Tag Archives: murder

What’s in a name? The fickleness of sociopathy: Ideas, the suspension of the conscience, and why psychopathy is completely different

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There is one question that can often haunt research on mental illness and mental disorders. Simple as it may seem, “What should we call it?” can often pose no end of obstacles, and result in long drawn out debates in the mental health and medical profession. One reason for this is that certain maladies often have numerous dimensions, and symptoms can present differently in those afflicted. Typically, through extensive research, diagnostic criteria are established under the banner of one name; pick up the DSM-V or the ICD-10 and you’ll see the names for all kinds of illness and disorder, with thorough lists of all the symptomatology that is now accompanied and unified under a common name. But these symptoms are often present in other conditions, and present in the patient to different extents. Rendering a diagnosis is indeed a tough challenge for any mental health professional.

 

Another reason that makes it difficult to name a particular mental health phenomenon, is that there is sometimes an inclination for the name to include the developmental origin. This struggle is perfectly captured in the history of psychopathy research. Cleckley, arguably the first psychiatrist to make strides in classifying psychopathy, writing in the 1940s devoted many chapters in his book, The Mask of Sanity, to discussing how the term and the individual were currently seen by the mental health establishment.

 

Every physician is familiar with the term psychopath, by which these people are most commonly designated. Despite the plain etymological inference of a ‘sick mind’ or of ‘mental sickness’, this term is ordinarily used to indicate those who are considered free from psychosis and even from psycho-neurosis.

Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity[i]

 

Clearly, in the mental health profession, a term denoting a ‘sick mind’ is not particularly useful in attempting to make a diagnosis, as it perhaps captures every possible mental malady that can afflict the human brain. However, the term does appear to capture those who are free from psychosis and psycho-neurosis, while still indicating that something is awry within these individuals. The truly psychopathic are renowned for behaving in socially pleasing ways, at least temporarily, before they are implicated in acts of antisocial behavior, sometimes even downright grotesque or horrendous behavior. This nature of the psychopath puzzled mental health experts and laypeople alike, as they pondered how one person could exhibit such extremes of behavior, sometimes in a short space of time.

 

Later, the term ‘psychopath’ clearly evolved and took on new meanings as research on this dangerous personality disorder progressed in the twentieth century. As the esteemed psychologist, Robert Hare, pointed out:

 

[Those] who feel that psychological, biological, and genetic factors also contribute to the development of the syndrome[,] generally use the term psychopath.

 Hare, Without Conscience[ii]

 

Hare stated this in contrast to those who were using the term ‘sociopath,’ who according to Hare were convinced that social factors and early experiences were responsible for the manifestation of this particular disorder, and subsequently this particular type of person, in society.

 

This appearance of two names for the same disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy), and the same person (psychopath/sociopath) becomes problematic. Not only is having two different names for the same condition a little redundant, but the developmental origins, the initial reason for having the two different terms, all belong together. Social factors, early childhood experience, psychological, biological, and genetic factors, all collapse into a uniform analysis of the one condition. Social factors and experience immediately become psychological and biological factors on the level of the brain, and these factors can have a direct impact on the level of gene expression. This is even more profound when the brain is still developing during the formative years, when certain kinds of abuse can result in neurological developmental errors.

 

In early 1990, Hare and his team devised what became the psychopathy checklist, revised.[iii] This built upon earlier research that resulted in the psychopathy checklist,[iv] and has become the gold standard for diagnosing psychopathy. The list is composed of two sets of behavior, dividing them into antisocial traits and personality traits. This diagnostic tool generates a total possible score out of forty, and after a mental health professional has assessed the behavioral history of an individual, any score given in the high twenties and over thirty is indicative of a psychopath. Using this tool, many neuroscientists have created experimental groups of psychopathic individuals and have found unique brain differences between the psychopathic and the non-psychopathic. And so, despite ‘psychopath’ being a vague and somewhat empty term in Cleckley’s era, psychopath research today is incredibly rich from behavioral and neuroscientific input. This richness, coupled with the collapse of social factors in with the biological to describe the same condition, means that the term ‘sociopath’ should be extricated from discussions of the disorder.

