bully.
"In contrast to both balance theory and much of the empirical literature on bullying, which concludes that victims are isolated or marginal and thus sit at relatively large social distances from their tormentors, we extend the logic of instrumental aggression to anticipate higher rates of aggression at low social distances, between friends and among structurally equivalent schoolmates."
School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?
Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors.
Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."
Femlee elaborates on the complex dynamics of adolescence:
"These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner. Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties."
Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock
They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.
This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."
Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change.
Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."