The Frontal Cortex

Profiling Psychopaths

It’s good to have Gladwell back. I’ve missed his writing these last few months. (To learn about his next book, check out Kottke.) His article this week was on the (pseudo)science that is criminal profiling:

In the case of Derrick Todd Lee, the Baton Rouge serial killer, the F.B.I. profile described the offender as a white male blue-collar worker, between twenty-five and thirty-five years old, who “wants to be seen as someone who is attractive and appealing to women.” The profile went on, “However, his level of sophistication in interacting with women, especially women who are above him in the social strata, is low. Any contact he has had with women he has found attractive would be described by these women as ‘awkward.’ ” The F.B.I. was right about the killer being a blue-collar male between twenty-five and thirty-five. But Lee turned out to be charming and outgoing, the sort to put on a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots and head for the bars. He was an extrovert with a number of girlfriends and a reputation as a ladies’ man. And he wasn’t white. He was black.

A profile isn’t a test, where you pass if you get most of the answers right. It’s a portrait, and all the details have to cohere in some way if the image is to be helpful. In the mid-nineties, the British Home Office analyzed a hundred and eighty-four crimes, to see how many times profiles led to the arrest of a criminal. The profile worked in five of those cases. That’s just 2.7 per cent, which makes sense if you consider the position of the detective on the receiving end of a profiler’s list of conjectures. Do you believe the stuttering part? Or do you believe the thirty-year-old part? Or do you throw up your hands in frustration?

Gladwell goes on to ridicule criminal profiling as a party trick, which takes advantage of the confirmation bias. Of course, if you’ve been following the research of people like Paul Meehl this won’t be too surprising. In experiment after experiment, the method of clinical prediction is routinely beaten by statistical prediction. (Gladwell himself gave an excellent example of this in Blink, when he discussed the diagnosis of heart attacks.)

I’d wager that, at some point in the near future, criminal profiling will move into a neuroscientific stage. There’s already been a lot of work done on the psychopathic brain, so that we finally have a basic understanding of what, exactly, turns people into such amoral monsters. At first glance, this pathology might seem hard to understand. On most psychological tests, psychopaths appear perfectly normal. Their working memory isn’t impaired, they use language normally, and they don’t have reduced attention spans. In fact, some studies have found that psychopaths have slightly above average IQ’s and reasoning abilities. They can solve puzzles and play chess better than most non-psychopaths. Their logic is impeccable. But this intact intelligence conceals a devastating disorder: psychopaths are dangerous because they are missing a crucial source of emotions.

For example, when normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to pain they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It’s as if they were watching a blank screen. Most people react differently to emotionally charged verbs like kill or rape than to neutral words like sit or walk, but not psychopaths. The words all seem equivalent. When normal people tell lies, they exhibit the classic symptoms of nervousness. Lie detectors work by measuring these signals. But psychopaths are able to consistently fool the machines. Dishonesty doesn’t make them anxious because nothing makes them anxious. They can lie with impunity.

When you peer inside the psychopathic brain, you can literally see this absence of emotion. After being exposed to fearful facial expressions, the emotional parts of the normal human brain show increased levels of activation. So do the cortical areas which are responsible for recognizing faces. As a result, a frightened face becomes a frightening sight; we naturally internalize the feelings of others. The brains of psychopaths, however, respond to these fearful faces with utter disinterest. Their emotional areas are unperturbed, and their facial recognition system is even less interested in fearful faces than in perfectly blank stares. Their brains are literally bored by expressions of terror.

This inability to generate negative emotions means that psychopaths never learn from their negative emotions. As a result, psychopaths are four times as likely as other prisoners to commit another crime after being released. For a psychopath, there is nothing inherently wrong with violence: it is just another way of getting what they want, a perfectly reasonable way to satisfy their desires. The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible.

Hopefully, this research will one day lead to a more scientific brand of criminal profiling. If you’d like to learn more, check out The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain.

