Psychopaths and Punishment

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The brains of psychopaths may not process punishment in the same way as non-psychopaths’ brains, according to research which may shed light on why some seem unfazed by even our most stringent attempts to rein in or modify their behavior.

Folks in the helping professions have long known that individuals with severe character disturbances don’t seem to modify their problematic behavior patterns despite all manner of negative consequences that might come their way. I’ve addressed this remarkable attribute before in articles like “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Responses to Adverse Consequences” and discuss it at some length in Character Disturbance. It’s long troubled both researchers and clinicians why psychopaths — those individuals characterized by their extreme callousness, cold-heartedness, and penchants for manipulation and predation — don’t seem to learn what we’d like them to learn even from experience. They also don’t seemed deterred in their behavior by even the most severe punishments. Now, some interesting findings from a research team in Britain and published in The Lancet psychiatry journal may be be yielding some clues about why even the most austere punishments so often fail to make a dent in the behavior patterns of psychopaths.

First, some context. For most of us, our behavior is largely influenced by the consequences we experience. We tend not only to be attracted to the things we find pleasant but also to repeat those behaviors that we have found reliably produce rewards (i.e., behaviors that are “reinforced.”). We also tend to shy away from things that are unpleasant to us and to avoid repeating those behaviors our experience has shown us invites “punishment” of one type or another. Our brains simply appear wired that way. For some time, however, evidence has been accumulating that the brains of psychopathic individuals function very differently from normal brains in several interesting ways. (See “Psychopathy 101” and “More Evidence of Abnormal Brain Functioning in Psychopaths”.) They even function differently from the brains of antisocial individuals who aren’t also part of the more troubling cold-hearted subset we call psychopathic. For the most part, the research has helped explain why psychopaths can be so devoid of any apparent empathy and can callously victimize others. Now comes some evidence that when it comes to processing punishment, the brains of psychopaths may also be quite unique.

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Just as there are regions in the human brain that are particularly involved in experiencing reward, there are regions that seem to be more distinctively involved in processing punishment. So the researchers in the Lancet study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent antisocial offenders who did not also suffer from psychopathy to the brains of violent antisocial offenders carrying the psychopath diagnosis. What they found through the imaging is that the ability to process punishment, and therefore the capacity to be affected in decision making and behavior by punishment, may be impaired in psychopathic individuals. This impairment appeared to be due not merely to the result of structural differences in the brain but rather to interneuronal communication pattern abnormalities in the brains of psychopaths compared to those of their non-psychopathic counterparts. One possible conclusion from this finding is that while most of us approach our decisions about how to act based on how likely our choice will be to result in positive gain rather than to invite negative consequences (i.e., we weigh the “pros” and “cons”), psychopaths may be predisposed to consider only the potential pleasurable benefits of an action and to disregard potential negative consequences. The findings might also explain why punishments such as incarceration — no matter how stark or restrictive — don’t seem to have a deterring effect on psychopaths’ behavior. In short, psychopaths may be immune to the normal effects of punishment because their brains don’t process the reality of it in a normal way. They just don’t seem to “understand” punishment or negative consequence the way most of us do.

We still have much to learn about the physiology that contributes to the most severe and troubling character disturbance. Psychopaths are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the most heinous crimes committed and are regarded by many scholars as nature’s only known intra-species predators. The callousness with which they use and abuse others without any apparent regret or remorse is legend. They seem unfazed by our most stringent attempts to rein in or modify their behavior. We now have evidence that much of this results from how differently their brains operate. But that is not to say that we have hard evidence that their brains are abnormal from the beginning. We don’t have anywhere near the evidence to suggest that psychopaths are simply born the way they are. And there’s plenty of evidence suggesting environmental shaping influences play a role in creating a psychopath. Moreover, the developing brain is a remarkably plastic instrument, both in structural formation and inter-neuronal communication pattern. So, if we’re ever to successfully arrest the progression of character-impaired individuals into full blown psychopathy, it will most likely have to be done with early intervention strategies that employ sound learning principles while the brain is still in its most modifiable state.

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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