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Psychopathy: Causes and Interpretations

K. Smythe's picture

Psychopathy is a syndrome that can be described as a unique disorder that is an extension of conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder (Blair et. al., 1995).  Psychopaths are characterized by their lack of guilt and remorse and also often display antisocial behavior and have poor behavioral control (Blair, 2003).  This can lead to their predilection toward violence and the image and definition society has created of them as serial killers, mass murderers and other infamous predators.  It is interesting to note that, although there is a higher concentration of psychopaths among violent offenders, psychologists surmise that approximately one out of every hundred people could be classified as a psychopath based on a lack of emotions such as remorse and guilt. (Goldberg, 2003).

            Psychopathy is often determined based on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). This test measures behavior and emotional responses based on interviews and a review of a subject’s record.  Those toward the high end of this scale, within the range which is considered psychopathic, have been shown to have difficulty distinguishing between moral and conventional transgressions.  Moral transgressions involve how consequences affect the welfare of others-things such as hitting someone or destroying their property. Conventional transgressions on the other hand are violations of “behavioral uniformities” and other socially constructed norms-thing such as talking during class or not wearing a required uniform.  Most people judge moral transgressions as much more serious and also as wrong regardless or rules/laws.  The inability of psychopaths to make this distinction may be part of why their crimes are often so heinous (Blair et. al., 1995).  It is also believed that psychopaths also do not judge situations based on the perceived emotions of others the way that most of the population does.  This is probably due to a difficulty in processing fear and sadness cues in others.  Psychopaths also show a lower stress response in reaction to fearful stimuli and to respond less strongly to sad and fearful faces (Goldberg, 2003).  The inability to process others emotions may lead to antisocial behavior of psychopaths and a general interference with socialization (Blair, 1995). 

It has been shown that psychopaths have difficulty with aversive conditioning and instrumental learning.  Socialization is theorized to occur at least partly through this aversive conditioning with the distress cues of others acting as the undesirable “punishment”.  Eventually, through conditioning, even the thought of a violent transgression could activate the VIM causing the subject to not even initiate the violence rather than simply withdraw.  Based on this theory of socialization psychopath’s inability to read or respond to the fearful or sad cues of others may severely hinder their socialization process (Blair, 1995).

Another theory is that psychopaths are missing a cognitive mechanism which acts to interpret distress signals and initiate withdrawal.  This violence inhibition mechanism (VIM) functions to pair a transgression with the distress cues of the victim and cause a withdrawal (Blair et. al., 1995).  This mechanism is thought to be tied in with the development of morality through moral emotions, inhibition of violence.  VIM activation is interpreted as aversive moral emotion.  We learn to avoid these moral emotions and thus the activation of the VIM by avoiding initiating violence and other moral transgressions (Blair, 1995).

            Although we can create tests for the behaviors of psychopaths and even theorize about a cognitive mechanism they lack, the biological cause behind this disorder is not well known.  Some evidence links psychopathy to abnormalities in the amygdala, a structure that plays a role in the responses to other’s fear and sadness as well as in an individual’s own most basic emotional responses (such as fear) (Goldberg, 2003).  An MRI study of psychopaths and other violent offenders showed a correlation between higher scores on the PCL-R (psychopathy) and amygdaloidal volume (Blair, 2003).  This implies that psychopathy is at least correlated with low amygdaloidal volume, although it does not prove anything causatively.  Functional MRI studies have also shown an abnormal response of psychopaths during a memory task involving neutral and negative words.  When processing negative words psychopaths showed lower amygdala responses than other violent offenders.  Psychopathy has also been linked to smaller volumes of prefrontal grey matter.  Although it is difficult to distinguish which region of the frontal cortex is affected, it is surmised that some of the abnormalities are in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) which has extensive connections to the amygdala and has been implicated in conditioned response to reward and punishment which as we discussed is impaired in psychopaths (Blair, 2003, Goldberg, 2003).

