Home > Cognitive Neuroscience, Morality > How biological and psychological perspectives on psychopathy shape public opinion

How biological and psychological perspectives on psychopathy shape public opinion

It is commonly known that when a psychopath is on the stand, the prosecution is going to push for a jail term based upon the idea that the defendant is sane. The defense, on the other hand, will no doubt argue that their client is insane, and so should therefore be sent to a psychiatric institution.

In order to determine if the defendant is a psychopath, very often a test called the psychopathy checklist – revised (PCL-R) will be administered. This test has to be conducted by a trained psychologist who has the time to get familiar with the defendant and their history. However, it has been shown that psychologists hired by the prosecution and the defense can come up with different verdicts that tend to favor their own arguments. If the test determines that the defendant is a psychopath then they have essentially just been tarred and feathered and will meet the full wrath of the law with no sympathy. If the test shows otherwise, that label of psychopath will not be applied, and the defendant is likely to meet some leniency.

Numerous points can be made here, but the point I would like to make is  that the use of the psychological test (the PCL-R), if it determines that the defendant is a psychopath, seems to convince the jury of the worst, and they are likely to reflect this in their judgment. However, a recent article on NPR pointed out that judges tends to be lenient when the biological basis for psychopathy is pointed out. It is indeed true that the neurobiology of the psychopath is different; this has been indicated on the tissue level and the genetic level.

This seems to suggest that a judge can be told that a psychological test has determined the defendant is a psychopath and so causes the worst possible outcome, yet if an explanation is given on the tissue, cellular, or genetic level, they can be swayed back towards leniency. It’s as if biological explanations destroy the facade of an individual and look to the minute building blocks of life (which we have no/limited control over), but the minute psychology appears, the individual is back and suddenly accountable for their actions.

This is one problem with juries when it comes to trying psychopaths. If the level of scientific analysis focuses on the individual, the jury will see the individual, whereas if the level of analysis on the molecular biological level, the jury will see cells and genes (which have a life of their own). I, personally, think it is irresponsible to allow a jury to have to reconcile these differences during the trial, especially if they have no scientific understanding.

**I would like to point out that not all psychologists work at the level of the organism, of course, and even if they do they are likely to be aware of cellular/genetic implications of their work.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

Author, Seeing Red

  1. August 17, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Interesting article. I read it this morning. :)

  2. August 18, 2012 at 2:49 am

    I saw this article yesterday too. I find it odd in a way. Knowing that the disorder is biological may lead to some feeling that the person is less responsible. But at the same time it would seem to make it even more likely that they will re-offend. I would have expected an understanding of the biological basis of the behavior to lead to more strict sentences just to make even more sure the person stays off the street.

    I’m a big advocate for educating people about these issues. And I do think we should take pragmatic approaches and try not to demonize. But letting someone with no conscience or empathy, who has already offended, back out in less time seems unwise. Either way I favor a lot more of this type of research.

    • Jay Cuzey
      August 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      Yeah, biological interpretations do spark contrasting view points. On the one hand talk of cells and genes, which have a life of their own, seem to exonerate the individual of their actions, yet surely they are also “biologically” programmed to continue in aberrant and devious ways?
      It is worth noting that there are many conditions where an abnormal biological or cellular activity results in a disorder, but it can be treated with behavior modification, drugs, surgery, or a mixture of those things. However, psychopathy is unique in the sense that once the brain has developed that way, it is set in stone, and psychopaths do not feel like anything is wrong with them so even if there was a treatment, it would have to be forced on them – perhaps as a condition for parole.
      Another irony about the public perception of psychopathy, is that people view biology as deterministic, but the individual has free will and so is accountable for their actions; but the individuals are their own biology, of course.
      Personally, I think that given the unique state of the psychopath brain, until we can come up with a successful course or treatment, we will have to make the greater good decision to just keep them out of society. We just have to be excellent in our diagnoses of psychopathy.

      • August 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm

        Well said, Jay. Psychopathy is a condition unlike most others and has stunning and rather unique implications. That’s why it has intrigued me so much and why I’ve spent so much time writing about it. I’ve really expressed all I can say about it at this time on the page I’ve linked to and the other ones in the series that page is part of. It’s a more important issue than I think it gets credit for, though that seems to be changing lately as I see more and more books, films and websites devoted to the topic.

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