In the book Snakes In Suits I learned several surprising items about psychopaths. An early researcher named Hervey Cleckley said that he found that psychopaths used language differently from most people; their sentence structure, choice of words and tempo (or beat) were different. He (and others) also noticed that psychopaths have difficulty understanding the emotional content of words that add color and interest to communication.
They would often describe their most atrocious crimes with dispassion and disinterest, showing no emotion at all.
MRI tests show that the response of these people to emotional words and pictures is no different than to neutral material, which is not the way normal people’s brains react. In fact, the limbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotion, do not get activated in psychopaths when they see these words and pictures – instead the regions that get activated are involved with the production and understanding of language.
It should be said that not all evil people are psychopaths. My guess from the book is that someone like Hitler, who believed in something bigger than himself and could be very emotional, was not a psychopath, even if he caused mass death and misery.
Psychopath’s crimes tend to be more violent than those of other criminals, but their aggression tends to be predatory – cold-blooded and devoid of the intense emotional upheaval that typically accompanies violent acts of other people.
They make up about 15% of the prison population. The rest of the prisoners may be sociopaths or fall into other categories. Psychopathy is a distinct personality disorder with distinct characteristics.
Psychopaths can get into high positions in business, which is what “Snakes In Suits” is about. They can evaluate people by how useful these people are to them, and they can study them and befriend them on their way to betraying them.
Psychopaths usually don’t want to commit themselves to a long course of study. They want to get results quick. So we could wonder – would they be attracted to politics? You can be a career politician without much preparation. And you can promise your consituents what they want to hear. And once in power, you have power over where large quantities of money goes – and some of that power can direct money to you.
But this raises some questions. Are psychopaths just practical types who want money? If that is the case, then as long as you are not in their way, or useful to them, then they should leave you alone, unlike some ideologues such as Mao, or Stalin, or Hitler.
Do psychopaths flock to certain types of organizations – such as the Mafia?
Do psychopaths ever believe in ideologies?
Do psychopaths have a malignant, sadistic, personality?
Can we blame psychopaths for their actions, knowing that their limbic system is not activated when it should be? Or that twin studies show that the core features of the psychopath are strongly genetically determined?
A depressing fact is that Psychopathic men can leave many children, by several women, which may be a genetic advantage to this intra-species predator.
Even if we cannot fully blame psychopaths, the way we could blame a normal person, it seems we should blame ourselves not to understand that some of the people we may encounter are like creatures from another planet that have evolved not to have a conscience as far as humans go. They look like ordinary folk, and they behave like ordinary folk, and then they can suddenly treat us the way a wolf treats a sheep. They can charm people and they can manipulate people. They know the difference between right and wrong, but that doesn’t stop them.
According to Robert Hare they make up 1% of the population. In a country of over 300 million people, that is 3 million psychopaths. Some of them are violent, some are not, but any association with them is detrimental.
One thing I will say from my own experience – when people don’t have a conscience, they have the most shocking imagination and do things that would not even occur to the rest of us. The reality can be so huge, and the acts so evil, that they are almost incomprehensible. And if they have an agenda to deceive, we will be taken in, because we cannot conceive of the magnitude of their actions and of their deception.
Now if we go out on a limb, and assume a single mutation in a single gene produces the psychopath, then an entire cluster of traits can develop if that gene is involved in development of the brain. I remember an example of a Russian scientist ( Dmitri Belyaev and his successors) who tried to create friendly foxes. He took the tamest and friendliest fox of each generation, and bred them. He did get friendly foxes, but they also had other traits – they barked like dogs, they wagged their tails, and they had color patterns like dogs.
I think this is because a gene that affects development can be used in multiple contexts for multiple purposes.
Also if it affects how neurons migrate for example, it might affect a whole slew of unrelated mental abilities and personality traits.
Unfortunately, apart from the slightly different tempo of speech, we can not detect the psychopath. We can look at him or her, and have no clue. We cannot see the brain through the eyes.
Source: Snakes In Suits by Paul Babiak, Ph.D. And Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.
Also see the video at Ted.com http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/01/training-the-brains-of-psychopaths-daniel-reisel-at-ted2013/ which discusses MRI scans that found that psychopaths have a deficient amygdala (an organ dealing with emotion in the brain).