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Successful and Unsuccessful Psychopaths:
A Neurobiological Model
Behavioral Sciences and the Law
Behav. Sci. Law 28: 194–210 (2010)
Published online 6 April 2010 in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/bsl.924
Yu Gao, Ph.D. and Adrian Raine, D. Phil.y
Despite increasing interest in psychopathy research, surprisingly little is known about
the etiology of non-incarcerated, successful psychopaths. This review provides an
analysis of current knowledge on the similarities and differences between successful
and unsuccessful psychopaths derived from five population sources: community
samples, individuals from employment agencies, college students, industrial psychopaths, and serial killers. An initial neurobiological model of successful and unsuccessful psychopathy is outlined. It is hypothesized that successful psychopaths have intact or enhanced neurobiological functioning that underlies their normal or even superior cognitive functioning, which in turn helps them to achieve their goals using more covert and nonviolent methods. In contrast, in unsuccessful, caught psychopaths, brain structural and functional impairments together with autonomic nervous system dysfunction are hypothesized to underlie cognitive and emotional deficits and more overt violent offending. Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Conspicuously absent from this burgeoning body of research are studies on psychopaths who live relatively successful lives. Indeed, relatively few studies have been conducted on non-incarcerated psychopaths. This review summarizes empirical findings on successful psychopaths, a subgroup of psychopaths who manifest the core psychopathic features of
affective and interpersonal deviances, but who manage to stay out of the criminal justice system.We examine five different populations that can bring some knowledge to bear on the etiology of successful psychopathy: a media-recruited community sample, individuals from temporary employment agencies, college students, industrial psychopaths, and psychopathic serial killers.
Based on the limited current knowledge, a theoretical model is proposed to explain the ways in which successful and unsuccessful psychopaths differ from normal controls.
We postulate that intact or enhanced neurobiological processes, including better executive functioning, increased autonomic reactivity, normative volumes of prefrontal gray and amygdala, and normal frontal functioning, may serve as factors that protect successful psychopaths from conviction and allow them to attain their life goals, using more covert and nonviolent approaches. In contrast, brain structural and functional deficits, alongside with reduced autonomic reactivity, impaired executive functioning,and risky decision making, predispose the unsuccessful psyychopaths to more extreme
Correspondence to: Yu Gao, Ph.D., Department of Criminology, 3718 Locust Walk, McNeil #483,
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, U.S.A. E-mail: [email protected]
Brain scans should not be used in court... for now
Jessica Hamzelou, contributor
Should an offender's sentence be decided on the basis of a brain scan? A group of neuroscientists have put together a report for the Royal Society to assess this issue and other ways that progress in brain science might impact the law.
Neuroscience is already making waves in court: an Italian woman convicted of murder recently had her sentence reduced on the grounds that her behaviour could be explained by abnormalities in her brain and genes.
The authors on the Royal Society panel, led by Nicholas Mackintosh of the University of Cambridge, also flag up research that suggests the brains of psychopaths are fundamentally different. This raises the question: should individuals with the brain anatomy of a psychopath have their sentence reduced on the ground of diminished responsibility, or should brain scan evidence be used to keep dangerous individuals locked away?
Perhaps one day we may also be able to find neurological clues that help predict whether a criminal is likely to reoffend. The report only goes so far as to suggest that such information may be useful in conjunction with other evidence.
Another key issue is that of the age of criminal responsibility. In England, the age at which a child can be tried as an adult is ten - this is too low, say the report's authors.
Recent research into brain development suggests that crucial brain regions - such as the prefrontal cortex, which is important in decision making and impulse control - don't actually finish maturing until the age of around 20.
Neuroscientists claim to be able to identify certain patterns of brain activity that are associated with lying, a finding that has raised the possibility of brain scan-based lie detection. But many remain skeptical that such an approach can ever be useful in the legal setting.
Lie detection research is often based on students telling untruths that are unlikely to have any impact on their lives - a situation that's difficult to compare to a criminal who might be lying for his life, not to mention that of a cunningly deceptive psychopath. Moreover, as the report points out, if such lie detection were possible, it wouldn't detect when a person was telling a falsehood they believed was true, or whether a person had learned how to trick the system.
"In one experiment, the success rate for distinguishing truth from lies dropped from 100 per cent to 33 per cent when participants used countermeasures," say the authors. They conclude that "for the foreseeable future reliable fMRI lie detection is not a realistic prospect."
In the same vein, attempts to measure the amount of pain that a person is in - perhaps to catch people who cheat on health insurance payouts - could also be foiled by individuals who learn how to simulate the brain activity associated with the experience of pain, the authors say.
And then there's that old chestnut: "my brain made me do it". In some cases it seems the argument can be made. For one man, paedophilic tendencies appeared and disappeared with a tumour in his orbitofrontal cortex - a region linked to judgement and social behaviour.
Most cases aren't so clear cut. The report concludes by recommending that neuroscientists and lawyers from around the globe meet to discuss the latest in each discipline once every three years.
In the meantime, the authors recommend that the legal system consult with groups such as the British Neuroscience Association to assess how lawyers currently access scientific expertise. The authors also reckon it would be useful for law degrees to include some background in neuroscience, and for neuroscientists in training to consider the societal applications of their science.
Study: Psychopaths' brains differ in structure, function
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Despite this outward appearance, Bundy was socially clueless. He was introverted and by his own description had no sense of how to get along with people. Near the end of his life he described himself this way: "I didn't know what made things tick. I didn't know what made people want to be friends. I didn't know what made people attractive to one another. I didn't know what underlay social interaction."
Psychopaths can be paradox. Some, like Bundy, are intellectually high functioning, and they clearly know right from wrong. They are not delusional, but they are socially inept. They seem to lack normal self-control, and they persistently violate social, legal and moral rules. They don't -- as Bundy's words suggest -- comprehend the human social contract.
But why? What's the glitch in the mental machinery? Is there a specific neurological and cognitive deficit underlying their abhorrent actions? Are they incapable of weighing risk or comprehending the regular quid pro quos of social life -- or both? Two psychological scientists at the University of New Mexico, Elsa Ermer and Kent Kiehl, suspected that such specific reasoning deficits might underlie the disorder, which would explain why psychopaths' general reasoning ability seems to stay intact.
To explore these questions, Ermer and Kiehl went where they knew they'd find a good sample of psychopaths -- to prison. They interviewed and tested 67 prisoners -- some psychopaths and some not -- for three different kinds of rule comprehension. Some of the rules were simply descriptive, for example: "If a person is from North Dakota, that person likes the cold." Others were based on social contracts, for example: "If you borrow my car, you will have to fill the gas tank." And finally, some of the rules were related to risk and precaution: "If you work with tuberculosis patients, you must wear a surgical mask." They asked all the prisoners -- as well as a control group of college students -- to reason about these rules, to see how well they understood the different forms of reasoning.
The results were unambiguous. As reported recently in the journal Psychological Science, the prisoners who were not psychopaths reasoned pretty much like college students -- that is, not great at general logic but much better at understanding social contracts and precautionary reasoning. The psychopaths also did about the same on straight logic, but they were poor at understanding social agreements and proper precautions.
Understanding quid pro quos is a core human trait, the foundation of all cooperation and morality. It's not surprising that it would be askew in people who don't know right from wrong, honorable behavior from cheating. It's also not shocking that psychopaths are lousy at weighing risk and taking precautions -- another core human trait. That's why most of them get in trouble -- and end up in prison.
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