Comments

  1. #1 travc
    November 9, 2007

    I wonder if there is any low-tech unobtrusive way of preforming these sorts of tests. Maybe it is a really good idea to go see a scary movie on an initial date and hold hands…

  2. #2 joseph t
    November 9, 2007

    Fantastic post! Really interesting stuff! I also wonder about the intrustion on civil liberties, though. We don’t want to be in the position of locking people up just because theyve got a dangerous looking brain.

  3. #3 MattXIV
    November 9, 2007

    I’m kind of skeptical of Meehl’s approach, especially as it is manifested in tools like the MMPI. You really need some objective measure against which you can calibrate the mechanical combination against. If not, you may just be creating a feedback loop where the criteria which are used to validate the test are shaped by the previous results of applying the test.

  4. #4 CRM-114
    November 9, 2007

    I feel relieved by the abysmal performance of profiling. When I first heard of it years ago, I wondered where they were drawing the science from, but nobody ever said, they just referred to other profiling. Now it looks like they just made stuff up, period.

    Incidentally, lie detectors don’t work and can’t work, and it is a simple matter to show why this is so.

    The theory, going back to William Moulton Marston, the guy who created Wonder Woman and her Lasso of Truth, is that there is something extra the brain must do in order to tell a lie, and this little extra work can be detected, revealing the presence of the lie.

    This of course is a small child’s view of lying. A little kid, trying lying for the first time (emulating lying adults) will have trouble at the outset, and may show obvious ‘tells’ before his skills improve enough that he can get some good out of this.

    In nature, deception is the rule, not the exception. Evolution makes all animal species successful deceivers.

    We can distinguish between two kinds of lies, lies of commission, and lies of omission. Since we cannot tell everything we know, simply for the lack of time, we are always continually committing lies of omission. In court a promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — when you are not allowed to volunteer anything but only answer questions — is a patent absurdity.

    If you’ve ever had people depend critically on what you said or wrote, then you know how hard it is to tell the truth, to get it exactly right, to word it so that all the people will arrive at the right understanding. Getting stuff exactly right is very hard work, much harder than doing a so-so job and not caring if your work trips up someobody else’s work.

    In the operation of a polygraph, the subject does not get to tell the truth directly. Instead, he gets interrogated: someone else frames the statements as questions, and the subject is allowed an extremely limited response set — usually just yes or no. If the subject is trying to get everything right, but the interrogator is doing a hopelessly poor job of framing statements, then the subject knows that things are going wrong and he will be blamed for the incompetence of the interrogator. Worse, he knows there is no way to fix the wrong done.

    Confounding the interrogation is the practice of omitting from the resultant record of ‘the interview’ the tone of the interrogator. The interrogator is free to load his questions with tonal insinuations and facial expressions so foul that his victim may feel provoked into punching him, but this infuriation will show as evidence of deception.

    Incompetence in the framing of questions will also show as evidence of deception.

    Another clue is the use of ‘calibration’: the problem is that once the calibration is done, all the questions to follow will be outside the calibrated range. Clearly, the calibration is itself a deception.

    If there were any science to polygraphing, there would be no need for an operator. A technician could set it up and break it down. A computer could pose the questions as text on a screen, and the subject could answer via the keyboard. The computer would file the test results.

    This of course will never happen.