 

The term ‘sociopathy’ does become useful again when considered in another context. Hare and Babiak described ‘sociopathy’ in their book, Snakes in Suits, thusly:

 

Sociopathy is not a formal psychiatric condition. It refers to patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are considered antisocial by society at large, but are seen as normal and necessary by the subculture or social environment in which they developed. Sociopaths may have a well-developed conscience and a normal capacity for empathy, guilt, and loyalty, but their sense of right and wrong is based upon the norms and the expectations of their subculture or group.

Hare & P. Babiak, Snakes in Suits[v]

 

This definition is really what sets the two terms apart. Psychopathy is understood as a mental disorder and has formal diagnostic criteria; sociopathy does not. Sociopaths have empathy, guilt, and remorse; psychopaths do not. It is this latter point that is the most profound, because neurological studies have shown us that the areas in the brain that are heavily implicated in moral decision-making are typically malformed and mal-developed in the psychopath. This means that the brain of the psychopath, physically and neurologically, will be significantly different from the brain of the sociopath.

 

With this new definition, sociopathy becomes so much more useful to us. We can now ask questions such as ‘How can someone commit devastating and destructive crimes if they have a conscience?’ and ‘If a sense of right and wrong is represented in a person’s personal ideology, what power do ideas have in influencing a person to commit crimes?’. Sociopathy presents us with the opportunity to study how those with a conscience can, at least temporarily, act unconscionably. It presents us with the opportunity to explore how those with strong moral codes can promote group solidarity, while treating those not in the group as subhuman; think gangs, or the Mafia, or paramilitaries. Exploring the ideas present in the manifestos of spree killers and hate groups also becomes relevant, as they usually purport a version of history where one or more groups in society present as a threat, and why action needs to be taken against this group. All of these people have a conscience, but over time it appears to have become punctured or torn. Sociopathy could help us to understand why this has happened.

 

If we explore perhaps the most antisocial of behaviors, taking the life of another, sociopathy as a study of the ideas that led up to the act adds to our wealth of knowledge of those with disorders or illnesses that can lead to murder. Not all psychopaths are killers, but it is easy to understand how they can kill. Not having a conscience and not feeling guilt or remorse, perhaps even coupled with the pleasure derived from killing or severely injuring others, could easily lead to the act being carried out. Others have suffered psychotic breaks, often over a period of time, and aggression has escalated to the point of lives being taken; this has been true in some with schizophrenia and related conditions. Visual and auditory hallucinations can convince them of the need to act, and when this is coupled with paranoia, something that is often present in the schizophrenic, patients are often compelled to act in a manner they consider appropriate and necessary. Now, it is arguable that as a psychopath does not have a conscience, then they are simply unable to develop a complex ideology of right and wrong behavior; but we could find that sociopathy is comorbid with schizophrenia. Auditory hallucinations become part of the schizophrenic’s experience, and thus represent to them a truth about the world. If, like has been documented elsewhere, the auditory hallucinations are believed to be voices from the supernatural, instructing the person to act, the patient could work those instructions into everything else they believe about the world. A patient with a religious faith could easily believe they are receiving divine instructions to end the lives of people who are secretly evil, for example, demons posing as family members. Their hallucinations make their belief system very real to them, and the drive to act comes from a strong sense of rightness, bolstered by the belief that they are perhaps an avenging angel with a divine mission.

 

There are other abnormalities with neurological correlates that could facilitate taking the life of another. Crimes of passion are quite common, where an individual experiences a heightened sexual or stressful state and lost, only temporarily, a state of rationality. Extreme emotions can sometimes dampen the ability to reason and think clearly, with catastrophic consequences. These can often be exacerbated with those susceptible to anger management issues, or serious stress disorders. Sociopathy could also be present here; a homophobic father who catches his child engaged in a homosexual act could prompt a loss of control due to stress and result in extreme violence. The father would have no doubt been exposed to homophobic ideology before witnessing his child in a same sex relationship, and used the component ideas to justify to him what is true about the world. The perceived infraction from the father’s moral code results in the stress and the loss of control. For the most part, the father has a conscience, and loves his child, but his beliefs about the world seemed to couple with witnessing this act, and worked together with poor stress control to temporarily suspend his conscience.

