Psychopathy is a well-known concept in the discussion of criminal behavior. Members of the law enforcement community, media, and general public often quickly label an individual a psychopath when hearing tales of violent crime, serial killing, financial scandal, and public corruption. While people must take caution when labeling someone too hastily based on limited information, officers find investigative value in identifying behavior indicative of psychopathy. Quite simply, they can combat crime more effectively when knowing the offender.
Although associated with aggressive and antisocial actions, psychopathy differs, in general, from criminal behavior. Not all psychopaths are criminals. However, some are, and their criminal behavior is predatory in nature. People often describe these individuals as charming, manipulative, and without conscience. Although they make up only 1 percent or so of the general population, psychopaths commit a disproportionate amount of serious and violent crime. This illustrates why identifying psychopathic behavior proves critical to an investigator’s mission.
Knowing and understanding an offender’s personality traits can help officers develop appropriate strategies for complex and unusual investigations. To this end, comprehending an offender’s psychopathy becomes critical in a serial murder, rape, or child abduction case. Crime scene and postoffense behavior of the psychopath likely will differ from that of nonpsychopaths committing similar offenses. These differences can help law enforcement link serial investigations. While preparing interview strategies, investigators benefit when they recognize their offender as a psychopath because certain themes may prove unsuccessful. While psychopaths present challenges to officers, they also possess personality traits that law enforcement can exploit successfully.
A clear and concise discussion of psychopathy can lead to a greater understanding of the challenges associated with these offenders. Further, this knowledge can promote and enhance cooperation between law enforcement entities to successfully combat the devastating effects criminal psychopaths have on society. To this end, the FBI can offer assistance and expertise.
Part of the Critical Incident Response Group, three Behavioral Analysis Units (BAUs) provide investigative and operational support to federal, state, local, and international law enforcement agencies through the application of investigative experience, training, and research. BAU resources have focused on unusual or repetitive cases of violent crime, such as sexual assault and serial, mass, and other murder; kidnapping; child abduction; missing persons; communicated threats; terrorist acts; public corruption; white collar offenses; and cyber crime.
The Training Division’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) provides education in various topics in the behavioral sciences to law enforcement executives from around the world who attend the FBI’s National Academy. Instructors also train new FBI agents, onboard employees, and state and local law enforcement partners through road schools across the country. In addition to their teaching duties, BSU members conduct research, host conferences, and write articles for publication on topics of importance to law enforcement to advance the field of knowledge in the behavioral sciences.
Timothy Slater, Unit Chief, Behavioral Analysis Unit 2, Critical Incident Response Group, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Lydia Pozzato, Special Agent, Behavioral Science Unit, Training Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Focus on Psychopathy
I am honored by the invitation to write an introduction to this focus issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. I have spent my career conducting basic and applied research on psychopathy, a vitally important clinical construct. The academic view of psychopathy resonates seamlessly with those who work in the criminal justice system and routinely encounter people who embody the traits and behaviors that define this condition.
Psychopaths—perhaps 1 percent of the general population and 10 to 15 percent of offenders—are manipulative, deceptive, self-centered, lacking in empathy and guilt, callous, and remorseless. They present a serious challenge to everyone involved with criminal justice, including officers and investigators; judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys; probation officers; corrections personnel; and psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. For more than three decades, I have had the pleasure of discussing the nature and implications of psychopathy with these groups. But, I derive particular satisfaction from working with those in the front line of law enforcement because they must face head-on the likelihood that some of the people with whom they deal are psychopathic. The consequences of these encounters always are uncertain and sometimes dangerous.
Most law enforcement officers learn quickly about the varieties and vagaries of human nature, and many have the experience and intuitive skills needed to guide their evaluations and interactions with the public. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for even the most astute officers to operate under the mistaken belief that others think and feel much as they do and to become the target of manipulation by one who is more skilled at playing head games.
