What are psychopaths?

by on September 28, 2006 at 6:46 am in Science | Permalink

Psychopaths cannot process clues of context very easily:

The key deficit in psychopaths, he [Newman] says, is an inability to process contextual cues, which makes them oblivious to the implications of their actions, both for themselves and for their potential victims…

Newman has published several studies showing this inability to consider peripheral information.  In 2004, Newman reported in the journal Neuropsychology one study in which subjects were presented with mislabeled images, such as a drawing of a pig with the word "dog" superimposed on it.  Newman’s researchers timed how long it took them to name what they saw.  They found that people in the control group — non-psychopaths — were confused by the mislabeled images, while the psychopaths answered swiftly and barely noticed the discrepancy.

"Although it is somewhat counterintuitive that superior selective attention be associated with psychopathology, it is consistent with the importance of incidental contextual and associative cues for regulating behavior," Newman wrote.

The main point of the article, with which I agree, is that we should feel sorry for psychopaths.  Here are Robert Hare’s results on psychopaths.  Here is a summary of some neurological evidence.

Addendum: Speaking of neurology, here is Will Wilkinson on whether neuroeconomics implies paternalism.

1 S September 28, 2006 at 11:37 am

sorry for people responsible of 80% percent of felonies?

2 TGGP September 28, 2006 at 1:46 pm

If I don’t feel sorry for them, does that make me a psychopath?

3 Intrigued September 28, 2006 at 4:12 pm

This is very interesting. I know a man who is a psychopath. I can’t imagine him being confused by
mislabled pictures. But what is very interesting is that his son is a high functioning autistic with
Asperger’s syndrome. The son is unable to read facial expressions and thus can’t function well socially,
although unlike his father he is actually quite a pleasent person if you take the trouble to get to know
him. I wonder if both conditions tend to run in families?

4 nelsonal September 28, 2006 at 11:43 pm

I fail to see why the expression of pity cannot be separated by disgust toward the activities of said psycopath. It isn’t like they asked to lack remorse or pity. I would guess it’s a fairly lonely existance.

5 josh September 29, 2006 at 12:17 pm

In what sense are pity and contempt mutually exclusive? I guess I didn’t realize you could only feel one way toward a person. Sheesh.

6 Darin London October 18, 2006 at 1:32 pm

I think this should go under the ‘Demand Curves Slope Downward’ category. The research suggests that there are a whole range of cues that we, ‘normal’, people react to in relation to our perceptions of the (potential) pain/embarrassment/suffering brought about in other people due to our (potential) actions which reduce the incidence of these actions, and that the circuits for reacting to these cues are non-functional in the psychopath. The researcher is trying to create prosthetic circuits to replace these dysfunctional circuits using their desire for self preservation. Interesting.

7 rgg March 31, 2008 at 5:40 am

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