Sociopathic & Pyschopathic Behavior

“It was an urge. … A strong urge, and the longer I let it go the stronger it got, to where I was taking risks to go out and kill people — risks that normally, according to my little rules of operation, I wouldn’t take because they could lead to arrest.”   — Edmund Kemper, Serial Killer


Psychopathy is a characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deception. Psychopaths are highly prone to antisocial behavior and abusive treatment of others, and are disproportionately responsible for violent crime when in a violent emotional state or situation. Though lacking empathy and emotional depth, they often manage to pass themselves off as average individuals by feigning emotions and lying about their past. Despite the similarity of the names, psychopaths are rarely psychotic. Not all psychopaths are violent; they often use manipulation to gain what they want.

Psychopaths do not feel emotions as deeply as an average person. Though they are not completely unemotional, their emotions are so shallow that some clinicians have described them as mere “proto-emotions: primitive responses to immediate needs.”

Psychopaths do not feel fear as deeply as normal people and do not manifest any of the normal physical responses to threatening stimuli. For instance, if a normal person were accosted in the street by a gun-wielding mugger, he/she might sweat, tremble, lose control of his/her bowels or vomit. Psychopaths feel no such sensations, and are often perplexed when they observe them in others. Their lack of fear often makes them reckless risk-takers. This is not to say they are oblivious to the potential consequences of their actions. Rather, the thought of pain and punishment does not provoke an emotional reaction in them and thus has a weak restraining effect.

Psychopaths do not feel love and are incapable of forming emotional bonds with people. Though a psychopath can sometimes charm a person into being infatuated with him, he cannot reciprocate the feelings, only feign them. Though they derive pleasure from sexual encounters, these relations are superficial and impersonal.

Psychopaths do not suffer profound emotional trauma such as despair. This may be part of the reason why punishment has little effect on them: it leaves no emotional impression on them. There are anecdotes of psychopaths reacting nonchalantly to being sentenced to life in prison.

Although psychopaths do not feel deep emotions, they will often claim to experience them so as to appear normal. However, because they poorly understand emotion, their act is sometimes clumsy. Their choice of words may be incongruous with the context or their tone of voice. For instance, a psychopath may express grief over the recent death of a parent, but deliver his words in a monotone voice that betrays his indifference. Psychopaths may often put on short-lived, dramatic displays of emotion, such as fits of rage, only to quickly revert to a calm state moments later. This often leaves some observers with the impression that they are play-acting.

In conversations, psychopaths cannot intuitively understand the impact their words should have on others or themselves. They instead read their listeners’ reactions for cues as to how they should emote. For instance, Hare writes of a convicted murderer who described his murders in a totally dispassionate, bland manner until he noticed the horrified expression of the interviewer, at which point he started feigning remorse and distress over his crimes.

Researchers have conducted brain scans on psychopaths while exposing them to emotionally-charged words such as “rape”, “murder”, and “love”. In a normal person, these words will provoke activity in the limbic system, which governs emotions. Psychopaths showed no such activity. They react to emotionally-charged words as if they were neutral words (e.g. “tree”, “chair”, “spoon”). They do, however, show activity in the brain areas associated with language processing, suggesting that their response is more cognitive than emotional.

The Brain Scan: Differences in the Brain Of The Psychopath And A Normal Brain.

Using the PET technique, American medical researchers Adrian Raine and colleagues have been studying murderers, with startling results. They found that  murderers have a much decreased level of brain functioning in the prefrontal cortex than normal persons, indicating a deficit related to violence. In other words, even when no visible pathological alteration was present, frontal damage was apparent by an abnormal lower activity of the brain in that area. “Damage to this brain region,” Raine noted, “can result in impulsivity, loss of self control, immaturity, altered emotionality, and the inability to modify behavior, which can all in turn facilitate aggressive acts.”

The initial controlled studies carried out by Raine and his colleagues have been confirmed by a series of Pet-based investigations with sociopathic individuals and violent criminals. The researchers proved that there was a strong inverse correlation between a life history of aggression impulse difficulties and regional metabolism and in the frontal cortex. Pet brain imaging technology found in that psychopaths differ from non-psychopaths in the pattern of relative cerebral blood flow during processing of emotional words. Acquired personality changes due to brain injury are are also accompanied by a decreased in the neural activity in the frontal area.

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