When officers do not know or suspect psychopathy during first contacts with individuals, the results can prove deadly, as Anthony Pinizzotto, Edward Davis, and Charles Miller III first showed in their 1992 publication Killed in the Line of Duty: A Study of Selected Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers.1 This also can prove problematic during criminal investigations, undercover work, hostage negotiations, and interrogations, in which assumptions about the personality of a suspect may help determine strategies and tactics. In cases that involve white-collar crime, investigators also may feel frustrated and helpless when dealing with a system that seems to favor or fail to recognize the manipulative skills of psychopaths.
While welcome, the dramatic increase in awareness of the importance of psychopathy to the criminal justice system brings with it the need for caution. The emergence of media and other “experts” with little relevant formal training or experience has accompanied the popularity of movies and television dramas featuring criminal investigation and profiling. Unfortunately, the same holds true with respect to psychopathy and law enforcement.
Authorities need to understand and refer to psychopathy properly, and those who provide training and consultation on the implications of psychopathy for law enforcement must have the credentials to do so. However, while qualified clinicians hold the responsibility for the formal assessment of psychopathy, those in law enforcement should continue to use their training, experience, and knowledge of psychopathy to generate hypotheses about the individuals they encounter. Simply recognizing that the behaviors and inferred traits of an individual seem consistent with psychopathy may prove useful in identifying effective investigative and interviewing strategies. In some cases, these informal impressions and evaluations may lead to requests for clinical assessments.
Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of interacting and working with many outstanding experts in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and at the FBI Academy. Many have contributed to this focus issue, which realizes a dream that retired Supervisory Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, Special Agent George DeShazor, and I had a decade or so ago. We thank the staff of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin for helping make this material available to the law enforcement community. I hope that the articles and information contained herein will motivate readers to dig more deeply into the theory and research on psychopathy. An up-to-date and downloadable list of publications on the topic is maintained at my Web site http://www.hare.org.
An Important Forensic Concept for the 21st Century
By Paul Babiak, M.S., Ph.D.; Jorge Folino, M.D., Ph.D.; Jeffrey Hancock, Ph.D.; Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.; Matthew Logan, Ph.D., M.Ed.; Elizabeth Leon Mayer, Ph.D.; J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.; Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm, Ph.D.; Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D.; Anthony Pinizzotto, Ph.D.; Stephen Porter, Ph.D.; Sharon Smith, Ph.D.; and Michael Woodworth, Ph.D.
Over the years, Hollywood has provided many examples of psychopaths. As a result, psychopaths often are identified as scary people who look frightening or have other off-putting characteristics. In reality, a psychopath can be anyone—a neighbor, coworker, or homeless person. Each of these seemingly harmless people may prey continually on others around them.
Psychopathy and Personality Disorder
The term psychopathy refers to a personality disorder that includes a cluster of interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and antisocial traits and behaviors.1 These involve deception; manipulation; irresponsibility; impulsivity; stimulation seeking; poor behavioral controls; shallow affect; lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse; sexual promiscuity; callous disregard for the rights of others; and unethical and antisocial behaviors.2
Psychopathy is the most dangerous of the personality disorders. To understand it, one must know some fundamental principles about personality. Individuals’ personalities represent who they are; they result from genetics and upbringing and reflect how persons view the world and think the world views them. Personalities dictate how people interact with others and how they cope with problems, both real and imagined. Individuals’ personalities develop and evolve until approximately their late 20s, after which they are well-hardwired in place, unable to be altered.
Traits and Characteristics
Psychopathy is apparent in a specific cluster of traits and characteristics (see table 1). These traits, ultimately, define adult psychopathy and begin to manifest themselves in early childhood.3 The lifelong expression of this disorder is a product of complex interactions between biological and temperamental predispositions and social forces—in other words, the ways in which nature and nurture shape and define each other.4
Many psychopaths exhibit a profound lack of remorse for their aggressive actions, both violent and nonviolent, along with a corresponding lack of empathy for their victims. This central psychopathic concept enables them to act in a cold-blooded manner, using those around them as pawns to achieve goals and satisfy needs and desires, whether sexual, financial, physical, or emotional. Most psychopaths are grandiose, selfish sensation seekers who lack a moral compass—a conscience—and go through life taking what they want. They do not accept responsibility for their actions and find a way to shift the blame to someone or something else.
