Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates and Annie Wilkes are all perfect examples of the psychopathic “cold-blooded monster” that we want to keep under lock and key.
But a new study has revealed that we might be wrong about how we understand psychopaths: “They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions,” says Professor Josh Buckholtz, who is aiming to change how society views psychopaths.
“For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things, but what what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make.”
This is after Buckholtz studied the brains of ‘psychopath’ prison inmates and discovered that their brains are actually wired differently to other people.
This means that they process the world differently, and this leads them to commit violent crimes and make immoral actions.
Using a mobile MRI scanner, the study looked at brain scans of 49 inmates at two medium-security prisons in Wisconsin, while the subjects undertook delayed gratification testing. The test asked them to choose between two options - receive a smaller amount of money immediately, or a larger amount at a later time.
“Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when they make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action,” said Buckholtz.
The scans found that a psychopath’s brain is wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions.
People who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum - known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward - for the more immediate choice.
“That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated - they may over-represent the value of immediate reward,” says Buckholtz.
In fact the effect was so pronounced researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.
Buckholtz now wants to use these findings to diminish the portrayal of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are - “everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently”.