Tag Archives: aggression

Evolution and the Psychopath


Since I began studying psychopathy, I have often wondered about an evolutionary basis for this dangerous disorder. Psychopathy is considered to be a developmental disorder (Blair, 2006), which means that through its normal course of development the brain experiences stresses or biochemical changes that are not conducive to proper neurological development. This idea is supported by suppositions from both behavioral psychology and neuroscience; firstly, in behavioral psychology, it is suspected that serious child abuse could be an underlying factor behind psychopathy (Kunitz et al., 1998), and secondly, in neuroscience, it has been noted that many with psychopathy show a significant underdevelopment of a number of regions in their brain (for a review see Pemment, 2012).

Read more at Psychology Today…

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

An interview with Bundy, the day before his execution

Bundy is surprisingly forthcoming in his attempts to explain and understand how he came to be a monster. There are a number of responses that seem decidedly un-psychopathic. He has no problem taking full responsibility for the murders and he realizes that he is very different from other people.

Bundy claims that he was from a good home and was never abused, and that it was his exposure from soft to violent pornography that made his fantasies become more and more violent; one could raise the argument that it was simply stumbling across violent pornography as a child that constituted the abuse necessary to traumatize and stymie the development of his brain.

He speaks of the need to murder (which included necrophilia) as an addiction. Keppel, one of the detectives who helped to apprehend Bundy explained that Bundy experienced the desire for necrophilia as a chemical tidal wave, like an addiction to a narcotic. It certainly seems like his frontal lobe, and the connections between it and the limbic system, failed to control and inhibit his desires.

The interview does not strike me as a manipulation or an attempt to spread lies, but of course that can’t be ruled out. He does, however, appear to respect his interviewer.

This is a good interview with Bundy, which anyone interested in the development of extreme human behaviors should watch.

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

Neurological models behind (anti)social behavior

Neurobiologists have put forward two neurological models that can be used to understand the development of social behavior; the Violence Inhibition Mechanism, and the Somatic Marker Hypothesis.

The Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM)

The VIM was first proposed by R.J.R Blair in 1995 in his article A cognitive developmental approach to morality: Investigating the psychopath. The VIM proposes that individuals (and other organisms capable of empathy) experience stress cues from others, including sad and frightened faces, and these are filtered/processed through the VIM before the  individual’s stress response is activated. Our sense of morality also causes an emotional experience based upon the observance of these stress cues, and the VIM again processes behavioral outcomes before they arise.

In his book The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, Blair states that the observance of another’s suffering acts as a form of punishment, which in turn decreases the likelihood of engaging in behavior that caused the suffering (the psychological definition of punishment, unlike reinforcement, is something that results in the decrease of the behavior in question). Empathy, then, creates an emotional experience that should dissuade a person from engaging in acts that cause the suffering of others. If it was violence that resulted in the suffering, the VIM should prevent a repeat of this violence.

This model seems contingent on an observer empathizing with the victim, rather than the aggressor. While empathizing with the victim does seem the most honorable and obvious, if the benefits and pleasure obtained by the aggressor seem desirable, the aggressor’s behavior could reinforce the behavior in question.

Somatic Marker Hypothesis

The somatic marker hypothesis was proposed by Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error: Motion, Reason, and the Human Brain. This hypothesis is built on the idea that emotional states or feelings mark certain behaviors from experience (and presumably from witnessing the behavior of others), and this is crucial for understanding prosocial behavior and making good decisions.

When a person experiences arousal (positive or negative), the central nervous system becomes active, and communication between brain stem nuclei and the limbic system generate an internal emotional state. These emotional states become tagged to the memories of what the organism was experiencing at a specific time, and are thus re-created when the organism remembers the experience. This emotional re-creation allows us to learn from experience.