Chameleons and Predators
In general, psychopaths are glib and charming, and they use these attributes to manipulate others into trusting and believing in them. This may lead to people giving them money, voting them into office, or, possibly, being murdered by them. Because of their interpersonal prowess, most psychopaths can present themselves favorably on a first impression, and many function successfully in society.
Many of the attitudes and behaviors of psychopaths have a distinct predatory quality to them. Psychopaths see others as either competitive predators or prey. To understand how psychopaths achieve their goals, it is important to see them as classic predators. For instance, they surf the Internet looking for attractive persons to con or, even, murder and target retirees to charm them out of their life savings for a high-risk investment scam, later blaming them for being too trusting. Most psychopaths are skilled at camouflage through deception and manipulation, as well as stalking and locating areas where there is an endless supply of victims.5 The psychopath is an intraspecies predator, and peoples’ visceral reaction to them—“they made the hair stand up on my neck”—is an early warning system driven by fear of being prey to a predator.6
The psychopath’s egocentricity and need for power and control are the perfect ingredients for a lifetime of antisocial and criminal activity. The ease with which a psychopath can engage in violence holds significance for society and law enforcement. Often, psychopaths are shameless in their actions against others, whether it is murdering someone in a calculated, cold-blooded manner, manipulating law enforcement during an interview, or claiming remorse for actions, but blaming the victim for the crime. This particularly proves true in cases involving sexual offenders who are psychopathic.
If psychopaths commit a homicide, their killing likely will be planned and purposeful, not the result of a loss of emotional control; their motive more commonly will involve sadistic gratification.7 When faced with overwhelming evidence of their guilt, they frequently will claim they lost control or were in a rage when committing the act of violence. In fact, their violence often is emotionless, calculated, and completely controlled.8 If psychopaths commit a serious crime with another individual (almost always a nonpsychopath), they often will avoid culpability by using the other individual to take the blame for the offense. Evidence suggests that this particular strategy is even more evident in serious multiple-perpetrator offences committed by a psychopathic youth with a nonpsychopathic partner.9
Many misconceptions about psychopaths can lead to mistakes in investigations, interviews, and court proceedings. Psychopaths are both male and female, but more men are psychopaths than women. They represent all races, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some are intelligent, while others possess average or below-average intelligence. They come from both single- and two-parent households and may themselves be married with children.
Psychopaths understand right from wrong. They know they are subject to society’s rules, but willingly disregard them to pursue their own interests. They also are not out of touch with reality. They rarely become psychotic unless they also have a separate mental illness or use powerful drugs, such as stimulants. These hallmarks of genuine mental illness might be proposed during a criminal defense, but they often are successfully challenged at trial. Although usually manageable, psychopathy is not curable.
Presence In Society
Many psychopaths have little difficulty joining the ranks of business, politics, law enforcement, government, and academia.10 They exist in all lines of work, from executive to blue-collar professions. However, psychopathy often is misread, misdiagnosed, minimized, or explained away by professionals whose jobs require regular interaction with psychopaths, namely in the mental health, judicial, and law enforcement communities. When these professionals encounter psychopathy in the course of their work, their reaction and response to the psychopath may be too little and too late. Their lack of information can lead to serious consequences, ranging from mishandling the strategy for interviews and interrogations to believing a psychopath’s complete fabrications as seemingly plausible explanations.
