Tag Archives: Moral

Jon Ronson discussing psychopathy and mental illness at TED

This is not a bad TED talk by Jon Ronson. In a fairly humorous 20 minute discussion he points out the follies of the DSM and the Psychopathy Check List. He concludes that our obsession to categorize people within narrow mental illness parameters ends up dehumanizing the patient and can lead to fatal outcomes.


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.

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.

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.

Anders Breivik, Sociopath: Addendum

From following the various testimony snippets of Breivik, he clearly has twisted cultural values that the majority of us do not harbor. Yet, it is perplexing as to how much of his claims are true. Breivik stated that he created an organization called the Knights Templar, which of course is a borrowed name for the knights allegedly charged with protecting the Holy Grail. The purpose of the Knights Templar, according to Breivik, is to create a new image for national socialism, presumably to oppose what he sees as the enemy, multiculturalism and immigration.

I think it is worth noting that Breivik appears to be ruled and guided by extreme ideology, but to what extent is he manufacturing it himself? Clearly, there is a history of national socialism in Europe and Breivik seems to have sympathies for the Serbian militants who were active during the Kosovo war, so he no doubt has inspirational sources and justifications for his views, but the fact that he wrote his own 1801 page manifesto suggests that his ideology and his behavior are largely a part of his own brain child. This is to put him in stark contrast to killers who appear to have just become wrapped up in the ideology of organizations or charismatic individuals such as Charles Manson.

The only reason I raise this point is because if you “create” your own culture by working in isolation and living hermetically, does that blur the line between sociopath and psychopath? In other words, are you merely justifying your own behavioral inclinations or do you genuinely believe there to be a greater good to your actions? From what I have read of psychopaths, it does not appear that many have complex ideas about a greater good that extends beyond their own selfish desires. Another reason that I believe Breivik to be a sociopath.

Ole Miss conference: Why We Kill

The Mississippi  Division of the International Association for Identification is presenting a two and a half day conference on the creation of serial killers, beginning on April 23rd, 2012.

For more information, click on the following link:

Why we kill: The creation of a killer