Would a psychopath ever harm himself?

Psychopaths: A World Without Empathy

They look you straight in the eye, they can be charming and eloquent. But psychopaths are unscrupulous: Since they lack empathy, they can pursue their goals without any ifs or buts. Later she is tormented neither by guilt nor remorse.

Scientific supervision: Dr. Miriam Kunz

Released: December 9, 2011

Level: medium

  • Because psychopaths have diminished emotions such as love and fear, they lack compassion for others. So they can unscrupulously pursue their goals.
  • Whether a psychopath becomes a criminal depends on psychosocial influencing factors.
  • While the proportion of psychopaths appears to be around 25 percent in prisons, it is still estimated at around 1 percent in the normal population.
  • "Successful psychopaths" can be found in all areas of life. However, the executive floors of large companies are particularly attractive to them. According to a study, the proportion of psychopaths here is four times as high as in the normal population.

Everyone also has uncomfortable sides. However, when it comes to diagnosing a psychopath, Robert Hare's PCL-R is the gold standard. In an interview lasting several hours and based on the life story, he tests the following points, which are checked if possible and documented:

Dimension 1: aggressive narcissism: eloquent blender with superficial charm, significantly exaggerated self-esteem, pathological lying, fraudulent manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or a sense of guilt, superficial feelings, coolness, lack of empathy, unwillingness to take responsibility for one's own actions.

Dimension 2: Unsocial lifestyle: hunger for adventure, constant feeling of boredom, parasitic lifestyle, inadequate behavioral control, promiscuity, lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsiveness, irresponsibility, juvenile delinquency, early behavioral abnormalities, violation of probation conditions on parole, short relationships, multi-faceted crime.

When Robert Hare sat across from his first psychopath in 1960, he felt like he had never really looked anyone in the eye. The man waved a knife in front of his nose and said that he was playing with the idea of ​​injuring a cellmate. But his smile was so engaging, his eye contact so direct, that he managed to manipulate Hare for eight months. The young psychologist was fascinated. He became the first to systematically examine psychopaths. In the meantime there is probably no researcher in the world who is more respected in the field than the criminal psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Brain in "predator mode"

The public image of psychopaths based on Hollywood characters like Hannibal Lecter is at best incomplete: brutal murderers, child molesters, real madmen. But psychopaths are not crazy. Your sanity, says Hare, is perfectly fine. Sometimes they are very intelligent, they know what is right and what is wrong. You can also put yourself in the shoes of your counterpart in a purely rational way and adopt their perspective. So what they lack is not the so-called "theory of mind". What they lack is empathy. Because they seem diminished in their own feelings of love or fear, their ability to feel compassion, guilt, or remorse is limited, explains Hare. They look charming at first, but are actually strangely cold. According to Robert Hare, they are "perfectly adapted predators". They almost instinctively find the weaknesses of their fellow human beings and exploit them.

"From a psychopath's point of view, it is we who are malfunctioning," says Hare. “Emotions make us vulnerable.” We generally assume a certain amount of empathy, a life without compassion is difficult for us to imagine. Psychopaths, on the other hand, don't mind looking a colleague or friend straight in the eyes even though they are betraying them. They are unscrupulous and pursue their goals without any ifs or buts.

Hare developed a test, the Psychopathy Checklist or PCL-R, which is now the gold standard for diagnosis worldwide. The 20 sub-items range from superficial charm and impulsiveness to constant lying, callousness and a lack of empathy to juvenile delinquency (see info box). Anyone who achieves a score of 30 to 40 in these interviews lasting several hours is considered a psychopath. “But the number 30 is an arbitrary determination,” Hare points out. “What about those who get 25-29 points? They are also very dangerous. ”To date, it has not been clarified whether psychopathy is more of a behavioral spectrum or a selective category. Not to mention the causes. Brain research has only just begun to look for the causes of this personality disorder. The informative value of many studies is limited because only a handful of subjects took part.

James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Irvine, is certain that he can recognize a “psychopath's brain”. Over the past 20 years he has evaluated the brain scans of around 70 murderers for psychiatric clinics and defense lawyers. Again and again colleagues give him stacks of PET and fMRI scans from which he is supposed to filter out the psychopaths. Structural changes in the brain as well as changes in the activation of certain tasks were documented.

Five years ago, however, he had an unpleasant surprise: a functional PET scan in particular looked very much like psychopathy to him, he says. The lower part of the frontal lobe - the orbitofrontal cortex just behind the eyes - as well as parts of the temporal lobe, especially the amygdala, were not at all or barely active. These areas of the brain are centrally involved in the processing and generation of impulse control and moral behavior, fear and other emotions. When he finally looked up which name was behind the code, he was dismayed. It was his own. Fallon and his family had also sat down in the positron emission tomograph and had their brain activities recorded.

It was one of many pieces of the mosaic that have since come together to form a picture for Fallon. His father's family, the Cornells, had not only founded the famous university. Since 1673 there has also been a whole series of murders in the family - always committed by close relatives. Even Lizzie Borden, notorious in the USA, who appears today as a horror character in nursery rhymes and allegedly killed stepmother and father with an ax in 1892, was part of this line of ancestors.

Psychopaths are as ruthless as predators, says researcher Robert Hare. Copyright: Berchtesgaden - Fotolia.com

Fallon re-examined the scans of his eight family members. He studied every single picture in detail. Almost all of them were inconspicuous. Except for himself. He sent blood samples to the laboratory and had them checked for around 20 gene variants, which are discussed in connection with aggression, reduced impulse control and a lack of empathy, among other things. He had them all. No other relative had a similar profile. Eventually, Fallon asked friends and family if they actually thought he was a potential psychopath. “They immediately said: Yes, of course,” he recalls. "You don't hurt anyone physically, but you like to manipulate others, for example."

