Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Psychopath

By Spoiks
October 1, 2010

meet your friendly neighborhood psychopathWhen one considers the breed of aberrant humanity known as psychopaths, one envisions the worst kinds of people that society can offer: serial killers, homicidal dictators, people who contribute articles to Ted Bundy, the infamous murderer who raped and killed over 30 women, would certainly qualify. So too would the "killer clown," John Wayne Gacy, who sodomized and murdered dozens of teenage boys. Without a doubt, psychopaths are busy working in the torture chambers of Third World military dictatorships. They can also be found in the world of high finance where they gamble with other people's money and cause havoc in the marketplace.

But not all psychopaths pursue such nefarious activities or exist in such unusual environments. It is estimated that 1% of the human population are psychopaths (3 to 4% fall into the broader category of Antisocial Personality Disorder.) It's likely that at some point in your life, you, dear reader, interacted with a psychopath. In fact, there might be one right behind you!

What exactly is a psychopath? It is a person with no conscience. Whereas most people have at least some empathy for their fellow man, some ability to place themselves in other people's shoes, psychopaths are incapable of such emotion. Consequently, they feel no guilt, no remorse for the terrors they inflict on others. Psychopaths are also fearless, as noted in this article on Dr. Robert Hare, a man who has studied and written about psychopathic behavior.

For his first paper, now a classic, Hare had his subjects watch a countdown timer. When it reached zero, they got a "harmless but painful" electric shock while an electrode taped to their fingers measured perspiration. Normal people would start sweating as the countdown proceeded, nervously anticipating the shock. Psychopaths didn't sweat. They didn't fear punishment -- which, presumably, also holds true outside the laboratory. In Without Conscience, he quotes a psychopathic rapist explaining why he finds it hard to empathize with his victims: "They are frightened, right? But, you see, I don't really understand it. I've been frightened myself, and it wasn't unpleasant."
Such behavior could be seen "in the field," so to speak, when, in 1975 policed pulled over Ted Bundy and queried him after finding a ski mask, handcuffs and an ice pick in his car. Reportedly, he showed no signs of stress and easily confabulated a justification for his possession of such bizarre items.

One would think remorseless, fearless madmen in our midst would stand out like severed heads in a pile of pumpkins. But psychopaths are often quite skilled at hiding their inner life. They possess a superficial charm --- the much touted "mask of sanity" --- that wins people over. Indeed, it is their very charm that allows them to so easily lure victims into their traps.

In 1980 Dr. Hare --- not content with the ethereal definitions applied to terms like psychopath and sociopath* --- developed the "Psychopathy Checklist" which evolved into a diagnostic tool called the PCL-R. Individuals being assessed by the tool are assigned points for various attributes that indicate psychopathic behavior. The checklist maxes out at 40 points, anything above 30 is a general indicator that the subject is a psychopath.

* The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is somewhat ethereal. Details are provided here.

Studies by Dr. Hare and others have noted specific behaviors exhibited by psychopaths. In one study, psychopaths were hooked up to an EEG machine which tracked their brain activity. Then they were shown various real and nonsense words. Unlike normal people, psychopaths responded to a word with emotional connotations like "cancer" no differently than they did to a word with no emotional card nations like "tree." It's also been shown that psychopaths have difficulty detecting emotions in either a person's voice or on a person's face. (Perhaps because psychopaths have a stunted inner emotional life themselves.) The result may be that a serial killer can torture his victim with the same emotional investment of a child inflicting damage on a doll.

What makes a person a psychopath? The common presumption is that there is a defect in the brain, caused by either inherited genes or social environment, particularly the environment a person grew up in as a child. (Murderer and diagnosed psychopath Henry Lee Lucas was raised in a household filled with alcoholism, violence and sexual degradation.) There are several areas of the human brain involved in the processing of emotion. The almond shaped amygdala --- involved in the process of generating emotional responses --- has been found to be smaller in individuals who score high on Dr. Hare's PCL-R checklist. And the September/October 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine reports that neuroscientists have discovered a thinning of tissue of the Paralimbic system --- a series of brain regions associated with sensations and emotions --- in the brains of psychopaths.

Do these findings point in the direction of a cure for psychopathic behavior? Can a conscience be inserted into a person's brain? As noted above, psychopathic behavior seems to correspond with a decrease in the volume of specific parts of the brain. Perhaps strategies to increase the size of these areas --- using chemicals or therapeutic techniques --- could be applied. It can also be confidently stated that complete removal of the brain from the psychopath's head --- using, perhaps, a chainsaw or shotgun --- discontinues the psychopathic behavior.


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