What does science say about people with psychopathy?

The TV psychopath is a person who commits brutal murders, acts irresponsibly and is icily undaunted.

On any given day, millions of Americans (like so many millions around the world) settle in to watch their favorite crime shows. Whether it’s “FBI” on CBS, “Dexter,” “Mindhunter” on Netflix, “Killing Eve” on BBC, reruns of “Law & Order,” or scores of other shows like it, they draw a large audience with their vivid portraits of villains whose behaviors are disconcertingly cruel. I confess: I am part of that audience. Even my students make fun of the amount of crime that I – a researcher who analyzes criminal behavior – see on television.

I justify my hours devoted to TV as a job, which provides material for my university classes and for my seminars on the nature of the criminal mind. But I’m also captivated by the characters in these dramas, despite – or because of – how unrealistic so many are.

One of the most common personality types in police shows.Yoacos on TV is the psychopath: The person who commits brutal murders, acts irresponsibly and is icy undaunted by law enforcement officers: Although the shows are obviously fiction, their plots have become familiar cultural references.

Viewers see Agent Hotchner in “Criminal Minds” brand any character who is alarmingly violent as “someone with psychopathy.” You hear Dr. Huang in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” refer to a juvenile delinquent who attacked a young girl as “an adolescent with psychopathy” whom he suggests is incapable of responding to treatment.

What happens if I drink a glass of water before bed?

These interpretations leave the audience with the impression that individuals with psychopathy are uncontrollably evil, incapable of feeling emotions, and incorrigible. However, extensive research, including years of work in my own laboratory, demonstrates that the sensationalist conceptions of psychopathy that are at the core of these narratives are self-defeating and simply wrong.

What really is psychopathy?

Psychopathy is classified by psychologists as a personality disorder defined as a combination of charm, superficial emotions, lack of regret or remorse, impulsiveness, and criminality. Roughly 1% of the general population meets these diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, a prevalence that is nearly double that of schizophrenia. The exact causes of psychopathy have not been identified, but most experts conclude that both genetics and environment are contributing factors.

Psychopathy imposes a high cost on individuals and society as a whole. People with psychopathy commit between two and three times more crimes in total than others who engage in antisocial behavior and represent approximately 25% of the prison population. They also commit new crimes after being released from jail or supervision at a higher rate than other types of offenders.

An inmate with an orange jumpsuit and inmate number in a cell

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25% of the prison population is made up of people with manifestations of psychopathy.

My colleagues and I found that people with psychopathy tend to use narcotic substances at younger ages and try more types of narcotics than others. Furthermore, there is evidence that people with psychopathy tend not to respond well to conventional therapeutic strategies.

The reality is significantly more subtle and encouraging than the grim stories in the media. Contrary to most interpretations, psychopathy is not synonymous with violence. It is true that individuals with psychopathy are more likely to commit violent crimes than those without the disorder, but violent behavior is not a requirement for a diagnosis of psychopathy.

Some researchers maintain that certain key features of psychopathy are present in individuals who do not exhibit violent behavior but who tend to demonstrate impulsive and risky behavior, take advantage of others, and show little concern for the consequences of their actions. These characteristics can be observed in politicians, business executives and financiers.

What science says about psychopathy

Many crime shows, as well as mainstream news, associate psychopathy with a lack of emotion, particularly fear or remorse. Whether a character is calmly standing next to a lifeless body or giving the classic “psycho stare,” viewers are used to seeing people with psychopathy as almost robots. The belief that people with psychopathy have no emotions is widespread, not only among ordinary people but also among psychologists.

Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in

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Although psychopaths are more likely to commit violent crimes, violence is not synonymous with psychopathy.

There is an element of truth here: a considerable number of studies have found that individuals with psychopathy exhibit a reduced ability to process emotions and recognize the emotions of others. But my colleagues and I have found evidence that individuals with psychopathy can identify and experience emotions under appropriate circumstances.

In my lab, we are conducting experiments that reveal a complex relationship between psychopathy and emotions. In one study, we examined the presumed fear of individuals with psychopathy with a simple test. On a screen, we show a group of participants the letter “n” and colored boxes. Seeing a red box meant that the participant could receive an electric shock; green boxes meant no. So the color of the box signaled a threat.