 

Brain tumors, physical damage to neurological tissue, as well as alcohol and drug use, are also all linked to violent behavior. Here, too, an overarching ideology of what is right and wrong about the world, could work in synchronization with these biological changes to motivate destructive behavior, and the compulsion to act aggressively could even further justify the truth value of the overarching belief system; it has to be true (and thus, right), because why would the desire to act be so strong, otherwise? But does something have to be wrong biologically for toxic ideologies to take root and influence behavior? This is also a question that merits further research. Experiencing the world negatively, either because of something biological, or maybe just suffering from intense psychological hurt and pain, would be enough to make a person crave understanding. During this time they will be receptive to any ideas that seem to explain the negativity, and perhaps claim to provide an answer to end or cure the suffering. This wouldn’t explain all sociopathic behavior, but it would go a long way to understanding its onset.

 

Sociopathic behavior could result if over time, exposure to negative ideas helped to diminish empathy towards other people, and is perhaps demonstrated best by considering the lives of spree killers. Elliot Rodger, Seung-Hoi Cho, Dylan Roof, Anders Breivik, and Christopher Dorner all wrote lengthy manifestos, and some maintained websites and made Youtube videos detailing their grievances at great length. There are various mental illnesses and disorders that have been implicated in the lives of some of those individuals, but it is sometimes hard to substantiate if a diagnosis was made or not. Regardless of conditions or disorders, the manifestos represent a detailed view of the world, as seen by these individuals, including what is wrong with it, and usually what in their view has to happen to fix these societal ills, perhaps taking the form of retribution and revenge. Constructing a manifesto takes a lot of time, and is a significant personal investment for the author; they have taken the time to create a reflection of the world that is accurate to them, built up of the ideas that they think represent the truth and depict reality. The tremendous effort and planning that goes into the manifesto begs the question of what role the manifesto played in bringing them up to their final act. Was it to help them understand why they needed to do what they felt was necessary, thus allowing their conscience to at least temporarily bend to murderous inclinations? Did it help to commit these acts, knowing that people could use the manifesto to understand why it took place, even though they no doubt accepted they would not be alive to witness this ‘understanding’? Finally, if hypothetically they were unable to put a manifesto together, or they believed nobody would ever understand their actions, would their final act still have taken place?

 

There is also the question of how ideology and determining what is true about the world can change after the experience of psychotic episodes. If auditory hallucinations convince a patient of imminent threats or inevitable actions, what the patient believes is true about the world could change; ideas that promote certain kinds of behavior are adopted to achieve goals that fit into an evolving ideological framework. When the psychotic episode has subsided, does the imminence and immediacy of these ideas decrease? Are the ideas eventually discarded as an inaccurate representation of the world? Psychotic episodes are no doubt traumatic because they force the patient to reassess how they are seeing and understanding the world around them, and the more they are forced to reassess, the more traumatic the experience. After a string of psychotic episodes, the patient could well still harbor ideas that became prominent during the last episode, and so certain inclinations that become mandatory are eventually expected. The entanglement of psychosis with ideas and conceptual representations of the world is clearly a crucial study, and could well illuminate the state of the patient’s conscience.

 

This study of sociopathy would also apply to soldiers, who have to be prepared to kill, and destroy infrastructure that could decrease the standing of living for civilians. Soldiers are trained to incapacitate or take the lives of enemy combatants, often by a bloody and violent means. For a soldier to be able to take this action, they have to at the very least temporarily suspend empathy towards other human life, and be comfortable after the carnage with the actions that were taken. Soldiers obviously go into the military with a conscience and do not join out of a love or desire to kill (there is certainly screening to catch this disposition). Ideology can assist with coming to terms with needing to kill, particularly those of nationalism and patriotism; believing that some war is unfortunate but necessary, the war was just, evil has been prevented, and the enemy is a direct threat upon one’s way of life (which is right and true).  When these ideas fail to resonate as true, perhaps based upon personal experiences, the life of soldiers can become a living Hell, especially if they are also suffering from stress-related disorders brought on by extended periods of combat.

