Tag Archives: Ethical

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?

Paul Zak: Oxytocin and morality

I have to publish a link to this TED talk because it is awesome. Paul Zak has carried out numerous experiments that have explored the role of oxytocin in morality and social bonding. If you’re interested in how “brain chemicals” affect our behavior, then this is definitely worth checking out.

Common Moral Dilemma Questions

The Trolley Problem/Switch Problem

A runaway carriage is heading down the tracks straight for a group of five people. You notice a switch that will divert the carriage onto another track with a hitchhiker walking with his back to the commotion. If you divert the carriage you will kill the hitchhiker. Is it right to pull the switch?

The Footbridge Problem

A carriage (again) is out of control, and you notice it careening towards you where it will pass under the footbridge and kill five unsuspecting people. The only way to prevent this from happening, is to push a fat man onto the tracks to stop/de-rail the carriage. Assuming this would be an effective action, is it right to push the fat man onto the track?

The Crying Baby Problem

You are hiding in a basement along with your fellow villagers as enemy soldiers approach; if they find you they will kill you. Your baby starts to cry, so you cover the mouth of the child. If you pull your hand away the baby will cry louder and alert the soldiers, but if you don’t take your hand away you will smother the baby to death. What is the ethical choice?

Jack Pemment, 2011

Author, Seeing Red