Essay: Psychopathy

Psychopathy is a disorder which frequently results in anti-social and violent behaviour due to the fact that they cannot feel guilt, remorse or empathy. Psychopaths make up around 1% of the general population but, in correctional facilities worldwide such as prisons and juvenile detention centres, it has been estimated that around 30% are psychopaths. The figure is slightly lower in the UK at an estimated 23% but this is still a significantly larger amount than in the general population. In addition to this, around about 3-5% of all CEO’s and heads of companies are psychopaths.
Donald Lynam once said ‘The question is not ‘Why do people do bad things’? it’s ‘Why don’t more people do bad things”?. The answer for this question lies in psychopathy and their lack of empathy. Many people have inhibitors; things that we worry about like hurting others or being caught. Psychopaths, because they cannot feel the emotions required for this, often exhibit bad behaviour despite what others think and the consequences that happen as a result of it.
There is an extensive debate about whether or not the most important factor in what makes a psychopath is either the person’s genetics or the environmental factors that they have been subjected to. Despite there being a considerably larger amount of evidence for genetic factors for this argument, this does not mean that it is the main factor since it is much more difficult to collect data for environmental influences on psychopathy and the brain compared to genetic factors. It is widely believed in the field of psychology that many psychopaths are primarily a product of genetics, with only a small environmental influence, however . Notwithstanding being a ‘born psychopath’, many can live a relative normal life and ‘overcome’ psychopathy, with the right upbringing in a good environment at a young age due to the capability of neuroplasticity in an adolescent’s brain. The fact that many psychopaths had a history of abuse in their childhood is also most likely the result of genetic influences and an unfortunate environment to be brought up in, the source states.
The source presents a case study of Michael, a 9 year old boy, who exhibits signs of extreme psychopathy such as high scoring on tests that measure lack of guilt and empathy, leading the source to discuss whether or not you can diagnose children as young as Michael, or even younger, as psychopathic(You may note that it will be easier to diagnose someone as psychopathic if psychopathy is proved to be genetic rather than environmental because, while a person’s personality can be easily changed by environmental influences, one’s brain is not so easily changed). On the other hand, it has been said that it is possible to re-wire psychopaths brains under the right environmental and neurological conditions, despite viewing psychopathy as a result of genetics along with environmental influences . Also, in the New York Times article, a review of a group of children with both psychopath disorder/ Callous Unemotional traits (CU) and ADHD was conducted. While both groups showed similarities to the others, the subjects with CU and psychopathic traits were often less impulsive than those with ADHD. Moreover, those with ADHD were much worse than the others at following rules and using them to their advantage, compared to the C.U children; the children with psychopathic traits are not always violent to get what they want, they simply use the most effective method. This is especially present in teen years and young adulthood as they are well-accomplished, manipulative liars, which often helps them plan their reactions well, psychopaths tend to react unreasonably and take offence much more easily than ‘non-psychopaths’. Waschbusch also concludes that these C.U. children tend to lack empathy, shame and guilt. Also in this source, Laurence Steinberg explicitly suggests how dangerous it could possibly be to brand a child or teen as psychopathic due to the fact that it may only be their brains developing and changing. He views this as dangerous because psychopathy is widely viewed as being medically untreatable, often leading to the parent of the child along with the child themselves having a lowered quality of life and potentially being looked down upon by society. Children often exhibit bad behaviour because they are psychopathic/C.U. due to the fact that they do not worry about how their actions will affect other people and their repercussions, only how their actions affect them.