It has been argued that psychopaths, who seem to suffer from some kind of affective blunting, are unable to tag memories with or experience emotions that are common to most of us. As the psychopathic brain develops, therefore, the individual is unable to learn right and wrong like the rest of us, and can only approach the subject from an emotionless logical perspective. The brain areas involved in producing these crucial markers (incl. the amygdala, the orbitofrontal & ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and the cingulate) are often found to be dysfunctional or mal-developed in the antisocial brain.

What makes a person snap and go on a killing spree?

In light of the massacre in Aurora, CO, and the more recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, WI, an obvious question seems to be why does this happen?

The first port of call is usually to look at beliefs, but the trouble with beliefs is that they do not always reflect behavior, especially if the behavior involves murder. Even extreme ideologies that promote greater intrinsic value over the life of one group of people than another, such as white supremacy or any religion that promotes an infidel/believer dynamic, would not permit most people to follow through with an act of killing.
This does not mean the adherents to such belief systems would not revel in the death of certain individuals or turn a blind eye, but in terms of carrying out the act, the belief alone does not seem enough.

The potency of a belief (it’s ability to affect behavior) may be determined by the dominant parent culture. If the parent culture endorses or encourages personal beliefs, then the likelihood of them affecting behavior are high, provided of course that the individual agrees with the parent culture. The beliefs and values that make up the parent culture are less likely to come with penalties, and maybe even carry a reward. Theoretically, murder of citizens by citizens in the United States carries very heavy penalties, and so even if a person believes that the murder of some individuals is permissible, the desire to avoid punishment will probably act as a deterrent (unless they’re a psychopath – see bottom of post).

So what else could be going on beyond beliefs?

There are two things that the shootings in Aurora and Milwaukee have in common.

Firstly, the gunmen both experienced potentially life-changing failure. James Holmes, the gunman in Aurora, was a PhD candidate in the Anschutz Medical Center (part of the University of Colorado) and supported by a federal grant. Holmes had also been seeing a psychiatrist, although the reason for his visits have not been made public. As Holmes failed an oral exam, it is probably safe to assume he had been anticipating failure or suffered a great deal of anxiety about the exam. This stress and anxiety was no doubt exacerbated by the pressure of having a federal grant and the subsequent need to maintain a high level of performance.  If his visit to the psychiatrist was for something beyond the anxiety caused by these factors, then the potential state of his mental health becomes even worse.

Wade Michael Page, who killed six individuals at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee, had also suffered potentially life changing failure. He had been demoted and discharged from the US Army and was ineligible to be re-enlisted. After spending six years in the army he was suddenly forced to find another job and no doubt felt a great deal of shame / embarrassment / anger over the discharge (possibly even anger at the US – the parent culture). He was clearly having problems with alcohol, too, as he was disciplined for being drunk on duty and going AWOL.

Both Holmes and Wade, who were both showing signs of mental illness, were forced to shape a different future for themselves from already investing a lot in their current career path.

Secondly, both shooters seemed to treat their massacre as a means to an end. Holmes went quietly and respectfully with the police, and Wade fired at policemen and ended up being shot and killed. Neither one of them showed any regard for a future (one they had been forced to re-shape), and seemed to embrace the US justice system or death, respectively. A terminal outlook of the immediate future can be used to rationalize anything, because one, it doesn’t require much effort or time for a depressed mind to conclude that life is pointless (meaning ALL acts have EQUAL value), and two, the deterrence of a parent culture no longer matters to the individual.

Another point to note about the killings, is that the gunmen clearly had no empathy or regard for life when they mercilessly shot members of the public. There are numerous explanations for this. Firstly, depression / anger / feelings of betrayal led to the shooters feeling like their own lives were not valued; this was then transferred to the victims. Secondly, the terminal end point was of greater value to the shooter than the lives of the victims. Thirdly, personal beliefs devalued the lives of the victims. I think the last reason here was probably apparent with Page, who appears to have been involved with White Supremacism.