  5. #5 Thomas
    November 10, 2007

    Thanks for this. It’s very interesting, but I think neuroscience is misguided in its belief that the ‘psychopathic brain’ is unable to generate negative emotions; not wrong, just misguided. It’s difficult to articulate, but let me try: The ‘normal brain’ responds to a negative stimulus with response A; the ‘psychopathic brain’ does not respond to an identical stimulus; neuroscience concludes that, because response A is the norm response to a negative stimulus, then the ‘psychopathic brains’ non-response means the psychopath is unable to generate response A. Conclusion: Psychopath does not generate negative emotions. I believe this is misguided. I believe the ‘psychopathic brain’ can and does generate ‘response A’ (and every other response on the emotional spectrum), but it does so in a way that does NOT map to the ‘norm Response A’. I believe the mapping is different for these two brains, and looking at the norm map to draw conclusions about the psychopathic map is misguided. To restate, psychopathology is rare and variable, so neuroscience does not have a neural mapping for ‘psychopathic brain’, and, thus, it draws conclusions about the ‘psychopathic brain’ by comparing it with the ‘normal brain’, and I believe that is misguided. I’m repeating myself here, but I think neuroscience needs a more objective map of psychopathology before it can say anything definitive about psychopathology. Its conclusions should read: “Compared to a normal brain, the psychopathic brain shows…[observation X], but considering that most of what we know about the ‘psychopathic brain’ is from comparison with the ‘normal brain’, [conclusion X about observation X] could be in error.” I don’t believe, however, that the ‘normal brain’ as mapped against ‘the psychopathic’ brain is apples and oranges. Like you say, many psychopaths appear normal except for a, b, c. It’s the a, b, c that neuroscience needs to study, and not how psychopathic a, b, c compares to normal a, b, c. This is of little value. If neuroscience had a more objective map, this is what I think they will find: emotional pathways of the ‘psychopath brain’ are fused. Specifically, the pleasure pathway of the psychopathic brain is somehow fused with the emotional pathway(s) in a way that is unique (or very different) from the ‘normal brain’. As an experiment, I suggest studying orgasm in the ‘psychopathic brain’ and its relationship to psychopathic behavior. I don’t know how to design such an experiment, but I believe it will find evidence that pleasure (orgasm) is tightly coupled with (or related to) psychopathic feelings (of rage, frustration, anger). Those pathways somehow fuse (become fused, temporarily), and in the psychopath, orgasm = rage. Orgasm and rage are not differentiated in the ‘psychopathic brain’, just like orgasm and happiness are not differentiated (become fused, temporarily) in the ‘normal brain’. I don’t want to extend myself much beyond this, but I believe synesthesiae, which neuroscience believes is a fusion or tight-coupling of sensory perception pathways, are somehow analogous to psychopatholgy; but, in psychopathology, emotional pathways are coupled in strange ways, and this unusual fusion is responsible for (a) the emotional confusion that leads to psychopathic behavior and (b) our for our inability to understand it. I could clean this up a lot (or add 50 pages), but I’ve exhausted myself trying to articulate it. :)

  6. #6 Jonathan
    November 11, 2007

    Thomas, as a sociopath, let me assure you that you are wrong. When I do something like lie, steal, or hurt someone, my only concern is really getting caught. I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel shameful, it’s a simple cost-benefit analysis on my part. (I’m quite certain my lack of guilt and shame is what caused me to leave the Catholic church so young; none of their conditioning could work on me.)

    If I regret something, it’s only because I got caught and punished for it. If I get caught doing something but get either a minor, acceptable punishment for it, or no punishment at all, I’ll just keep doing what I want. If I get caught and receive a costly punishment, to use the jargon, it’s simple a cue for me to take more measures not to get caught next time. At no point do I regret doing bad things because the are bad things. I can’t regret things that benefit me.

    I’ve also noticed how my emotions seemed more ephemeral than other’s. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel emotions. I could simply shut them off when I wanted to. The only emotion that takes any real effort for me to supress is anger. Even then, I almost never act on my anger. Anything except the most intense anger leaves me paralyzed. I simply don’t know how to act when my thinking is mediated by my emotional state instead of my conscious state.

    I’ve also noticed a tolerance to pain, heat, cold, and other sensations of deprivation. It’s not a lack of sensation, as I still feel heat/cold/pain-source. It’s also not simply resistance to the physical effects, as I’ll shiver when cold, I had heat exhaustion once, and nearly passed out once when I ignored my hunger to the point when I almost passed out from low blood-sugar. The sensations simply don’t bother me.

  7. #7 Thomas
    November 11, 2007

    Jonathan, sociopathy and psychopathy are different. One might be a milder form of the other.

