What is psychopathy? For a concept that gets endless attention, there’s surprisingly little agreement. Various models have been put forward over the years. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist – Revised has been particularly influential. But it, too, has been questioned, with debate centring on the nature of the fundamental traits that together make someone a psychopath.
In a bid for clarity, Cristina Crego at Longwood University and Thomas A. Widiger at the University of Kentucky decided to look for shared traits in six people, real and fictional, who have been identified as psychopathic. They present their work in a new paper in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment. Their list includes a few names that might be come as a surprise. But this turned out to be an advantage — the pair feel that it drew them closer to understanding which are the core traits of psychopathy, and which are red herrings.
You’ll be familiar with the concept of the “successful psychopath”. Like regular psychopaths, such people are callous and manipulative, self-seeking, and free from guilt — but rather than ending up behind bars, they are able to flourish in their careers.
Imagine going to sit in a room with a violent, imprisoned psychopath and having a chat about what you both like to eat. (It’s impossible not to think of liver, fava beans and Chianti, isn’t it….?)
This is exactly what one researcher did recently in Germany. But the purpose of the study, reported in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment wasn’t to gather data on criminal psychopaths’ dining preferences, but rather on how they make — or don’t make — eye contact during a conversation.
This was the first study to explore psychopaths’ eye movements in a naturalistic setting. And it reveals that prisoners who scored highly on one aspect of psychopathy, in particular, were much less likely to look at the interviewer’s eyes. This finding not only helps with understanding how psychopathy develops, but also suggests that finding ways to encourage at-risk children to make more eye contact might be a useful intervention, argue Nina Gehrer at the University of Tübingen and her colleagues.
Is it possible to spot the signs of future psychopathy in a child? Some researchers have argued that it is — by looking at the child’s level of “interpersonal callousness” (IC), or the extent to which they are manipulative, dishonest, and show a lack of guilt, remorse or distress at being punished. Indeed, previous studies have found that children who rank high for IC are more likely to develop psychopathic features, as well as to commit violent offences in adolescence and adulthood. So, case closed?
Not according to a new study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. This work, led by Meagan Docherty and Jordan Beardslee at Arizona State University, suggests that other important risk factors for these negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood haven’t been properly taken into account — and that when they are, the apparent link between childhood callousness and psychopathy in adulthood disappears.
When you see someone laughing hysterically, do you often find yourself laughing too? Laughter is usually extremely contagious. In fact, we are up to 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than when alone. It’s a powerful bonding tool: we enjoy seeing other people happy, we enjoy laughing with them, and this brings us closer together.
But is this equally true for everyone, or is laughter more contagious for some people than others? For a paper in Current Biology, a team of researchers at UCL, led by Elizabeth O’Nions and César F. Lima, has investigated whether adolescent boys at risk of psychopathy are less likely to find laughter catching.
Christian Bale played the archetypal psychopath in American Psycho (2000).
Mention psychopathic personality traits and the mind turns to criminals. The archetype is a callous killer who entraps his victims with a smile and easy charm. However, recent years have seen an increasing recognition that psychopathic traits are on a continuous spectrum in all of us (akin to other personality factors like extraversion), that they don’t always manifest in criminality, and that in certain contexts, they may even confer advantages.
A useful consequence of this increased popular interest in the positive side of psychopathy is that it’s given researchers the chance to conduct large-scale public surveys. This summer, Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues have published the results of an online survey they ran in collaboration with Scientific American Mind magazine in 2012 (the invitation to participate appeared alongside extracts from Dutton’s book).
Over three thousand people (51 per cent were female; the sample was skewed towards the highly educated) completed a 56-item measure of psychopathic traits known as The Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised Short Form, together with brief questions about religion, occupation and political orientation.
The study uncovered several modest correlations. People in managerial positions scored higher on the inventory overall than non-managers, and particularly on the Fearless Dominance factor (measured with items like “When my life becomes boring I like to take some chances to make things interesting”).
People in high-risk occupations, such as military or dangerous sports, also scored higher on the inventory overall than those in low-risk occupations, and on all three sub-scales: Fearless Dominance, Coldheartedness (e.g. “Seeing an animal injured or in pain doesn’t bother me in the slightest”) and Self-Centred Impulsivity (e.g. “I would enjoy hitch-hiking my way across the United States with no prearranged plans”).
Turning to religion, politics and geography, the survey revealed that non-religious people scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness; that self-identified political conservatives scored higher on the inventory overall, as well as on all three sub-scales; and that Western Europeans scored higher on the inventory overall than US citizens, on Self-Centred Impulsivity and Coldheartedness.
The nature of the research means these results must be interpreted with great caution, as the authors explained – this includes the fact the scores were self-report and therefore may be distorted by attempts at impression management; and that the results are purely cross-sectional, so perhaps working as a manager increases people’s psychopathic personality traits, rather than people with such traits being attracted to management. It’s also a shame that the requirement to keep the survey short meant that other measures of personality were not recorded. This means we can’t know whether the results are specific to psychopathic traits, or whether they might be more parsimoniously explained in terms of, say, (lack of) agreeableness – one of the Big Five personality traits.
