The Roots of Psychopathy


The New Yorker has an interesting article by John Seabrook about researchers who study the brains of psychopaths: "Suffering Souls."

The scanner was housed in a tractor-trailer parked behind the prison’s I.D. center. We followed a correctional officer through an internal courtyard to the rehab wing, which consisted of a large common area surrounded by two-man cells. The prisoners were standing at attention outside their cells, some holding mops and brooms. I entered a vacant cell and saw the occupant’s brain, a grainy black-and-white image on a piece of a paper, its edges curling, tacked up over the desk.

Then we walked through the common room and out a door at the other end, passing under a large poster with lines that read, “I am here because there is no refuge, finally, from myself.” The officer led us along a corridor of offices in which students from the University of New Mexico, where [cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Kent] Kiehl is on the faculty, conduct psychopathy interviews and also counsel participants in the drug-treatment program. Carla Harenski, one of Kiehl’s postdocs, was interviewing a beefy guy with a tattoo on his neck. Her office, like those of all the researchers in the lab, is equipped with a button she can press to call for help if an interview gets out of hand.

In order to distinguish psychopaths from non-psychopaths among the Western volunteers, Kiehl and his students use the revised version of the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R, a twenty-item diagnostic instrument created by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, based on his long experience in working with psychopaths in prisons. Kiehl was taught to use the checklist by Hare himself, under whom he earned his doctorate, at the University of British Columbia. Researchers interview an inmate for up to three hours, and compare the inmate’s statements against what is known of his record and his personal history. The interviewer “scores” the subject on each of the twenty items–parasitic life style, pathological lying, conning, proneness to boredom, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, poor impulse control, promiscuity, irresponsibility, record of juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility, among other tendencies–with zero, one, or two, depending on how pronounced that trait is. Most researchers agree that anyone who scores thirty or higher on the PCL-R is considered to be a psychopath. Kiehl says, “Someone who scores a thirty-five, a thirty-six, they are just different. You say to yourself, ‘Aha, here you are. You are why I do this.’ ”

Harenski recently interviewed a Western inmate who scored a 38.9. “He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” she told me. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.” Harenski, who is thirty, did not experience the involuntary skin-crawling sensation that, according to a survey conducted by the psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in three mental-health and criminal-justice professionals report feeling on interviewing a psychopath; in their paper on the subject, Meloy and Meloy speculate that this reaction may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. “I was just excited,” Harenski continued. “I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. I found a real one.’ ”

"Suffering Souls." (Image credit: John Ritter.)