Following on approximately 40 years of empirical research, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R, has emerged as an ideal tool for the assessment of this personality disorder. Specific scoring criteria rate each of 20 items on a 3-point scale (0, 1, 2) according to the extent that it applies to a given individual. This test allows for a maximum score of 40; a score of 30 designates someone as a psychopath. The average nonpsychopath will score around 5 or 6 on this test. White-collar or corporate psychopaths likely will score lower—in the middle 20s—and sexually deviant psychopaths will tend to score higher.11
Traits and Characteristics of Psychopathy
Glib and superficial charm
Lack of remorse/guilt
Poor behavior controls
Grandiose sense of self-worth
Callous, lack of empathy
Conning and manipulation
Failure to accept responsibility
Lack of realistic goals
Robert D. Hare, Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, 2nd ed. (Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems, 2003).
Psychopaths differ from each other, and their condition can vary in severity. Current research suggests a continuum of psychopathy ranging from those who are highly psychopathic to persons who have the same number or fewer traits in a milder form. A clinical assessment of psychopathy is based on the person having the full cluster of psychopathic traits—at least to some degree—based on a pattern of lifetime behaviors.
Many psychopaths are not violent. However, those who display violence and sexual deviance are generally more dangerous than other offenders, and their likelihood of reoffending may be significantly higher.12 Psychopaths tend to have longer, more varied, and more serious criminal histories and, overall, are more consistently violent than nonpsychopaths. Their use of violence appears to be less situational and more directed toward particular goals than the type of violence displayed by nonpsychopaths.13 It is estimated that approximately 1 percent of the general male population are psychopaths, and 15 to 20 percent of the prison population are psychopathic.14
Given the risk that psychopathic offenders pose for society, their ability to potentially manipulate the authorities poses concern. Psychopathic killers more likely will deny charges brought against them, and some indication exists that they are able to manipulate the criminal justice system to receive reduced sentences and appeal sentences to a higher court.15 Also, psychopathic sex offenders are 2.43 times more likely to be released than their nonpsychopathic counterparts, while psychopathic offenders charged with other crimes are 2.79 times more likely to be released.16 Their acting ability can enable them to frequently manipulate and persuade members of a parole board to release them approximately 2.5 times faster than other offenders up for parole, despite their longer list of offenses and elevated risk.17 Psychopaths can be adept at imitating emotions that they believe will mitigate their punishment.18
Research suggests that the linguistic patterns of psychopaths are unique compared with the patterns of nonpsychopaths. Their stylistic differences reflect how they view the world around them, as well as their profound emotional deficit and detachment from emotional events.19 However, psychopaths’ lack of feeling and bonding to others allows them to have clarity in observing the behavior of their prey. They do not get caught in or bogged down by the anxieties and emotions that other people experience in social situations.
The reactions of psychopaths to the damage they inflict most likely will be cool indifference and a sense of power, pleasure, or smug satisfaction, rather than regret or concern. Most people closely associated with a psychopath may know something is wrong with that person, but have no idea as to the depth of the pathology. They frequently will blame themselves for all of the problems they have had with a psychopath, whether at work, in a relationship, or within a family. After interacting with psychopaths, most people are stunned by these individuals’ ruthlessness, callousness, and denial or minimization of the damage they have caused.
Psychopathy is not a diagnosis. About one-third of individuals in prison deemed “antisocial personality disordered,” the current official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) diagnosis for the chronically antisocial, will meet the criteria for severe psychopathy. In DSM’s upcoming fifth edition, psychopathy will become one of five dimensions for describing a personality disorder, receiving the official diagnostic blessing of American psychiatry after approximately one-half century of research.
Understanding the minds of psychopaths and their personality and behavioral traits allows authorities to design strategies that more likely will work with them. Psychopaths’ manipulative nature can make it difficult for officers to obtain accurate information from them unless the law enforcement interviewer has been educated in specific strategies for questioning a psychopath. Professionals working in law enforcement, corrections, and other security-related professions must understand psychopathy and its implications.
Psychopathy has been described as the single most important clinical construct in the criminal justice system.20 More recently, it is considered “the most important forensic concept of the early 21st century.”21 Because of its relevance to law enforcement, corrections, the courts, and others working in related fields, the need to understand psychopathy cannot be overstated. This includes knowing how to identify psychopaths, the damage they can cause, and how to deal with them more effectively.
