Psychopaths can feel emotions and can be treated – don’t believe what you see on crime shows – Tips & Results

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(THE TALK) On any given day, millions of Americans curl up to watch their favorite crime shows. Whether it’s “FBI” on CBS, “Dexter” on Showtime, “Mindhunter” on Netflix, “Killing Eve” on BBC, reruns of “Law & Order” or any of the countless other similar shows, they attract huge audiences with their vibrant Depictions of villains whose behavior is startlingly cruel. I admit it: I belong to this audience. My students even make fun of how much crime television I, a researcher studying criminal behavior, watch.

I justify some of my television time as work by providing material for my undergraduate lecture and seminars on the nature of the criminal mind. But I’m also fascinated by the characters in these dramas, even though – or because – many of them are unrealistic.

One of the most common character types in crime TV is the psychopath: the person who commits brutal murders, acts recklessly, and sits stone cold on law enforcement officers. Though the shows are obviously fiction, their storylines have become familiar cultural touchstones. People see Agent Hotchner on Criminal Minds refer to any character who is disturbingly violent as “someone with a psychopathy.” You hear Dr. Huang in “Law & Order: SVU” described a juvenile delinquent who harmed a young girl as “a juvenile with psychopathy” who he says is unable to respond to treatment.

Such depictions leave the viewer with the impression that people with psychopathy are uncontrollably evil, incapable of feeling, and incorrigible. But extensive research, including years of work in my own lab, shows that the sensational notions of psychopathy used to drive these narratives are counterproductive and just plain wrong.

What actually is psychopathy

Psychopathy is classified by psychologists as a personality disorder defined by a combination of charm, superficial emotions, lack of regret or remorse, impulsiveness, and delinquency. About 1% of the general population meets the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy, a prevalence about twice that of schizophrenia. The exact causes of psychopathy have not been identified, but most scholars conclude that both genetics and the environment contribute.

Psychopathy has a high cost to individuals and society as a whole. Overall, people with psychopathy commit two to three times as many crimes as others who engage in antisocial behavior and make up about 25% of the incarcerated population. They also commit new offenses after being released from incarceration or surveillance at a much higher rate than other types of offenders. My colleagues and I have found that people with psychopathy tend to start using substances at an earlier age and to try more types of substances than others. There is also some evidence that people with psychopathy tend not to respond well to conventional therapeutic strategies.

The reality is far more nuanced and encouraging than the bleak media narratives. Contrary to most portrayals, psychopathy does not equate to violence. It is true that individuals with psychopathy are more likely to commit violent crimes than those without the disorder, but violent behavior is not a prerequisite for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Some researchers argue that key features of psychopathy are present in individuals who do not engage in violent behavior but are prone to impulsive and risky behavior, take advantage of others, and care little about the consequences of their actions. These traits can be observed in politicians, CEOs and financiers.

What Science Says About Psychopathy

Many crime drama shows, as well as much mainstream news, associate psychopathy with a lack of emotions, particularly fear or regret. Whether a character is standing quietly over an inanimate body or giving off the classic “psychopathic stare,” viewers are used to seeing people with psychopathy as almost robotic. The belief that people with psychopathy are emotionless is widespread not only among lay people but also among psychologists. There is a grain of truth in this: Extensive research has found that people with psychopathy have a reduced ability to process emotions and to recognize the emotions of others. But my colleagues and I find evidence that, given the right circumstances, people with psychopathy can actually recognize and experience emotions.

In my lab, we conduct experiments that reveal a complex relationship between psychopathy and emotions. In one study, we tested the perceived anxietylessness of people with psychopathy using a simple laboratory test. We showed a group of participants the letter “n” and colored boxes on a screen. Seeing a red box meant a participant could get an electric shock; green boxes meant they wouldn’t. The color of the box therefore signaled a threat. In short, the shocks were not harmful, only slightly uncomfortable, and this study was approved by the relevant human protection review boards. In some trials, we asked the participant to tell us the color of the box (which forced them to focus on the threat). In other trials, we asked participants to tell us the fall of the letter (forcing them to focus on non-threat) even though the box was still displayed.

