Category: Psychopathy

Not all psychopaths are criminal

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.

Link to related Digest item on psychopaths.
Link to another related Digest item.
Link to yet one more related item.

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

Measuring psychopathy in children and teenagers

Questionnaire measures of childhood and teenage psychopathy should not be used in clinical or forensic settings because their legitimacy has yet to be established.

That’s the message from Carla Sharp and Sarah Kine who assessed four youth psychopathy questionnaires: The Antisocial Process Screening Device, The Child Psychopathy Scale, The Psychopathy Content Scale and The Youth Psychopathic Traits Inventory.

The closest thing to a gold standard in this field is the youth version of Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, but this requires lengthy interviews with children and their parents, hence the appeal of self-report questionnaires.

Sharp and Kine found the current batch of questionnaires had many strengths – for example, different items that are meant to gauge the same thing tended to correlate with each other, and high scores on the questionnaires tended to correlate with arrests or other measures of antisocial behaviour, as you’d expect.

However, there was a severe lack of longitudinal research with the measures, which is particularly important for distinguishing between typical teenage characteristics and genuine psychopathy. There was also a lack of consensus over whether child psychopathy is made up of two factors (callous plus antisocial) or three (arrogant/deceitful interpersonal style; irresponsible behaviour; plus emotional deficiencies).

The idea that psychopathy can be identified in childhood is a controversial and sensitive issue. In theory it could allow treatment to be targeted early on when it is most likely to be effective, but on the other hand, children labelled as psychopathic could see their liberties curtailed based on a clinical diagnosis. Given these concerns, and in the context of the current state of knowledge, Sharp and Kine advised that, right now, using youth psychopathy questionnaires in clinical and forensic settings may be “considered unethical”.

Instead, they recommend the questionnaires may best be suited “for screening purposes that may lead to more comprehensive clinical interview, file review and the gathering of collateral information.”

Sharp, C., Kine, S. (2008). The Assessment of Juvenile Psychopathy: Strengths and Weaknesses of Currently Used Questionnaire Measures. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 13(2), 85-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-3588.2008.00483.x

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

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.