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Psychopaths, Prisons and You

October 19, 2012

 

 

Seven Psychopaths, the title of Martin McDonagh's new movie, rolls off your tongue a little too easily. Who doesn't savor a good psychopath yarn? Like the twisted wreckage in a car crash, as much you might want to, you can't turn your head and look away. Be forewarned: the movie is awash in blood, but Christopher Walken's pitch-perfect performance is well worth the price of admission.

 

What is it about psychopaths that captures our interest? Is it the aberrant lack of empathy that we just can't wrap our minds around? Recently at the Neuroscience Society convention, I caught up with Doug Schultz from the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin. Schultz has done some fascinating experiments regarding psychopaths. The central question: is there something unique about a psychopath's amygdala, that ancient processing center for fear? Are psychopaths' amygdalas constructed differently than those of 'normal' people?


So, where does one locate a swarm of psychopaths to study? If you want to see a car crash, hang out in the shade of a freeway. For a good look at psychopaths, your best bet is a prison. According to the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), it is believed that roughly 20-25% of the prison population is made up of psychopaths. This stacks up against 1% of the general population and approximately 4% of corporate executives. (As someone who works in business, I find this a little sobering.)

 

Schultz duly set up his experiment in a prison, using FMRIs, the Welsh Anxiety Scale (WAS), and a Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm that involved electrical shock. And what he discovered is pretty interesting.

 

It seems that psychopaths fall into two categories: high anxiety, those that seem to be less driven by environmental causes and, low anxiety, those that appear to be built the old fashioned way, from traumatic experience. In either case, their amygdalas don't look any different from yours or mine. (I'm giving both of us the benefit of the doubt here.)

 

Regardless, the psychopaths did appear to experience fear in the electrical shock experiments, but for some reason, the trauma-driven ones showed lower anxiety. Perhaps because the thought of an electrical shock pales in comparison to the terrifying conditions they've experienced in real life. It's not clearly understood.

 

What we do know is that psychopathy makes it difficult to regulate one's impulsive behavior, which can lead to a myriad of problems. This is driven home in Seven Psychopaths (spoiler alert) by all five psychopaths, and especially by Christopher Walken's Quaker gone wrong. This is no movie for the timid, but then again, neither is giving electrical shocks to prison inmates. And maybe that shot of adrenaline is what makes TV shows like Dexter a hit, and supremely weird movies like Seven Psychopaths still viable at the box office.

 

 But I believe there is a universal sentiment amongst the so called 'normal' when it comes to psychopaths, one summed up best by the old adage, "I'd rather see one, than be one."

 

Sweet dreams, corporate execs.....

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