1 Robert D. Hare and Matthew H. Logan, “Criminal Psychopathy: An Introduction for Police,” in The Psychology of Criminal Investigations: The Search for the Truth, ed. Michel St-Yves and Michel Tanguay (Cowansville, QC: Editions Yvon Blais, 2009).
2 Hare and Logan, “Criminal Psychopathy: An Introduction for Police.”
3 Paul J. Frick and Monica A. Marsee, “Psychopathy and Developmental Pathways to Antisocial Behavior in Youth,” in Handbook of Psychopathy, ed. Christopher J. Patrick (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2006), 353-374; and Donald R. Lynam, “Early Identification of Chronic Offenders: Who is the Fledgling Psychopath?” Psychological Bulletin 120, no. 2 (1996): 209-234.
4 Angus W. MacDonald III and William G. Iacono, “Toward an Integrated Perspective on the Etiology of Psychopathy,” in Handbook of Psychopathy, ed. Christopher J. Patrick (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2006), 375-385.
5 Dewey G. Cornell, Janet Warren, Gary Hawk, Ed Stafford, Guy Oram, and Denise Pine, “Psychopathy in Instrumental and Reactive Violent Offenders,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 64, no. 4 (August 1996): 783-790; J. Reid Meloy, The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1988); and Michael Woodworth and Stephen Porter, “In Cold Blood: Characteristics of Criminal Homicides as a Function of Psychopathy,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 111, no. 3 (2002): 436-445.
6 J. Reid Meloy and M.J. Meloy, “Autonomic Arousal in the Presence of Psychopathy: A Survey of Mental Health and Criminal Justice Professionals,” Journal of Threat Assessment 2, no.2 (2002): 21-34.
7 Meloy, The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment; and Stephen Porter and Michael Woodworth, “Psychopathy and Aggression,” in Handbook of Psychopathy, ed. Christopher J. Patrick (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2006), 481-494.
8 Mary Ellen O’Toole, “Psychopathy as a Behavior Classification System for Violent and Serial Crime Scenes,” in The Psychopath: Theory, Research, and Practice, ed. Hugues Hervé and John C. Yuille (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, 2007), 301-325; and Woodworth and Porter, “In Cold Blood: Characteristics of Criminal Homicides as a Function of Psychopathy.”
9 Woodworth and Porter, “In Cold Blood: Characteristics of Criminal Homicides as a Function of Psychopathy.”
10 Paul Babiak, “When Psychopaths Go to Work,” Applied Psychology: An International Review 44, no. 2 (1995):171-188; and Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (New York, NY: Harper/Collins, 2006).
11 Robert D. Hare, Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, 2nd ed. (Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems, 2003); and Babiak and Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.
12 Grant T. Harris, Marnie E. Rice, Vernon L. Quinsey, Martin L. Lalumière, Douglas Boer, and Carol Lang, “A Multisite Comparison of Actuarial Risk Instruments for Sex Offenders,” Psychological Assessment 15, no. 3 (2003): 413-425.
13 Stephen Porter, Leanne ten Brinke, and Kevin Wilson, “Crime Profiles and Conditional Release Performance of Psychopathic and Nonpsychopathic Sexual Offenders,” Legal and Criminological Psychology 14, no. 1 (February 2009): 109-118.
14 Robert D. Hare, “Psychopaths and Their Nature: Implications for the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Systems,” in Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior, ed. Theodore Millon, Erik Simonsen, Morten Birket-Smith, and Roger D. Davis (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1998), 188-212.
15 Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm and Robert D. Hare, “Psychopathy, Homicide, and the Courts: Working the System,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 36, no. 8 (2009): 761-777.
16 Porter, ten Brinke, and Wilson, “Crime Profiles and Conditional Release Performance of Psychopathic and Nonpsychopathic Sexual Offenders.”
