Will Psychopaths Now Use the Bad Brain Excuse?

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Make no mistake: psychopaths mean to do harm. It would be a social justice disaster if our growing awareness of the biological bases for their empathy deficits wound up better arming defense attorneys and adversely biasing judges when it comes to sanctioning the most dangerous individuals in our society.

The evidence keeps mounting that biological factors play a key role in psychopathy. It’s already been fairly well established that brain activity, especially in the regions of the cerebrum thought to be most involved in integrating emotion with other aspects of human experience, is remarkably different in psychopaths when compared to brain activity in normal individuals. Recently, researchers at King’s College in London have uncovered some of the strongest evidence to date that structural anomalies in the brain might be responsible for the severe empathy deficits that characterize psychopathic behavior. Their study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, also found that these structural abnormalities are present exclusively in psychopaths and not in other antisocial personality disordered individuals who, despite a history of antisocial and criminal behavior, possess the capacity for empathy.

Although Psychopathy has not been classified in official diagnostic manuals as a distinct personality disorder, it is commonly seen as a variant form of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), and is likely to be listed as a recognized variation of APD in the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which most mental health professionals use. As a group, psychopaths represent society’s most dangerous individuals, exhibiting chronic antisocial (but not necessarily criminal) behavior because their striking lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse makes them capable of the most predatory and violent behavior and predisposes them to repeated acts of social exploitation, manipulation, and injury. The King’s College study compared Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of psychopaths (frequently described as “cold-hearted” and calculating) to the brains of individuals diagnosed with APD but not psychopathy (as a group, frequently described as “hot-headed” and impulsive) and found reduced grey matter volume in the temporal-frontal area (sometimes called the “social brain”) of the brains of the psychopaths. While there is still no convincing evidence that any of the biological abnormalities now known to play a role in psychopathy are strictly genetically conferred — i.e., we don’t know whether psychopaths are simply born the way they are — the argument for various biological and constitutional bases for the disorder is growing stronger all the time.

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While we owe a lot to the recent research for helping us better understand psychopathy, there is a danger that the very same research might well be used to our disadvantage — even possibly to subvert criminal justice. Psychopaths might well use the “My brain made me do it” excuse for their actions. And while this notion might seem a little far-fetched at first glance, consider that a University of Utah survey of judges in 19 states found that if a convicted criminal is a psychopath, the judge typically considers it an aggravating factor in sentencing. But if the judge also hears biological explanations for the disorder, she or he is actually more likely to reduce the sentence (by about a year on average). The study, published in the August 2012 issue of the journal Science, highlights the problems sometimes associated with the interpretations judges may make with regard to the role of mental disorder in an offender’s conduct.

Most clinicians would agree that there are psychiatric conditions that can seriously compromise a person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong or control their actions. But whether judges are properly trained and equipped with respect to when a “mental disorder” truly compromises individual culpability is becoming more uncertain as science increasingly uncovers the biological contributions to many conditions. There is a general bias to view mental disorders (especially those with known biological components) as incapacitating conditions. And this bias underscores the misunderstandings that exist about the essential nature of some mental disorders. While an argument might be made for lessening the harshness of a sentence based upon some diminished capacity of the offender, it seems illogical to loosen the restrictions on an individual whose predispositions (biological or otherwise) make the risk of repeat and serious re-offending greater.

It would be impossible to list all of the unintended negative consequences that have sprung from some of society’s best intentions. And I fear for the unintended consequences that might plague our criminal justice systems as more and more data are uncovered with respect to the biological aspects of psychopathy. There simply isn’t enough awareness about how to critically interpret the research. Differences in their brains might help explain psychopaths’ severe lack of empathy and conscience, but those differences don’t make them any less dangerous. Rather, they make them more dangerous. And unlike conditions such as psychosis of one type or another, those brain differences don’t really mitigate their culpability in their antisocial acts. Make no mistake: psychopaths mean to do harm. Predatory conduct defines their primary social modus operandi. That’s why in my book Character Disturbance I suggest the best label for their personality style is Predatory Aggressive. It would be a social justice disaster to have our growing awareness of the biological bases for their empathy deficits create the unintended consequence of better arming defense attorneys and adversely biasing judges when it comes to sanctioning the most dangerous individuals in our society.

It’s all but certain that psychopathy will soon be listed as an official sub-category of APD, and by the time the classification becomes official, there will no doubt be even more scientific data about the biological factors predisposing individuals to the condition. And because it’s in their very nature to do so, it should come as no surprise when psychopaths attempt to use the “bad brain excuse” for their conduct. We can only hope that an adequately informed and right-minded judiciary will make the decisions necessary to hold them accountable and protect the rest of us from our only known intra-species predators.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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