    Here’s more on ‘the psychopathic mind’, as I thought on it some more.

    Paths. Yes. It’s analogous hiking: the best path is usually the worn one.

    That’s how I think of human behavior: paths in one’s mind where paths = personality reinforced by experience.

    Everything we do is guided by the paths we’ve created for ourselves.

    Everything we do is a manifestation of our personality and its reinforcements.

    This turns on a fundamental: your paths, my paths, a psychopath’s paths serve the same master: increase pleasure or reduce pain so the selfish gene survives long enough to get passed on the next generation.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene

    You probably see where I’m going with this:

    Psychopathic behavior seeks to increase pleasure/reduce pain just like normal behavior does.

    That’s the research framework I believe could help us understand the psychopathic brain.

    The question is: What does an increase of pleasure/reduction of pain look like in the psychopathic brain?

    My hypothesis is:
    if:
    an increase pleasure/reduce pain stimulus (such as orgasm) = A
    emotional happiness, elation, positivism, euphoria, pacification = 1
    emotional unhappiness, sadness, negativism, threat, rage, anger = 2
    then:
    normal brain = A1
    psychopathic brain = A2
    Or:

    A F/MRI or PET scan of the normal brain will produce EEG pattern A1 at the height of orgasm: those areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are associated with a objective pleasure stimulus (orgasm) AND those that are associated with happiness will show a relationship on the scan.

    A F/MRI or PET scan of the psychopathic brain will produce EEG pattern A2 at the height of orgasm: those areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are associated with a objective pleasure stimulus (orgasm) AND those that are associated with rage will show a relationship on the scan (light up like fireworks).

    This is what psychiatry means (but cannot prove) when they say “the wiring’s fucked up”.

    This is what I mean when I say “the apples:oranges mapping is misguided.”

  8. #8 Jonathan
    November 16, 2007

    Thomas, you’re not basing that on anything. You’re just talking out your ass.

  9. #9 Jonathan
    November 16, 2007

    A more detailed list of Thomas’ bullshit.

    1) “Jonathan, sociopathy and psychopathy are different. One might be a milder form of the other.”

    That’s just semantics. Both terms are used interchangeably for Anti-social Personality Disorder, which is the technical name. If the only difference is the intensity, it is never categorized in the DSM by another name.

    2) “This turns on a fundamental: your paths, my paths, a psychopath’s paths serve the same master: increase pleasure or reduce pain so the selfish gene survives long enough to get passed on the next generation.”

    Ignoring some of the raw stupidity leading up to this, evolutionary biology can explain why a trait might be selected, but has definite limits when it comes to actually describing the neurological structures involved, which is what I was doing.

    3) “Psychopathic behavior seeks to increase pleasure/reduce pain just like normal behavior does. ”

    Actually, a hallmark of sociopaths is their complete immunity to negative reinforcement. Point in fact, they frequently don’t seek to minimize pain. I conjectured that a restricted affect caused by an abnormal amygdala leads to a lack of reaction to negative stimuli, such as pain, fear, guilt, or shame, and thus leading to anti-social behavior. This explains a major unique and ubiquitous characteristic of sociopaths. Thomas merely ignored it.

    4) “My hypothesis is:
    if:
    an increase pleasure/reduce pain stimulus (such as orgasm) = A
    emotional happiness, elation, positivism, euphoria, pacification = 1
    emotional unhappiness, sadness, negativism, threat, rage, anger = 2
    then:
    normal brain = A1
    psychopathic brain = A2″

    Complete nonsense. There’s no other way to put it. This whole “hypothesis” is devoid of coherent rationality.

    5) “A F/MRI or PET scan of the normal brain will produce EEG pattern A1 at the height of orgasm: those areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are associated with a objective pleasure stimulus (orgasm) AND those that are associated with happiness will show a relationship on the scan.

