News, Science & Technology

‘Pyscho’ analysis shows animal instincts

To many people, looking for the best in others can seem difficult, but for psychopaths, looking for the best in others seems impossible.

A recent study performed by Dalhousie University researchers and published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that psychopaths are more highly aware of vulnerable people than of strong people.

‘It might be a similar process to what we see in the animal kingdom,’ Kevin Wilson, the lead researcher on the paper, said. ‘They don’t go after anything that moves. They tend to selectively go after someone that will be the most easily caught and will get them an actual meal as opposed to just a chase.’

Researchers tested the predatory nature of psychopathic men by showing them pictures of fictitious characters with a number of different character traits, Wilson said. The men were shown facial photographs of happy and sad faces, vulnerable and invulnerable faces and male and female faces. The psychopathic males were also told whether the individuals had high or low job statuses. Almost every time, the men displayed an enhanced ability to remember emotionally vulnerable, low-job-status and female characters, Wilson said.

‘Psychopathy is associated with the inability to recognize facial emotions, fear, sadness and anger,’ Wilson said. ‘It’s interesting that psychopaths might not understand what fear is but might have advanced recognition for it without consciously knowing it.

‘Many researchers have described psychopaths as social predators and the rest of the population as the prey, said Robert Hare, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

‘Think of them as a cat and you as mouse,’ Hare said. ‘The cat doesn’t understand you and doesn’t care about what you’re feeling. It can’t put itself inside emotional skin, and the poor mouse doesn’t understand why the cat is the way the cat is.

‘In his book Snakes in Suits, Hare argued that psychopaths do well in the business world because they are ruthless and can use people who are weaker than them to work their way up.

‘Snakes in Suits argued that psychopaths can mimic emotions well if it’s required of a situation,’ Hare said. ‘One could argue that this skill involves being able to identify people who are not only useful to you but who can also be manipulated and controlled.’

Just like there is no true way someone with psychopathy can get inside the head of someone with emotions, there is no real way psychologists can get inside the head of a psychopath, Hare said. But by making inferences about personality traits and behavior, psychologists can at least get close.

‘There’s a particular pattern in impulsivity, callousness, irresponsibility or even lack of empathy that psychologists make inferences about all the time,’ Hare said. ‘There’s also neurobiological brain imaging that shows that when normal people are processing something that most people consider to be emotional words, pictures or scenes, certain parts of their brains are more active than others, and for psychopaths those areas in the limbic region are not activated to the same degree.

‘Understanding psychopathy is important because psychopathic criminals commit double the number of violent offenses over their lifetime than the average murderer, Wilson said.

Researchers estimate psychopaths comprise 1 percent of the world population, and 16 percent to 20 percent of prison populations are composed of psychopaths, Hare said. Psychopathic individuals move around a lot in a nomadic lifestyle and tend to affect tens of thousands of people in their lifetimes, Hare said.

Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, said people should remember that not all psychopaths are violent, just like not all violent people are psychopaths.

‘People are more and more interested in the possibility of evidence that some psychopathic folks, if anything, may be able to occupy positions of some success in society,’ Lilienfeld said.

‘They may wreak havoc in those domains, but the havoc may not be explicitly violent.’

Lilienfeld said that, contrary to myth, there may be some reason to believe that psychopaths are not doomed to be untreatable cases.’There’s no one recommended treatment,’ he said. ‘There are hundreds of them. Most practitioners will say they’re untreatable. People have thrown lots of things at them ‘-‘- talk therapy, behavioral therapy or cognitive work ‘-‘- to try to change their thinking habits, but nothing works for sure yet.’

Though people should be wary of those who surround them, if people don’t trust anyone, they will be doomed social animals, Hare said.

‘If you’re looking to buy a car, you check it out on the Internet first, but we don’t do the same thing when we meet people,’ Hare said. ‘We say ‘He looks good, he sounds good, so he must be good,’ but we don’t check on the person, and we should.’

Comments are closed.