Category: Psychopathy

Psychopaths unmoved by words

Imagine I show you the word “love” and I ask you to classify it as positive or negative. You’ll classify it far quicker as positive, if just beforehand I had showed you another positive word such as “honesty” – a phenomenon that’s known as affective priming. Now James Blair and colleagues at the National Institute for Mental Health in America have shown that affective priming is greatly reduced in callous people who score high on psychopathy.

Blair’s team think psychopaths show reduced affective priming because positive and negative words don’t trigger activity in their brains’ fear and reward hub, the amygdala, in the same way as happens in healthy people. In healthy people, it’s this amygdala activity, triggered by the sight of one positive/negative word that is thought to speed the response to a subsequent positive/negative word.

The researchers made these observations by testing affective priming in thirty people resident in a high security institution in England, 15 of whom were psychopathic and 15 of whom weren’t, based on their scores on an established measure of psychopathy.

It’s not that psychopathic people have some kind of general language or priming problem because the researchers found psychopaths showed normal semantic priming. Similar to affective priming, semantic priming is when we’re quicker to categorise a word when it follows a preceding word that had a related meaning.

The researchers said their observations fit with the idea that “…individuals with psychopathy do represent the lexical meaning of emotions, but they do not experience their affective value; they ‘know the words but not the music’”.

Blair, K.S., Richell, R.A., Mitchell, D.G.V., Leonard, A., Morton, J. & Blair, R.J.R. (2006). They know the words, but not the music: Affective and semantic priming in individuals with psychopathy. Biological Psychology, 73, 114-123.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to complete PDF download of Hervey Cleckley’s classic text on psychopathy – ‘The Mask of Sanity’. Thanks to Vaughan at MindHacks for the heads up.

Dating a psychopath

Most of what we know about psychopathy comes from studies with people diagnosed as psychopathic who have been incarcerated, to protect others and/or themselves. Consequently, people who have the personality characteristics of a psychopath, but who have not (yet) been imprisoned for crimes or violent acts, have been little researched until now. To find out more about this group, Christine Kirkman at Bolton University interviewed twenty women (average age 48 years), recruited via newspaper advertisements, who rated their partners as psychopathic according to the Hare P-SCAN scale, a 90-item questionnaire used by police and social workers to screen for psychopathic traits. The recruitment adverts mentioned a soap opera story line, popular at the time, that involved a psychopathic character. “Were you duped like Deidre?”, the adverts asked.

Twenty-three recurring themes emerged from interviews with the women, each of which was mentioned by at least half the interviewees. Further themes also emerged from analysis of letters written by the women in response to the newspaper advert. The themes related to the way the women’s partners behaved and included: talking the women into victimisation; lying and use of false identities; economic abuse; emotional and physical torture; multiple infidelities; isolation and coercion; physical/sexual assault and/or rape; and the mistreatment of children. One woman recalled having petrol poured over her before being raped by her match-wielding husband. Kirkman was struck by the similarity and consistency between the interviewees’ accounts. Most of the women’s partners had been charged with crimes, usually of a fraudulent nature, consistent with Hervey Cleckley’s seminal description of psychopathy – “The Mask of Sanity”, originally published in 1941.

“Although the male partners were not assessed, it became evident while conducting this study that there are males living amongst us who have the characteristics associated with psychopathy”, Kirkman said. Of course, it can’t be ruled out that some of these women had vivid imaginations and/or paranoid dispositions.

Kirkman, C.A. (2005). From soap opera to science: Towards gaining access to the psychopaths who live amongst us. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, In Press. DOI: 10.1348/147608305X26666.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.