 

If we take sociopathy to mean the use of ideology to at least temporarily suspend the conscience or diminish empathy towards others, the example of soldiers as sociopaths opens up an interesting dimension to the discussion. Regardless of political inclinations or personal worldviews, most people would reluctantly accept that sometimes it is necessary for soldiers to kill. Sometimes people have to kill other people. Most of us are fortunate in that we have people who do it in our stead, and we trust them to make those decisions and take all the necessary precautions to keep it as ethical as it can be. If one of the primary purposes of the soldier is to be prepared to kill, then within this framework of sociopathy, we condone the training of sociopaths to carry out this necessary and deadly behavior.  Here, it is crucial to keep this framework of sociopathy in mind, and not treat it as a synonym for psychopathy. Soldiers are not psychopaths. It would be a worthwhile study to track soldiers’ ideologies throughout their careers in the military, because exposure to extreme combat is likely to force the soldier to reassess how they see the world, in a similar manner to schizophrenics experiencing psychotic episodes (a severely agitated mental state, prompting a new understanding of reality). Any time that reality is re-assessed, values of right and wrong can be re-considered, and this will reflect in the overall conscience of the individual. Those forced to re-evaluate the world, due to agitation or trauma, will become open to new ideas and vulnerable to toxic ones, which is one of the reasons why these individuals need constant help and attention.

 

Connecting the dots between ideology and conscience is clearly of paramount importance if we hope to understand violence. This goal can be met with an open, honest, and concerted effort to study sociopathy on the level of the brain, the individual, and society.

© Jack Pemment, 2016

 

References

[i] Cleckley, H., The Mask of Sanity (3rd Edition), EPBM, Brattleboro (2015), p. 27

[ii] Hare, R. D., Without Conscience, Guilford, New York (1999), pp. 23-24

[iii] Hare, Robert D., Timothy J. Harpur, A. Ralph Hakstian, Adelle E. Forth, Stephen D. Hart, and Joseph P. Newman. “The revised Psychopathy Checklist: Reliability and factor structure.” Psychological Assessment: A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2, no. 3 (1990): 338

[iv] Harpur, Timothy J., A. Ralph Hakstian, and Robert D. Hare. “Factor structure of the Psychopathy Checklist.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 56, no. 5 (1988): 741

[v] Hare, R. D.; Babiak, P., Snakes in Suits, Harper, New York (2007), p. 19

Survived By One – A Review

Survived by OneSurvived By One tells the devastatingly sad story of Thomas V. Odle, who was still a teenager in 1985 when he murdered all of his close family members – his parents, two brothers, and his sister. Dr. Hanlon, the author of the book and forensic neuropsychologist, traces young Tom’s life from his childhood to his teens, and then from his arrest through to his prison sentence. Odle had been on Death Row in Illinois, but this was eventually changed to life in prison after a series of landmark court cases. While in prison, Odle reached out to Dr. Hanlon to help put his life in perspective. With Odle’s assistance and permission, Hanlon has expertly put together this life story of a killer.

Apart from being very accessible, one of the best things about this book is how Odle’s story is told. Hanlon describes the life of Odle, which includes his expert psychological analysis of events in Tom’s life, as well as the historical and legal context of the story, and splices in Odle’s own personal narratives. This allows the reader to build up a rich idea of how Tom’s mind and life perspective developed throughout his childhood. For those seeking to understand how a person could commit familicide, Hanlon’s telling of the story is genius.

The story also reminds us that nothing is black and white when it comes to understanding human behavior. Even though Tom was physically and psychologically abused as a child, many abused children do not go on to murder anyone, let alone their entire family. Odle displayed Conduct Disorder as a teenager and developed the habit of taking numerous drugs on a relatively frequent basis. But Odle considered taking his own life before he even thought about taking the lives of his family, and when he did eventually take their lives, he explained it as an out of body experience that he just watched happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just students of psychology or criminology, who are interested in the question of what makes a killer.

Jovan Belcher: Speculation of the ‘Why?’