Although Fallon appears humorous, eloquent and, above all, charming to strangers, his immediate environment knows the downside: "It doesn't matter how close someone is to me - they never mean more to me than a chance acquaintance," he says. One should not expect more than superficial warmth from him. Sense of responsibility and caution? Nothing. After a trip to Kenya, one of his brothers stopped speaking to Fallon for a long time. What the brother considered a normal excursion into the wilderness was an expedition to the scenes of a Marburg virus outbreak. Fallon had read a book about the ominous Mount Elgon and its Kitum cave. The flying foxes that live there are considered a reservoir for the deadly virus. Hardly any tourist went there voluntarily. Fallon, however, was excited by the danger. He didn't think it was necessary to inform his unsuspecting companion about the risk.

Still, he always thought it was fun when others called him “psychopath”. For him, psychopaths were the killers whose PET scans he kept on his desk. And he wasn't a criminal, after all, just a funny guy.

Bank robber or bank manager

But by no means every psychopath becomes a criminal, as Robert Hare knows. Whether you pursue a career as a bank robber or bank manager depends on psychosocial factors. The person concerned remains unscrupulous, only the means are different.

According to Hare's estimate, there is one psychopath for every 100 men over the age of 18. Most of them are what Hare and his colleagues call "successful psychopaths". “There is no area in life where you are safe from them,” says Hare. In social professions they find easily controllable victims, in the media they find a playing field for their excessive self-worth, in large companies and politics they can satisfy their hunger for money, power and influence and new, still unregulated markets are like a magnet for them : “We meet her again and again. Most of the time, we just don't know. ”Among top managers, the proportion of psychopaths is almost five percent. This was the result of a study that Hare published together with Paul Babiak and Craig Neumann in 2010.

Hare and his colleagues are now working on a test that will allow HR departments to identify psychopaths before hiring them. The Fallon case, on the other hand, does not interest him very much. The man undoubtedly exhibits some psychopathic behavior, he says: "But psychopathy cannot be deduced from scans and genetic tests alone, we don't know enough about that." never submitted.

Fallon doesn't care. If PET scans, genetic tests and befriended psychiatrists all come to the same conclusion, that's evidence enough for him - even if he doesn't want to decide whether he would be considered a psychopath in the clinical sense: "I'm probably a borderline case", he says. "I only have the positive qualities of psychopaths!"

Caravan with magnetic resonance tomograph

Kent Kiehl breathes audibly when you ask him about Fallon. "I don't think so," says the neuroscientist from the University of New Mexico. “I neither cooperate with him nor do I want to be associated with Fallon.” Kiehl is a student of Robert Hare and, at the age of 41, one of the leading figures on the subject of psychopathy. What Hare started with the psychopathy checklist, he is now continuing with imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Evil has fascinated him since he was eight years old. His father, a newspaper editor, came home and told us about Ted Bundy. The seemingly harmless man from the neighborhood raped and murdered at least 30 women. The question of how the brain of such people is different never let him go.

In the meantime he has examined more than 2000 criminal brains: drug addicts and rapists, murderers and fraudsters, young people, women and men. He had a trailer converted into a mobile laboratory. Where normally there would be folding beds, a kitchen corner and benches, this version has a specially made fMRI scanner and an extra room for the technicians. Instead of taking the prisoners to a hospital or a research institution - a nightmare in terms of security and bureaucracy - he has been parking his caravan in the courtyards of the prisons since 2007. This is how he makes faster progress: while he was previously able to scan 250 test subjects in 15 years, he now manages around 500 per year. What he finds in this way not only confirms the validity of the psychopath test developed by Hare. Kiehl also has a theory of what goes wrong in the brain of psychopaths.

A world without deep feelings

The key to the relatively callous world of psychopaths is a defect in the paralimbic system, says Kiehl. This horseshoe-shaped structure deep in the brain includes the amygdala as well as the insula, the cingulum and the orbitofrontal cortex.It colors our experiences and perceptions emotionally and thus lays the foundation for empathy, but is also responsible for other tasks such as impulse control and moral decisions. This system is less active in psychopaths than in other people.

A study with 296 subjects also found that large parts of the paralimbic and limbic systems were structurally weaker - the psychopaths had less gray matter here. The structural differences were subtle, but widely distributed. This suggests that large networks do not work as well and that psychopathy cannot be attributed to very specific lesions, write Kiehl and his colleagues.

Hare remains skeptical about the expressiveness of the colorful brain images. Every month there are new fMRI studies, many in contrast to Kiehl's project only with a handful of test subjects. Often the measured differences are minimal, but the conclusions drawn from them are all the more far-reaching. And even if the scans look different, the question remains: what is a hen, what is an egg? And how many “normal” people have a similar brain structure without being psychopaths? “Despite these pitfalls, it is important that we understand what we are dealing with,” says Hare. “Even successful psychopaths cause enormous economic damage through bullying and their risky behavior. Not to mention the cost to society of genuinely criminal behavior. "

for further reading:

  • Babiak P et al: Corporate Psychopathy - Talking the Walk. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 2010; 28: 174 - 193 (for abstract).
  • Ermer E et al: Aberrant Paralimbic Gray Matter in Criminal Psychopathy. In: Journal of Abnormal Psychopathy (in press)
  • Documentary film "I, Psychopath"; URL: http: // top doc u men tary films .com / i - p s y c h o path / [as of 2009]; to the website.
  • Film documentary by the BBC: “What makes us good or evil”; URL: http: // www .youtube .com / w a t c h? V = u 8 8 l Y s 4FMTY [Status: 2011] ; to the website.
  • Kiehl K, Hofman M: The Criminal Psychopath: History, Neuroscience, Treatment, and Economics. Jurimetrics 2011; 51: 355 - 397 (for abstract).

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