What Makes a Psychopath? | A Psychological Approach to Criminal Minds

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It’s safe to say that the concept of psychopathy is both a thrilling and familiar topic in today’s popular culture, depicted on countless occasions in film and literature. As evident in the numerous crime shows, mystery novels, and psychological thrillers that feature both villains and protagonists who exhibit psychopathic tendencies — think Dexter, Hannibal Lecter, Perry of Big Little Lies, we are often drawn to stories about twisted minds.

But what exactly defines a psychopath? What causes an individual to fall into a life of psychopathic behavior? Why are we so intrigued by psychotic minds? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and more about the psychology of criminal minds, as well as how to learn more about the mechanics of a psychopathic mind.

Defining Psychopathy

To understand what causes psychopathy, it is essential to discern what exactly defines a psychopath. Psychopathy is determined by the presence of a mental health disorder termed antisocial personality disorder, or ASPD. A person diagnosed with ASPD tends to exhibit little regard for the emotions or distress of others and acts impulsively, which leads them to exhibit unstable and aggressive behavior.

Although a psychopath’s emotional status can change rapidly, they often display a superficially charming and collected facade to conceal their erratic behavior and manipulate others. Data suggests that so-called "psychopaths" make up approximately 1% of the world's population, and are as much as three times more likely to commit a violent act than the average person (Choi, 2009).

What Causes Psychopathy – A Biological Perspective

The question remains: what causes a person to act in this manner?

Scientists believe the answer lies less in a person’s external environment and early upbringing (a common root of sociopathic tendencies), and rather within the mind itself (Bonn, 2014). Clara Moskowitz of LiveScience explains that brain scans of psychopaths have uncovered that the paralimbic system, the brain's hub for emotional processing, is impaired in those with ASDP, diminishing the volume of these areas.

In psychopaths, the amygdala, the area of the brain linked to one's sensation of fear, experiences less activity. This impairment leads psychopaths to be far less sensitive to fear, and immune to intense emotions or feelings of remorse and guilt (Moskowitz, 2011). The lack of sensations and emotions necessary to keep the average person in line leads to the impaired development of basic morals. Without this internal regulation, psychopaths act against societal norms and laws, as they experience no sense of regret or responsibility for their actions, no matter how severe or violent.

A study by doctoral student Harma Meffert revealed that the impaired paralimbic system of a psychopathic brain numbs one's experience of empathy for another person in distress. However, when the patients in Meffert's study were advised to try and be empathetic for the victim in a video of a violent attack, their brain’s emotional network exhibited increased activity. This evidence supports the observed ability of psychopaths to "turn on empathy" and manipulate others who often become victims of their behavior (Keysers, 2013).

Addressing Psychopathic Tendencies and Traits Within Society

With substantial evidence pointing to the biological roots of psychopathy, many of which can be identified early in childhood, pressing ethical issues arise, as this antisocial personality disorder produces tendencies and traits that can be called into question by society.

Is it responsible or invasive to attempt to correct signs of psychopathy in the brain of a child or adult, even before they have exhibited any criminal tendencies? Knowing that psychopathy is based primarily on genetic mental impairment, is it fair to claim that someone with ASDP is ultimately responsible for their behavior?

Only time will reveal how our society will address these concerns. But one thing's for sure: the haunting mystery of psychopathic minds will continue to intrigue the world for years to come.

If taking a psychological approach to criminal minds interests you, consider pursuing a BA in Psychology or Social and Criminal Justice. Throughout the duration of courses such as the Psychology of Criminal Behavior, Crime & Society, and Psychopathology, you will learn even more about the inner workings of criminal minds, and be one step closer to unraveling the clandestine nature of criminal psychopathy.

 

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Written by Elizabeth Howard, Communications Intern for Bridgepoint Education.

References

Antisocial Personality Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/antisocial%20personality%20disorder

Bonn, S. (2014, January 22). How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201401/how-tell-sociopath-psychopath

Choi, C. Q. (2009, August 31). What Makes a Psychopath? Answers Remain Elusive. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/7859-psychopath-answers-remain-elusive.html

Fictional portrayals of psychopaths in film. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Fictional_portrayals_of_psychopaths_in_film

Keysers, C. (2013, July 24). Inside the Mind of a Psychopath – Empathic, But Not Always. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-empathic-brain/201307/inside-the-mind-psychopath-empathic-not-always

Moskowitz, C. (2011, March 04). Criminal Minds Are Different From Yours, Brain Scans Reveal. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/13083-criminals-brain-neuroscience-ethics.html

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