17 Porter, ten Brinke, and Wilson, “Crime Profiles and Conditional Release Performance of Psychopathic and Nonpsychopathic Sexual Offenders.”
18 Meloy, The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment.
19 Robert D. Hare, “Psychopathy, Affect, and Behavior,” in Psychopathy: Theory, Research, and Implications for Society, ed. David J. Cooke, Adelle E. Forth, and Robert D. Hare (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 1998), 105-137.
20 Robert D. Hare, “Psychopathy: A Clinical Construct Whose Time Has Come,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 23, no. 1 (March 1996): 25-54.
21 John Monahan, comments on cover jacket of Handbook of Psychopathy, ed. Christopher J. Patrick (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2006).
About the Authors
Dr. Babiak is a business author, international speaker, and consultant to executives and organizations on leadership development issues and the corporate psychopath.
Dr. Folino is a professor of psychiatry at the National University of La Plata, Argentina.
Dr. Hancock is an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Dr. Hare is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and a psychopathy researcher.
Dr. Logan, a retired staff sergeant with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a psychologist, provides forensic behavioral consultation and training for the law enforcement and criminal justice communities.
Dr. Mayer is a member of the psychiatric department at the National University of La Plata, Argentina.
Dr. Meloy is a consultant, researcher, writer, and teacher. He serves as a faculty member with the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine and the San Diego Psychoanalytic Institute.
Dr. Häkkänen-Nyholm, a profiler at the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, currently is the CEO of a psychology and law firm.
Dr. O’Toole has served with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and is a private forensic behavioral consultant and an instructor at the FBI Academy.
Dr. Pinizzotto, a retired FBI senior scientist, is a clinical forensic psychologist who privately consults for law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies.
Dr. Porter is a professor of psychology and the founding director of the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia, Okanangan.
Dr. Smith, a retired special agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, is a consultant on criminal and corporate psychopathy for intelligence- and security-related government and law enforcement agencies.
Dr. Woodworth is a registered psychologist and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.
Things to Remember
Two automated text analysis tools—Wmatrix and the Dictionary of Affect and Language—were used by researchers to examine for the first time the crime narratives of a group of psychopathic and nonpsychopathic murderers. The results indicated that when describing their murders, psychopaths more likely would provide information about basic needs, such as food, drink, and money. For example, an offender might talk about eating, drinking, and taking drugs the day he committed the murder.
Psychopathic murderers differ in other ways of speaking. Compared with nonpsychopaths, they make fewer references to family and friends. Research indicated that the selfish, instrumental, goal-driven nature of psychopaths and their inability to focus on emotional aspects of an event is discernable by closely examining their language. Psychopaths’ language is less emotionally intense. They use more past-tense verbs in their narrative, suggesting greater psychological and emotional detachment from the incident.
Interesting, but it seems kind of a flawed classification of personality disorder. Some of the most dispicable persons in history would fall under this banner, and certainly a lot of the common street trash have many of the qualities listed. But so do many of the great figures in history. Technically, wouldn't Alexander the Great and Napoleon be considered psychopaths? For that matter, wouldn't most military leaders, given their necessary ability to separate themselves emotionally from the decisions they must make which they know will cause the deaths of thousands of their soldiers?
Can't think of a decent signature right now.
Prescription Control of Criminality
By Gareth Cook
What is science revealing about the nature of the criminal mind? Adrian Raine, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert in the expanding field of “neurocriminology”. He has written The Anatomy of Violence, a sweeping account of crime’s biological roots, including genetics, neuro-anatomy and environmental toxins like lead.
Adrian Raine: Neurocriminology pushes a lot of peoples’ buttons for lots of different reasons. There’s the obvious historical misuse of biological research – think of the eugenics movement in this country when we sterilized mentally retarded people in an attempt to raise the overall IQ of the general population.