We could see that individuals with psychopathy exhibited fear responses based on their physiological and brain responses when they had to focus on the risk of shock. However, they showed a deficit of fear responses when they had to tell us the case of the letter and the box was subordinate to that task. Obviously, people with psychopathy are capable of experiencing emotions; They only have a deadened emotional response when their attention is elsewhere. This is an extreme version of the type of processing we all do. When making routine decisions, we rarely focus explicitly on emotions. Rather, we use emotional information as background detail that influences our decisions. The implication is that individuals with psychopathy have a kind of mental short-sightedness: the emotions are there, but they are ignored when they might interfere with the achievement of a goal.

Research in my lab and others has uncovered additional evidence that individuals with psychopathy are able to experience and label emotions related to observing emotional scenes or faces, the pain of others, and experiences of regret. Again, people with psychopathy can process emotions when they focus on the emotion, but they show deficits when emotions are difficult to recognize or subordinate to their goal.

Many studies have shown that people with psychopathy are good at using information and regulating their behavior when it is directly relevant to their goal; For example, they may act charmingly and ignore emotions in order to cheat on someone. But when information is outside of their immediate focus of attention, they often exhibit impulsive behavior (e.g., quitting a job without a new one coming up) and egregious decisions (e.g., seeking publicity for a crime while being robbed of the wanted by the police). They have trouble processing emotions, but unlike the usual characters on TV, they aren’t inherently cold-blooded. The image of the fearless killer takes up an outdated scientific view of psychopathy. Instead, it seems that people with psychopathy can access emotions – the emotional information is only smothered by a focus on goals.

Anyone can change

One of the most pernicious misconceptions about psychopathy—in fiction, in the news, and in some of the ancient scientific literature—is that it is a permanent, unchanging condition. This idea reinforces the compelling good versus evil trope, but the latest research tells a very different story.

Characteristics of psychopathy decline over time in many young people, beginning in late adolescence and continuing into adulthood. Samuel Hawes, a psychologist at Florida International University, and his collaborators followed more than 1,000 individuals from childhood to adulthood and repeatedly measured their traits of psychopathy. Although a small group had persistently high scores of psychopathic traits, more than half of the boys who initially had high scores for these traits trended down over time and later stopped showing them during puberty.

With proper intervention, the chances of improvement improve. We find that adolescents with traits of psychopathy and adults with psychopathy can change and respond to treatments tailored to their needs. Several studies have documented the effectiveness of specific treatments designed to help adolescents recognize and respond to emotions. Parenting interventions that focus on enhancing the caregiver’s emotional warmth and helping adolescents identify emotions appear to reduce symptoms and problematic behaviors.

In a series of experiments, we examined video games designed to train the brains of individuals with psychopathy by helping them improve the way they integrate information. For example, we show a face to a group of participants and instruct them to react based on the emotions they see and the direction the eyes are looking, and coach them to integrate all features of the face. Or we play a game where we show participants a set of cards and see if they can pick up when we change the rules and switch which card is a winner or a loser. Participants are not told when the shift will occur, so they must learn to pay attention to subtle contextual changes as they go. Our preliminary data shows that laboratory-based tasks like these can change the brain and real-world behavior of individuals with psychopathy.

Such studies open up the possibility of reducing the social and personal harm caused by psychopathy. I believe society needs to dispel the myths that people with psychopathy are inherently violent, emotionless, and unable to change.

The behavior of individuals with psychopathy is fascinating—so much so that it doesn’t need embellishment to create dramatic storylines. We should work harder to help people with psychopathy so they can perceive more information in their environment and use more of their emotional experience. Pop culture can help rather than hinder these goals.

A version of this article appears on OpenMind, a digital magazine dedicated to disinformation, controversy, and deception in science.

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