It is also worth mentioning the act of suicide, because if the shooters both had terminal goals, then why not just kill themselves without taking the lives of anyone else? I think it is obvious that both shooters wanted to make some kind of violent statement before the terminal end as a manifestation of their anger and as a desire to be taken seriously (something they felt could have been missing before they were rejected).

It is worth taking a brief moment to consider psychopathy. In my opinion, most shooting sprees are not carried out by psychopaths. Killing sprees are not the M.O. of the psychopath. Despite the disregard for the lives of others, psychopaths do not demonstrate the belief in a terminal end point, in fact they love abusing and manipulating others, and would probably prefer to keep doing it and keep getting away it. Psychopaths would only go on a killing spree, therefore, if it was endorsed by the parent culture – which has no doubt happened in various military groups/regimes throughout history.

I would like to point out that attempting to understand why a person kills is not the same as finding excuses or defenses for these despicable acts. But it must be realized that culture and the environment are profoundly powerful forces in shaping minds, and so before disposing of people and subjecting them to an uncertain/unstable future, perhaps an effort should be made to assist them through the transition?

A dark side to the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R)?

Anyone interested in psychopaths and the history of the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist – Revised) should definitely take a look a look at this NPR interview with Dr. Robert Hare.

I don’t know why this surprised me, but it genuinely did. I have read a number of awesome things about the PCL-R, including seeing it noted as “The international gold-standard” for determining psychopathy. The PCL-R is often used in neurobiological studies when putting together an experimental group, to then see if there are statistically significant differences in the brain between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. As the article points out, the PCL-R has also predicted high rates of recidivism of violent criminals released on parole – so it’s good at predicting re-offending.

So what could be the problem?

It turns out that Dr. Hare was always worried about members of the criminal justice system using the test, not in the least because “branding” people a psychopath is a terribly serious thing to do that will effect the rest of that person’s life. Not only does psychopathy point to differences in the brain that are permanent, but there is currently no way to rehabilitate a psychopath (training them to become non-psychopathic). The article notes a man in prison in California, Robert Dixon, who has been branded a psychopath, and he is consequently having a hard time proving he isn’t a psychopath (if he isn’t a psychopath, this will be one hell of an uphill struggle, not in the least because psychopaths are known to be compulsive liars and prone to manipulating people). There are two points to realize here; firstly, if people believe you are truly a psychopath, then your cry for justice has just been silenced, and secondly, as you have just been silenced, you are open to be abused by mental health “experts” and the state.

Hare was also terrified to see that many people in the criminal justice system were not administering the PCL-R correctly (you have to be trained and you have to be a mental health expert). However, there were also differences in scores on the PCL-R when administered by a psychologist hired by the defense (scores were lower, thus less or non psychopathic), and psychologists hired by the prosecution (scores were higher, thus more psychopathic). This has prompted Hare to only want the test administered in scientific settings, where there is no immediate consequence on a person’s life.

Check out the NPR article for more information.

Ole Miss Serial Killer Conference

The two and a half day conference, which regrettably ended today, was awesome. I think I know a lot more about serial killers, psychopaths, and sexual deviants than I ever knew before – perhaps too much.

The first speaker, Dr. Lawrence Simon, was a pleasure to listen to. Simon draws from his years of research working with serial rapists and killers in a maximum security prison in Florida. Simon is charismatic and a great teacher, and not without a sense of humor, something you no doubt have to have when confronted with this real ugly side of life. If you ever want to find out the kind of things that motivate these individuals and how to get information from them, then Dr. Simon should definitely be consulted/looked up.

The second speaker, Dr. Carl Jensen, who is the Director of the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies at Ole Miss, was also a great teacher and clearly loves his field. Jensen addressed the significance of M.Os, rituals, and signatures with regards to interpreting crime scenes, and presented methodologies for solving crimes; Jensen worked with the FBI for 22 years.

I definitely walked away from the conference with an increased amount of fascination/intrigue, and a tremendous amount of disgust/repulsion with regards to the behavior of some of the serial offenders mentioned – the conflicting experiences that make the field so addictive.