Nonetheless, this study represents one of the first attempts to measure psychopathic traits in the general population and it raises many interesting questions for future investigation. The authors said their findings are “consistent with the hypothesis [that] at least some psychopathic traits … are linked to adaptive attributes in everyday life, including leadership positions, management positions, and high-risk occupations.”
_________________________________ Lilienfeld, S., Latzman, R., Watts, A., Smith, S., & Dutton, K. (2014). Correlates of psychopathic personality traits in everyday life: results from a large community survey Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00740
No bugs or humans were hurt in the course of this research but the participants didn’t know that at the time. Psychologist Erin Buckels and her colleagues tricked their volunteers for the purpose of investigating “everyday sadism” – the tendency for many “apparently normal, everyday people” to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others.
Seventy-one students thought they were taking part in a study of personality and tolerance of challenging jobs. As such, they had to choose between killing bugs, helping kill bugs, cleaning toilets or enduring pain by placing their hand in iced water.
Buckels’ team found that students who scored higher on a sadism questionnaire (e.g. do you agree “Hurting people is exciting?”) were more likely to be among the 53 per cent who chose the bug killer or killer’s assistant option. This involved placing Muffin, Ike and Tootsie (yes, the bugs had names) into a machine and grinding them to death, or watching someone else do the same. Sound effects gave the impression the bugs’ exoskeletons were crunching like nut shells. In truth Muffin and co escaped via an emergency slide, but the students didn’t realise this until later.
To the researchers’ surprise, the high scorers on sadism actually reported less pleasure after the killing than the non-sadists. Closer examination provided some explanation. Sadists reported lower pleasure across all the challenges, not just the killing. And those sadists that did the killing reported more pleasure than those who didn’t. “Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion,” the researchers said.
Would you blast a stranger with loud white noise, just for the fun of it? Seventy-one student participants in a follow-up study had this very opportunity. They thought they were competing at a reaction time challenge with an opponent located in another room (in truth the whole thing was computerised). Each round they won, the students had a chance to blast their opponent. The “opponent” always refrained from such aggression on the rounds he won, and yet high scorers on sadism seized their chances to blaze his eardrums.
Note that in both the studies, Buckels and her team also took measures of the students’ psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Sadism scores predicted choice of the aggressive options in both studies, above and beyond the explanatory power of these so-called Dark Triad traits. Moreover, in the second study, only sadists were willing to complete a boring challenge (crossing out letters in Latin text) purely for the chance to blast their opponents. Psychopaths, narcissists and the rest didn’t go to the trouble. Based on this, Buckels et al said that sadism should be added to the Dark Triad, to make a “Dark Tetrad”.
“Our findings provide a glimpse into sadism in everyday life,” the researchers concluded. “We hope this research will persuade readers to construe sadism as something more than a sexual disorder to be studied in hardened criminals.”
Buckels EE, Jones DN, and Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological science PMID: 24022650
There are countless examples in nature of biological adaptations going hand in hand with either a nocturnal or diurnal (day-time) lifestyle. For instance, cats have reflective lenses allowing better vision in low light; chimps have colour vision which is useful for spotting fruit in daylight.
In a new paper Peter Jonason and his colleagues provide evidence that in humans certain personality types act as a form of adaptation that correlates with a preference for daily or nightly living (a person’s “chronotype”). Specifically the researchers have shown that people with a preference for the evening and night-time tend to score highly on the “Dark Triad” of personality traits – Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.
Jonason and his colleagues surveyed 263 students online (average age 24; there were 74 men) using a narcissism scale (participants rated their agreement with statements like: “I have a natural talent for influencing people”); a psychopathy scale (e.g. “I think I could beat a lie detector”), a Machiavellianism scale (e.g. “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there”) and chronotype questionnaire (participants answered questions like “During the first half hour after you wake up in the morning, how do you feel?”).
Across the sample, average Dark Triad trait scores correlated negatively with chronotype scores (r was -.14, p<.001 where -1 would be a perfect correlation). That is, the darker a person’s personality score, the more they tended to be an “owl” and to say they functioned more effectively in the evening. Drilling down into the individual subscales: psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and the entitlement/exploitativeness aspects of narcissism all correlated on their own with eveningness on the chronotype questionnaire.
Jonason and his team said their results were consistent with a “niche-specialisation” hypothesis. “It could be adaptively effective for anyone pursuing a fast life strategy like that embodied in the Dark Triad to occupy and exploit a low-light environment where others are sleeping and having diminished cognitive functioning,” they said. “Such features of the night may facilitate the casual sex, mate-poaching, and risk-taking the Dark Triad traits are linked to.”
The findings give pause for thought but the dependence on a student sample once again raises questions about the generalisability of the results. The modest size of the relevant correlations also undermines the researchers’ theoretical speculations. Another problem is the reliance on self-report. This is common in chronotype research, but nonetheless it raises the issue of whether the self-described owls really do function better in the evening or if they simply prefer that time of day.