Also, The Special Research Project of the Quantum Future School discusses how psychopaths could quite easily change their behaviour and exhibit, what non-psychopaths would view as, normal behaviour. However, they say that psychopaths do not ‘recognise any flaw in their psyche.’ And therefore psychopaths do not see any reason to change their behaviour. A BBC case study also noted that psychopaths had the capability of changing their behaviour, and also showing empathy. They call this an ’empathy switch’ which psychopaths can turn on or off at any time but it is set to ‘off’ by default. The case study that the BBC conducted included non-psychopaths and psychopaths viewing images of a hand that was neutral along with images of hands in pain. Naturally, the non-psychopathic individuals had a strong reaction to these images but the psychopaths seemed to have minimal reaction at all compared along with their reaction to viewing any image of someone in no pain, in which there was no change in brain activity. However, when the psychopathic individuals were told to imagine how those experiencing the pain felt, the psychopaths experienced an increase in neural activity in the right amygdala and the anterior insula (the parts of the brain that feel empathy.) this seems to prove their hypothesis as psychopaths, ‘under free viewing conditions, don’t empathise; Just because they can [it] doesn’t mean they will. Interestingly, in a similar study, some of these results were present but there was also increased brain activity in the ventral striatum, which is the part of the brain which is responsible for feelings of pleasure. So this shows how psychopaths have the ability empathise with those in pain, however, they also gain feelings of pleasure from viewing the presented stimuli. Also, in 2011, the BBC produced a report on Brian Dugan, a psychopath who murdered and raped a 7 year old girl. The fact that Brian Dugan ‘showed no remorse, guilt or shame for any of his crimes’ is yet another reason which could prove the hypothesis of the ’empathy switch’. Dr. Kent Kiehl, PhD in psychology at the University of British Colombia and neuroscientist at the New Mexico University, comments on how Dugan’s behaviour towards his crimes his ‘clinically fascinating’. Dr. Kiehl also notes that, ‘talking to Dugan about his crimes is like asking him what he had for breakfast’. This shows that Brian Dugan has no guilt about what he has done, does not care about the consequences and cannot understand the harm that he may have done.
Another similar study which tells the psychopathic individuals to try and feel the pain that the subject may be going through finds interesting results in the fact that when they are told to imagine the pain on themselves, they have a high response to the pain in the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, somatosensory cortex, and the right amygdala. However, when told to imagine the pain on someone else, they had minimal or no reaction in these areas of the brain. Moreover, the psychopaths, when told to imagine the pain on others had an increase in brain activity in the ventral striatum, the part of the brain associated with pleasure. The results of this study and the BBCs study seem conclusive that psychopaths cannot feel empathy towards others in pain, only to themselves. The source also suggests how, the fact that psychopaths do actually have the capability to feel empathy, could aid cognitive-behaviour therapies because ‘Imagining oneself in pain or in distress may trigger a stronger affective reaction than imagining what another person would feel’. On the other hand, a study conducted by ‘Greater good’ presents the view that psychopaths can empathise with pain well as they often use it to use their victim; ‘Greater Good’ says that psychopaths do not have any emotional empathy and can only be empathetic to pain.
Good Therapy conducted a study of 2,604 twins, all 17 years old in order to determine how intrapersonal, genetic and environmental factors impact the development of psychopathy. The study mainly focused on the environmental and intrapersonal factors in the development of psychopathy. They found that, overall, the male subjects showed significantly more psychopathic traits than the females; the males scored highly on antisocial peers, mother-child relationship problems, and school and legal problems. The source also presents the idea that disruption in parent-child relationship often leads to undesirable characteristics such as academic failure, peer rejection, drug use and delinquency.
Evidence for a strong genetic link to psychopathy and Callous-Unemotional traits comes from a study made by the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, which looks at two groups of 3,687 seven year old British twins both identical and fraternal. In same-sex identical twins, extreme CU traits were considerably higher than in fraternal twins, evidence for a stronger genetic link. On the other hand, those who did not score highly on extreme CU traits but did on traits linked to ASPD and personality disorders seemed to have a higher environmental influence compared to those with psychopathic and CU traits. The source also notes how Callous-unemotional traits are most reliably assessed between the age of 4 and early teens. This may be because the plasticity of the brain is lowered during these years and behaviour habits do not change as much as they do during the early childhood (before age 3). Also, the fact that there were a large amount of ‘psychopaths’ in the study of twins may have been skewed due to the fact that the difference between psychopathy and ASPD is incredibly hard to distinguish before the subject has reached adulthood.
Another source presents the idea that psychopaths do, in fact, ‘know right from wrong but don’t care’. As psychopaths have difficulty with emotional processing and inhibitory control, they cannot understand why ‘right and wrong’ exist and have difficulty understanding the concept of morals. The source also says that, even if they could understand why they exist, they would not care about them and have complete disregard for the consequences still. The source also supports the previous argument that psychopaths can feel empathy, when told to imagine it on them; when presented with a situation in which they were harmed they said it was less permissible if it happened to them compared to if the same situation happened to someone who they did not know.

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