Psychos Need a Little Sympathy
It's difficult to empathize with, let alone have sympathy for, a psychopath. But one scientist believes psychopaths, despite their sometimes terrifying behavior, deserve compassion.
At its core, he argues, psychopathy is a learning disability that makes it difficult for psychopaths to stop themselves from pursuing harmful behavior.
Many psychopaths end up in jail, where they comprise up to 25 percent of the incarcerated population. Outside of prison, just 1 percent is diagnosed with the disorder.
The incidence of psychopathy is about the same as schizophrenia, but a clear differential exists when it comes to studying the former, says Joseph Newman, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
"If the incidence of psychopathy is comparable to schizophrenia and the personal costs are as great," he says, citing failure in school, absence of real friendships, marital and job dysfunction, accidents and even death related to recklessness, "then aside from the terrific costs to family and society, the case for understanding and treating (and) preventing this disorder, based on the affected individual alone, are as great for psychopathy as for schizophrenia."
The public's morbid fascination with Scott Peterson and JonBenet Ramsey's killer obfuscates the "very serious mental health issues" that the psychopath presents, he says. Newman describes his theories in a chapter of The Psychopath: Theory, Research and Practice, published earlier this month.
They are a peculiarly diverse bunch -- a whiny, puny 130-pound male who had probably never physically hurt anyone, females who "use their sexual skills to manipulate others," and a hulking, 6-foot-4-inch inmate with the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on each hand and a rap sheet that includes breaking his victims' fingers.
Newman differentiates between the psychopath, born with faulty wiring, and the sociopath whose callous behavior results from poor parenting or the influences of deviant groups like gangs. One thing that Newman and other experts agree on is that psychopaths lack human empathy. And while he disagrees that psychopaths are emotionless, he concedes that they fall short in their personal relationships, especially when their responsibilities "conflict with immediate self-interests and other desires that become primary."
The key deficit in psychopaths, he 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.
"They may say they love their spouse, but their behavior suggests otherwise," says Newman. "Their behavior is terrible; they hurt other people. But they hurt themselves too."
One example of this is a crime committed by "Harry," one of Newman's research subjects. After Harry failed to pay his rent, his landlord came to his apartment and told him he'd have to leave. Harry responded by beating him up and tying him to a chair. "I'm takin' the first bus to St. Louis and if you try to stop me I'll kill you," he said as he left.
Not only does this attack reflect Harry's profound lack of empathy, in relating his escape plan to his victim he is demonstrating a "remarkable lack of insight and poor judgment for a person of normal intelligence," Newman says. He agrees that the same could be said for Scott Peterson, who pursued his girlfriend, Amber Frey, even after he knew he was the police's No. 1 suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Laci Peterson.
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.
Is there hope for treating people born with psychopathy? One expert believes there is -- especially if the disorder is diagnosed early. Paul Frick, a psychologist and professor at the University of New Orleans, says that children with conduct disorder, a precursor to antisocial personality disorder that can include psychopathy, can be taught to empathize with others if interventions occur before age 5.
Frick tracked public school students at high risk for aggressive and violent behaviors in a five-year study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. He found that preschool children with callous unemotional traits are more likely to demonstrate aggressive antisocial behavior that could result in incarceration -- more so than adolescents diagnosed with impulsivity.
That leads Frick to believe that treatment programs should be tailored to the child's age, gender, traits and background. "Children with callous unemotional traits do not seem to benefit as much as other children with conduct disorder from interventions in which parents are taught to use more effective discipline strategies," he says. But a "reward-oriented response" from parents and teachers seems to promote better behavior.
As Newman and his research team provide mounting evidence that psychopaths are at the mercy of their pathology, one intriguing question emerges: Could the psychopath, one day, be found not guilty of heinous acts, in the same way as one who is legally insane?
The short answer is no, says Stephen Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, because the cause is irrelevant.
"The issue is whether the psychopath's defects in feeling empathy and having a conscience should fail the test for legal responsibility," Morse says. "That test is whether the defendant is able to evaluate the morality of his conduct rationally, and the law believes that psychopaths can -- whatever may be the cause of their problems."