Experts have recognised for some time that not all psychopaths are violent criminals. Many of them live inconspicuously amongst us (see item 4 here). But according to Mehmet Mahmut and his colleagues, these more benign psychopaths have been relatively uninvestigated. It's not even clear how comparable they are to their more notorious counterparts.
One hundred university students completed a self-report measure of psychopathy that probed four key areas - lack of empathy, grandiosity, impulsivity and delinquency. The top 33 per cent and bottom 33 per cent of scorers subsequently formed high and low psychopathy groups. The low and high psychopathy groups then completed the kinds of neuropsychological tests that have often been used on research with criminal psychopaths.
The high psychopathy students, as well as recording low empathy on the self-report test, also scored poorly on the Iowa Card Gambling task (relative to the low psychopathy students), reflecting the same kind of performance seen in criminal psychopaths. This gambling task is thought to measure functioning in a specific frontal region of the brain called orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is known to be involved in emotion and decision-making.
Yet despite this deficit, the high psychopathy students showed normal executive function and IQ, just as most criminal psychopaths do. The researchers said their findings show that criminal and non-criminal psychopaths share the same neuropsychological profile.
So what is it that makes criminal psychopaths get into trouble, while non-criminal psychopaths do not? The researchers speculated that criminal psychopaths may be steered towards criminality by their backgrounds, in particular a lack of early parental supervision, deprivation and having a convicted parent.
"An increased research focus as to the nature of psychopathy across non-criminal and criminal populations is important in that it may reveal factors protecting non-criminal psychopaths from becoming criminal psychopaths and hence reduce the emotional and financial havoc they can wreak" the researchers concluded.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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MAHMUT, M., HOMEWOOD, J., STEVENSON, R. (2008). The characteristics of non-criminals with high psychopathy traits: Are they similar to criminal psychopaths?. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(3), 679-692. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.09.002