Jovan Belcher (Wikipedia)A number of people have already stated that they had no idea of why Jovan Belcher, the linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then went to the Arrowhead practice facility and after talking to some of the team officials, shot himself in the head. Frank Rivezzo, his former defensive coordinator from West Babylon spoke of the tragedy, “I never got any vibes about something like this.”

Belcher’s agent, Joe Linta, also commented, “Something went crazy wrong, and we’ll probably never know what it is,” and Linta also explained that he never thought Belcher was capable of such violence.

With these kind of comments, many are asking at the moment how Belcher could have murdered his girlfriend and then shot himself moments later, after all, Belcher was also a loving and devoted father, a compassionate boyfriend, and a very motivated athlete.

There are clearly many things we will never know about Belcher, especially his life in the run up to this tragedy. But many of the reasons being offered as to why people are so baffled do not contradict these acts of violence in any way. Many victims of homicide have been assaulted or murdered by their loved ones, especially during temporary rages brought on by jealously or other perceived threats to the relationship. The nature of the killing seems to reflect the actions of a reactively aggressive person; the result of a sudden rage expressed by shooting his girlfriend numerous times. This, at least on the surface, does not reflect a pre-meditated assault.

Those who knew Belcher have also said that he was very compassionate and very emotional, and it also seems that he was very eager to please, especially his family. But again, this also suggests why he could have snapped. It seems that he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and felt that he had a lot to live up to. Therefore, any serious confrontation with a loved one that could jeopardize his performance or threaten his perception of himself could lead to a violent outburst. Still, this is mere speculation.

After Belcher shot his girlfriend he was no doubt confronted by the onset of tremendous guilt and remorse. Not only had he shot the love of his life, but his three-month old daughter was now without a mother and her father was now facing a life behind bars. Belcher was suddenly aware of how his life and the life of his loved ones was about to change. His life as an NFL player had also come to an abrupt end, and he clearly felt like he had unforgivably let down his team. Belcher was then convinced that he did not want to face this new future, and he chose apologizing to his coaches as his last act.

Whatever the reasons for Belcher’s murder and subsequent suicide, it is important to remember that he did murder his girlfriend and left his daughter without parents, which is why those eulogizing his life need to remain sensitive.

Sources

Lingering question involving Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher is why: Randy Covitz, Kansas City Star

Cops: Jovan Belcher of Kansas City Chiefs kills girlfriend, self: Bob Glauber, Newsday

Guilty Unconscious: The case of Brian Thomas

I have written previously about how biological and psychological perspectives can change the public perception of accountability in criminal cases, but I recently came across an article for aeon, written by Steve Fleming, which adds another interesting dimension to this phenomenon.

To summarize it briefly, psychological explanations of crime tend to make the jury believe that an individual is accountable for their crime, whereas biological explanations, which approach behavior by looking at organ systems down to genes, seem to dissolve agency and accountability (it wasn’t them, it was their cells, which they don’t consciously control). This nugget of knowledge in the hands of the right attorney is powerful stuff.

Fleming contends that even though we may have limited control over our biology, any knowledge that we do have does make us accountable for our actions. If we know what impact certain drugs have on us and how it changes our behavior, then we might need to take preventive measures to minimize damage and harm to others and to ourselves. This is evident when we consume alcohol; we may not all be aware of the impact alcohol has on the GABA receptors in our cerebellum, but we are all aware of the resulting problems in motor control. As biological structures, we know it takes our bodies a while to return the body to homeostasis after alcohol consumption, and so in the mean time we don’t need to be climbing behind the wheel of a car.

Fleming approaches the problem by examining the case of Brian Thomas, a man who suffered from the very real problem of night terrors, also known as pavor nocturnus. Fleming had a history of particularly bad nightmares that no doubt had a very stressful impact on his body. One night was horrifyingly fateful for Thomas, as he awoke to find that he had strangled his wife. The jury, recognizing his history with the condition, ended up acquitting him of murder.

Thomas was tremendously aggrieved, and had no idea that his condition would cause him to strangle his wife to death while still sleeping. But had he known that pavor nocturnus could make an individual commit criminal acts in their sleep, then there is little question that he would have slept away from his wife at night and sought therapy and treatment. If Thomas had known about potential behavior under the influence of pavor nocturnus, not sought any help, and killed his wife, it is not hard to imagine the jury being less forgiving.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2012

 

For more info:

Was it really me?