It should be noted that the shocks were not harmful, just slightly uncomfortable, and this study was approved by review boards for the protection of human subjects. In some of the tests we asked the participants to tell us the color of the box (forcing them to focus on the threat). In other tests, we asked them to tell us whether the letter was uppercase or lowercase (forcing them to focus on what wasn’t a threat), even though we kept showing them the box.

We were able to see that individuals with psychopathy manifested fear responses based on their psychological and brain reactions when they had to focus on the threat of receiving a shock. However, they showed a fear reaction deficit when they had to specify whether the letter was uppercase or lowercase and the box was a secondary task.

Obviously, individuals with psychopathy are capable of feeling emotion; simply have a muted emotional response when their attention is directed elsewhere. This is an extreme version of the kind of processing we all do. In routine decision making, we rarely focus on explicit emotions. Rather, we use emotional information as background detail to inform our decisions. The implication is that individuals with psychopathy have a kind of mental myopia: the emotions are there, but they can be ignored if they interfere with the achievement of a goal.

Albert Finney playing a psychopath in the film

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According to the experiments carried out, people with psychopathy have a mitigated emotional response when their attention is directed towards something else.

Many studies have shown that individuals with psychopathy are excellent at using information and regulating their behavior if it is directly relevant to their goals; for example, they may act charmingly and ignore emotions in order to deceive someone. But when the information is beyond their immediate focus, they often display impulsive behavior (such as quitting a job before getting a new one) and make outrageous decisions (such as seeking publicity for a crime while being wanted by the police).

They have difficulty processing emotions, but unlike ordinary television characters, they are not inherently cold-blooded. The image of the fearless killer is based on an outdated scientific concept of psychopathy. Instead, it appears that people with psychopathy may have access to emotions – only emotional information is stifled by focus on the target.

everyone can change

One of the most damaging fallacies about psychopathy – in fiction, in the news, and in some old scientific papers – is that it is a permanent, unchanging condition. This idea reinforces the persuasive good versus evil trope, but the latest studies tell a different story.

Psychopathy traits decline naturally over time in many young peoplefrom late adolescence to adulthood. Samuel Hawes, a psychologist at Florida International University, and his colleagues followed more than 1,000 individuals from childhood to adulthood, repeatedly measuring their traits of psychopathy. Although a small group showed persistently high levels of psychopathy, more than half of the children who initially had high levels of these traits tended to lower them over time and then didn’t show them at all in late adolescence.

With proper intervention, the prospects for improvement are greater. We are finding that youth with traits of psychopathy and adults with psychopathy can change and respond to treatments that are modified for their needs. Several studies have documented the effectiveness of specific treatments designed to help youth identify and respond to emotions. Parenting interventions that focus on increasing caregiver emotional warmth and helping young people identify their emotions appear to reduce problem behavior and symptoms.

Teenagers in a therapy session

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With proper intervention, the traits of psychopathy in young people can diminish and disappear.

In a series of experiments, we have investigated video games designed to train the brains of individuals with psychopathy by helping them improve the way they integrate information. For example, we show a group of participants a face and instruct them to respond based on the emotions they see and the direction the eyes look, teaching them to integrate all the features of the face.

Or we play a game in which we show participants a series of cards to see if they can detect when we vary the rules, changing which cards are the winners or losers. Players aren’t told when the change will happen, so they must learn to pay attention to subtle contextual changes as they play. Our preliminary data show that lab exercises like these can change the brains and real-world behavior of individuals with psychopathy.

Such studies open the possibility of reducing the social and personal damage caused by psychopathy. I believe that society needs to reject the myths that individuals with psychopathy are fundamentally violent, callous, and incapable of change.

The behavior of individuals with psychopathy is fascinating; so much so that it doesn’t need to be embellished to create dramatic plots. We should do more to help individuals with psychopathy so that they can perceive more information from their environment and use more of their emotional experience. Popular culture can help rather than hinder those goals.

*Arielle Baskin-Sommers is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. This original article was published in The Conversation, whose English version you can read here.

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What does science say about people with psychopathy?