Think of Hitler and the genocide that took place. So there’s always a potential for misuse, so of course we must tread carefully. But we also have to move forward to find new solutions to old problems, and neuroscience is offering us new vistas into the criminal mind that may in the future help us reduce violence. We need not resort to drastic measures to change the brain as we did in the past with frontal lobectomies. But unless we also tackle biology, violent crime is never going to go away.
The free-will debate also raises its ugly head. People are concerned about chalking up a good portion of crime and violence to genetics and biology — what does that say about choice and agency? Was it all determined from the get-go? Are we just gene machines destined to play out our programed nature in life? Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear that, do they?
Neurocriminology is a new approach that is attracting attention, and threatening the status quo. Other academics can get miffed that their own work doesn’t reach the spotlight. They’re human after all.
Science shows that 50 percent of the variance in crime is under genetic control. OK, so we could turn our backs on biology. Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. Like an ostrich, we could bury our heads in the sand and pretend the hunter is not there. But the tragedy is that in our blind ignorance we’ll never have the biological insights to stop future violence. And you’d better watch out – the ostrich may get shot.
There’s no question whatsoever that genetic influences play a very significant role in shaping crime and violence. That can no longer be disputed.
What can be debated is what specific genes are involved – and in what way. The gene that codes for the enzyme MAOA does seem to be involved at some level, but there’s still a long way to go in the hunt for genes that predispose to violence.
The most replicable finding so far is dysfunction to the prefrontal cortex, the “guardian angel” in the brain that controls our impulsive behavior and regulates our emotions. Damage that emergency brake on behavior, and explosive violence is not far away.
One prime suspect in shaping psychopathic behavior is the amygdala – the seat of emotion. Psychopaths have a core emotional deficit – they lack conscience, remorse, and guilt. They just don’t feel feelings the way we do.
Several studies are documenting volume reductions in this brain structure in psychopaths. The amygdala is also less activated in psychopaths when they contemplate moral dilemmas. It’s as if psychopaths don’t have the feeling for what is right and wrong – even if they know it at a cognitive level.
At a psychophysiological level something as simple as low resting heart rate is probably the best-replicated biological correlate of antisocial and aggressive behavior in children and adolescents. We think it’s a marker for fearlessness and impulsive stimulation-seeking. High testosterone and low cortisol are hormonal candidates. In terms of neurotransmitters, low serotonin is a well-replicated correlate of impulsive violence.
Mothers who smoke or drink during pregnancy are much more likely to have babies who grow up to become violent offenders. Poor nutrition during pregnancy also raises the odds of later offending. And let’s not forget environmental toxins like lead. They damage the brain, and not surprisingly are associated with antisocial behavior.
Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature was right on the mark in its main argument – violence has indeed dropped over time. Social structures that provide order and help contain violence have surely been a part of this, but we’ve become smarter, more educated, and better able to reason, and partly for that reason we’ve moved away from violence.
I wrote The Anatomy of Violence for people to know what factors, including environmental influences, shape the brain processes that predispose to violence…Conditions that need to cease being viewed within a moral/theological context and more within the humanitarian context of treatment. It’s something I sincerely hope for, a more enlightened society that can learn from a new and exciting body of biological knowledge on what causes offending. Chalking a violent act up to “evil” is easy, but it’s thirteenth century thinking.
We need to move on into a more scientifically enlightened future to stop violence. Unless we do that, we’ll go on living out the disheartening headlines that we read in newspapers every day.
I'd rather the cops pull over and thoroughly investigate every car on the road with niggers in it.
If it can be done, and if they think they can get away with it, then they will do it.
"The most replicable finding so far is dysfunction to the prefrontal cortex, the “guardian angel” in the brain that controls our impulsive behavior and regulates our emotions. Damage that emergency brake on behavior, and explosive violence is not far away."
"Right way's the hardest, wrong way's the easiest. Rule of nature, like water seeks the path of least resistance. So you get crooked rivers and crooked men"
Boobs and beer FTW!