Neuroscience is changing the meaning of criminal guilt. That might make us more, not less, responsible for our actions – By Steve Fleming

Man who killed wife in bad dream is freed

Metro News

Sex change on the tax-payer: The plight of a murderous trans-sexual

A recent online article for the Boston Herald details the plight of a convicted murderer to receive a sex change operation at tax-payer expense.

Michelle Kosilek, a pre-op trans-sexual, murdered her wife in 1992. According to the article, Michelle, who was then known as Robert, killed her wife and then went on a spending spree, buying many items of women’s clothing and make-up for a new life as a woman.

Michelle had been very unhappy in jail and had attempted self-castration and suicide. The federal judge, Mark Wolf, stated that denying the surgery was a violation of the eighth amendment (protection against cruel and unusual punishment).

The specifics of this case should go down with the best of moral dilemma questions. Kosilek will remain behind bars, presumably a happier individual, but at the expense of the tax payer. Some tax payers in Massachusetts claim that as the surgery was cosmetic and not a medical necessity, then it should have been denied. Personally, I think a mental disorder of this kind does render the operation a medical necessity.

It will also release the burden on the prison and the guards to have to watch a suicidal and potentially self-harming individual.

I’m not sure if this is a score for trans-sexual rights, however, because I’m sure there are many law-abiding trans-sexuals who cannot afford the operation receive no assistance. Although, Mark Wolf has shown that the plight of trans-sexual prisoners will be taken seriously, and perhaps that is something.

 

UFC Rogues Gallery

From some casual research it did not take long to run into some incredibly disturbing individuals who have all fought in the octagon. I’m not against professional fighting, and I will admit that I have not watched as much UFC as I would have liked to. My interest in fighters comes from enjoying a good fight, but also trying to figure out the kind of guys that get involved in this career. Unfortunately, a handful of these fighters really stand out.

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

This guy, who fairly recently played B.A. in the new “A-Team” movie, has a fairly interesting past. As reported in the New York Times, he sold crack at the age of 8, was charged for assaulting a member of his wrestling team at a community college in North California, and in 2008 was arrested at gunpoint after a hit and run where he hit three other vehicles and narrowly missed numerous pedestrians. His reason for the latter was because he was depressed, sleep-deprived, and had consumed nothing but energy drinks.

Jackson, who first came to my attention on Gals guide to MMA, went on camera while in Japan getting numerous Japanese people, whose English was not great, to repeat really reprehensible phrases, apparently for fun. The video is really quite despicable, especially since the Japanese on camera are clearly excited to see an American celebrity.

Forrest Griffin & Miguel Torres

Forrest Griffin, on the left, and Miguel Torres on the right, have both joked about rape.

Forrest Griffin tweeted, “Rape is the new missionary,” and when a female fan protested, his reply was, “Keep it to yourself nobody cares.”

Miguel Torres, also used Twitter to say, “If a rape van was called a surprise van, more women wouldn’t mind going for rides in them. Everyone likes surprises.” – Torres, unlike Griffin, was actually removed from the UFC.

Jarrod Wyatt

Jarrod Wyatt cut out the eyes, tongue, and heart of his sparring partner, Taylor Powell, and perhaps other body parts, too. He had attempted to cook the heart.

Apparently under the influence of mushrooms, Jarrod was convinced of the imminent arrival of a tidal wave and that Taylor had Satan in him; because of this “end times” scenario, the acts were justified to Jarrod. Jarrod made no attempt at masking/disguising the crime, in fact, he told the arresting officer that Taylor had Satan in him.

This case is still on-going. A new D.A. in California, Jon Alexander, has recently had the initial charges dismissed and re-filed to include a capital offense

Fernando Rodrigues

Fernando Rodrigues has been arrested for assault and road rage. He has also been charged with assault with a firearm, burglary, and using a deadly weapon (which in this case is his hands and feet – he is a Brazilian Jujitsu master).

Rodrigues has served two tours of duty in Iraq, although I have not seen any mention of PTSD.