    A F/MRI or PET scan of the psychopathic brain will produce EEG pattern A2 at the height of orgasm: those areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that are associated with a objective pleasure stimulus (orgasm) AND those that are associated with rage will show a relationship on the scan (light up like fireworks). ”

    This illustrates a profound ignorance on Thomas’s part. An F/MRI measures the perturbations in a strong magnetic field to sense the change in the material within the field. This is because all atoms are held together by electrostatic force. It takes 3-5 seconds for an F/MRI to record a change in brain activity as it only picks up changes in blood flow and sugar being metabolized. A PET scan uses a radiological source to generate positrons which then annihilate upon contact with an electron releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays act like very short wave X-rays, which they technically are, allowing for greater resolution than a CT scan. PET scans only record changes in density, though with great sensitivity. An EEG measures electrical charges on the surface of the skull. These correspond to the electrical discharges of neurons firing. It detects changes in the brain nearly instantaneously. These are three different detection methods working in different ways.

  10. #10 Jonathan
    November 23, 2007

    You’re the sociopath, so I guess we should believe you.

  11. #11 Angie
    February 27, 2009

    I am a psychopath as well, and I agree with Jonathon. I have also noticed a lot of the things he mentioned in myself.

    For example, take the game ‘Mercy.’ In case people don’t know how to play it, here’s a brief description: two people face each other, holding hands. Each does whatever they can to get the other one to say “mercy!”

    I love this game, and I have NEVER lost. It’s not that I’m super physically strong or anything — I’m not. I just don’t care if I get hurt. I feel the pain, but I disregard it and focus on winning. I refuse to say mercy and I never hold back (chance to hurt someone, why would I hold back? lol). Also, I tend to maintain eye contact with my opponent the whole time, which creeps people out.

    Anyway, that was just an example. My point is, I don’t care what the costs are to others, and I manage my own risks. If I get caught, I get caught, and it sucks, but oh well.

    Also, ‘scary’ movies, ‘sad’ movies…I get the concept and I can play the part, but I still think that my way of looking at everything is better than the normal human way. I don’t get anxious or stressed, I’m free to cheat and lie, I’m free to be happy and get my way.

    I’m free.

  12. #12 George
    August 4, 2009

    The person in comment 7 (Thomas) may have been right when he said it’s a wiring problem or the “wiring is f***ed up”.

    There’s a study out today (http://www.physorg.com/news168610123.html) from King’s College London that says psychopathology might be caused by a connectivity or pathway problem.

    I agree with the poster (Jonathan) who debunks Thomas’ science (apparently I’m agreeing with a self-confessed sociopath now), but Thomas’ intuition may not have been too far from truth: He’s saying that, if you assume that all people behave to increase pleasure or reduce pain, then what makes a psychopath different from a normal person is the difference between “increase pleasure pathway”/”decrease pain pathways”.

    He suggested studying the pathways using orgasm, and that’s basically what the King’s College researchers did. Not orgasm itself, but the pathway they studied is the one involved in orgasm, the uncinate fasciculus, which is the pathway that connects the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex.

    Whatever the case, I has to come back a read this post and compare what he said to what they found.

    I think he knew what he was talking about, but only intuitively.

    I agree that his science is bunk, but his intuition is almost scary accurate.

  13. #13 Joe Malmo
    February 24, 2011

    Interesting comments on here by the psychopaths/sociopaths.

    There is quite an easy way to deal with them: Ignore them. I work with one in a hospital. This guy has boundary issues. He asked a patient out. He violated sterile procedures multiple times. He has yelled and gotten angry with other staff. He has failed his licensing exam to do the job twice(three times you’re out). He fails to learn from his screwups and doesnt realize he is about to be fired.

    So what do you do with psychos/socios? Either ignore them and let civilization take revenge on them, or if forced, assault them, or shoot them.

    A normal person such as myself, once I find out someone is a sociopath/psychopath will do everything in his power to destroy the person who should not be.

    There are other normal persons such as myself who will plot how to destroy the a holes such as Angie above who think that life is a game.

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