_________________________________ Peter K. Jonason, and Amy Jones Minna Lyons (2013). Creatures of the night: Chronotypes and the Dark Triad traits. Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.05.001
Last month, a prescient editorial in the New York Times warned that a greater understanding of the neural correlates of behaviour risks having a distorting effect on the criminal justice system. John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz highlighted their own research showing that people are far more forgiving of crimes with ostensibly neurobiological causes, compared with psychological causes – a worrying demonstration of what they called “naive dualism” given that “all psychological states are also biological ones.”
Now a multi-disciplinary team of psychologist Lisa Aspinwall, legal scholar Teneille Brown and philosopher James Tabery, has surveyed nearly 200 state trial court judges in the U.S., showing how their decision making is swayed by a neurobiological explanation for psychopathy.
The judges read about a case, based loosely on real events, in which a robber brutally attacked a restaurant manager who refused to hand over any money. All judges were given evidence from the prosecution or defence that said the perpetrator had been diagnosed with psychopathy – an untreatable condition. Additionally, half of them were also presented with expert evidence from a neurobiologist about the causes of psychopathy, including genetic factors. The perpetrator had been tested and had low MAOA activity – a profile, the judges were told, previously associated with increased propensity for anti-social behaviour. The neurobiologist also explained how this genetic profile leads to brain abnormalities that impair the psychopath’s ability to tell right from wrong.
Compared with what they estimated to be their usual sentencing for aggravated battery (9 years), overall the judges said they would give a higher sentence to the psychopathic perpetrator in the current case – 12.93 years. This shows the criminal’s psychopathy was overall treated as an “aggravating factor”, a sign of utilitarian thinking on the part of the judges, in the sense that he was highly likely to be violent in the future.
However, among the judges exposed to a neurobiological account of psychopathy, the diagnosis also had a “mitigating” effect on their decision-making. Judges in this condition sentenced the attacker to an average of 12.83 years compared with the 13.93 years given by judges who didn’t receive the neurobiological information. Although the judges in receipt of the neurobiology didn’t agree with the explicit suggestion that the attacker had compromised free will or moral responsibility, their open-ended explanations for their sentencing suggested otherwise. The neural evidence “makes possible an argument that psychopaths are, in a sense, morally ‘disabled’,” said one.
Aspinwall and her team described as a “double-edged sword” the way that psychopathy, accompanied by neurobiological explanation, can have both an aggravating and mitigating effect at once. Supporting this, judges who received the neurobiological testimony, and heard the psychopathic diagnosis from the defence counsel, tended to mention “weighing” or “balancing” factors over twice as often as judges in the other conditions. “Psychopathy may make the defendant less morally culpable, but it increases his future dangerousness to society,” said one. “In my mind, these factors balance out …”.
This new research adds to a growing literature showing how people seem to be particularly beguiled by neuroscientific evidence. Last year, for example, a study reported that people were more persuaded by brain-scan-based lie-detection evidence compared with more traditional lie-detection approaches. This study also isn’t the first to examine the factors affecting the decision making of judges. For instance, it was shown last year that hungry judges are less forgiving.
_________________________________ Lisa G. Aspinwall, Teneille R. Brown, & James Tabery (2012). The Double-Edged Sword: Does Biomechanism Increase or Decrease Judges’ Sentencing of Psychopaths? Science : 10.1126/science.1219569
Put aside the dramatic Hollywood portrayals. Suited, married, high achieving, some of them walk among us. No, not vampires or super-heroes but ‘successful psychopaths’. Like their criminally violent cousins – the standard psychopaths – these people are ruthless, callous, fearless and arrogant. But thanks to their superior self-control and conscientiousness, rather than landing in prison, they end up as company chief executives, university chancellors and Queen’s Council barristers. Well, that’s the idea anyway. But it’s an idea that’s proven difficult for psychologists to investigate. After all, if you advertise for volunteers for a study of successful people who are psychopathic, you’re not likely to get many responses.
Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt and her collaborators tried a different tack. They surveyed hundreds of members of the American Psychological Association’s Division 41 (psychology and law), criminal attorneys and professors of clinical psychology about whether they’d ever known personally an individual who was successful in their endeavours and who also matched Hare’s definition of a psychopath: ‘social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.’
Of the 118 APA members, 31 attorneys and 58 psychology professors who replied, 81, 25 and 41, respectively, said they’d previously known a successful psycho. The examples given were predominantly male and included current or former students, colleagues, clients, and friends (sample descriptions here). The survey respondents were asked to rate the personality of the successful psychopath they’d known and to complete a psychopathy measure of that person. These ratings were then compared with the typical profile for a standard (unsuccessful) psychopath.
The key difference between successful and standard psychopaths seemed to be in conscientiousness. Providing some rare, concrete support for the ‘successful psychopath’ concept, the individuals described by the survey respondents were the same as prototypical psychopaths in all regards except they lacked the irresponsibility, impulsivity and negligence and instead scored highly on competence, order, achievement striving and self-discipline.
‘The current study used informant descriptions to provide information about successful psychopaths,’ the researchers concluded. ‘Such persons have been described in papers and texts on psychopathy but only anecdotally. This was the first study to conduct a systematic, quantitative analysis of such persons.’ _________________________________
Mullins-Sweatt, S., Glover, N., Derefinko, K., Miller, J., & Widiger, T. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (4), 554-558 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.05.010