            A few issues brought to the surface when thinking about psychopathy is whether psychopaths should be held responsible for their actions and how they should be punished and/or rehabilitated.  Crimes committed by psychopaths are usually calculated and goal oriented by things such as sex, status or money.  Psychopaths also do not feel remorse or guilt for these often horrific crimes.  Often traditional treatment such as group therapy is in fact detrimental in that it simply teaches psychopaths how to read others and more effectively lie (Goldberg, 2003).  In looking at how to deal with psychopaths as criminals we must consider whether psychopathy is a disease, treatable, controllable, or simply normal variation in the population’s moral reasoning.  Is the VIM an actual physical mechanism or simply a cognitive process?  If we believe that psychopath’s brains are actually damaged can we blame crimes on them, or must we simply treat them as patients with brain damage who cannot control their actions appropriately?  Should we deal with them differently simply because we can’t find a physical cause?  We have never been able to cure the lack of emotion or moral judgment seen in psychopaths; however, this does not mean that psychopaths cannot learn to live under the rules of society.  As mentioned earlier a fairly large part of the population could qualify based on lack of empathy etc.

I think it is also important to look at the I-function in this discussion.  If the I-function is what gives us our morality, could psychopathy just be normal variation in the definition of morality by each person’s I-function.  We have the capacity overrule the VIM with conscious decision making.  Is this the I-function that is overriding the VIM’s response to withdraw?  If so then perhaps psychopaths simply have an overactive I-function in comparison to their VIM.  However this would imply the I-function is in contrast to morality, at least in psychopaths.  If this is true, then can we truly treat psychopathy as a disease?  Another possibility if we believe the I-function controls morality is that maybe it is the equivalent or at least a contributing factor of the VIM (or alternatively the VIM is a contributing factor to the I-function and its processes).  Our lack of definitive knowledge regarding psychopathy makes it clear that research must continue so that we can more effectively diagnose psychopaths and their tendency toward violence as well as treat them.


Works Cited


Blair, R.J.R.  “Neurobiological basis of psychopathy”.  The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2003. 182: 5-7


Blair, R.J.R.  “A cognitive developmental approach to morality: investigating the psychopath”.  Cognition. Oct 1995. 57.1:1-29.


Blair, R.J.R., Jones, L., Clark, F., Smith, M.  “Is the Psychopath ‘morally insane’”.  Personality and Individual Differences.  Nov. 1995. 19.5:741-752

 Goldberg,  Carey.  “Inside the  Psychopath”.  Boston Globe.  Jul. 15, 2003.  C1.


Evette Lee's picture

Marrrying and divorcing a psychopath

For starters I discovered in 2005 I had married what I thought was a pedophile as his sisters informed me he had raped and molested them when he was younger but along with that I was informed the man I had married was still having sexual relations with oldest sister. Well of course I had him removed from the home BEFORE proving the sisters were correct BUT eventually found out they were correct. I started doing extensive research on pedophiles and psychopaths and discoved this guy was every bullet I read in every article on the subject of psychopaths!! He has convinced people who dont really know his character I am a liar and spreaded many lies about me and my family. I have a child by this guy and refuse to let him see her and when he was exposed in court he didnt show up for visitation which HE served me for. What can be done and its so sad to find out there are many people like this. He had now married some female and informed me he never loved her but she is providing him a place to stay and other things. I am afraid he will eventually hurt her children and when he does he will lie his way out of it as the female doesnt believe anything negative you tell her about this psychopath. He also has beaten her beyond recongnition and I informed her in the past he can adapt to what ever he wants you to think but she feel I am a jealous ex-wife. The proof is in the pudding his sisters do not associate with him since his secret came out (late 2004 early 2005) and doesnt his wife wonder about this or ask questions?? How do you notice these kind of people ahead of time so you can stay out of their way? I really thought I was really good at figuring out people but I missed that one, for real and quickly had him removed from my home. I have later found out he had approached many of my females friends with vulgar advances. I really wonder how many other males and females this guy has raped and molested and lied his way out of it. I would love to put a picture of him in the local newspaper and see how many people come forward. WHAT CAN BE DONE???

Paul Grobstein's picture

psychopathy: normal variation?

Maybe we need to treat everyone as having brain variations?