On any given day, millions of Americans curl up to watch their favorite crime shows. Whether it’s “FBI” on CBS, “Dexter” on Showtime, “Mindhunter” on Netflix, “Killing Eve” on BBC, reruns of “Law & Order” or any of a host of other similar programs, they attract large audiences with their vivid depictions of villains whose behavior is staggeringly cruel. I will confess: I am part of that audience. My students even mock how much crime television I, a researcher studying criminal behavior, watch.
I justify some of my TV time as work, and provide material for my undergraduate reading course and for my seminars on the nature of the criminal mind. But I’m also fascinated by the characters in these dramas, despite – or because of – how unrealistic many of them are.
One of the most common character types on crime TV is the psychopath: the person who commits cruel murders, acts recklessly and sits stone-cold in front of law enforcement. Although the programs are naturally fiction, their plot lines have become well-known cultural touchstones. People watch Agent Hotchner on “Criminal Minds” describe any character who is disturbingly violent as “someone with psychopathy”. They hear how dr. Huang on “Law & Order: SVU” refers to a juvenile offender who hurt a young girl as “an adolescent with psychopathy” who he suggests is unable to respond to treatment.
Such depictions give viewers the impression that individuals with psychopathy are uncontrollably evil, unable to feel emotions, and incorrigible. But extensive research, including years of work in my own lab, shows that the sensational notions of psychopathy used to drive those narratives are counterproductive and simply wrong.
What exactly is psychopathy
Psychopathy is classified by psychologists as a personality disorder defined by a combination of charm, shallow emotions, absence of regret or remorse, impulsivity and criminality. About 1% of the general population meets the diagnostic criteria of psychopathy, an incidence about twice that of schizophrenia. The exact causes of psychopathy have not been identified, but most scholars conclude that both genetics and environment are contributing factors.
Psychopathy places a high cost on individuals and society as a whole. People with psychopathy generally commit two to three times as much crime as others who engage in antisocial behavior and make up about 25% of the prison population. They also commit new crimes after being released from custody or supervision at a much higher rate than other types of offenders. My colleagues and I have found that people with psychopathy tend to start using drugs at an earlier age and try more types of drugs than others. There is also evidence that people with psychopathy tend not to respond well to conventional therapeutic strategies.
The reality is considerably more nuanced and encouraging than the gloomy media narratives. Unlike most depictions, psychopathy is not synonymous with violence. It is true that individuals with psychopathy are more likely to commit violent crime than individuals without the disorder, but violent behavior is not a requirement for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Some researchers argue that key characteristics of psychopathy are present in individuals who show no violent behavior, but who tend toward impulsive and risky behaviors, benefit from others, and show little concern about the consequences of their actions. Those qualities can be observed in politicians, CEOs and financiers.
What science says about psychopathy
Many crime programs, as well as many mainstream news reports, associate psychopathy with a lack of emotion, especially fear or remorse. Whether a character stands quietly over a lifeless body or gives the classic “psychopathic stare,” viewers are accustomed to seeing people with psychopathy as almost robotic. The belief that people with psychopathy are emotionless is widespread not only among lay people but also among psychologists. Here is an element of truth: Much research has found that individuals with psychopathy show a diminished ability to process emotions and recognize the emotions of others. But I and my colleagues find evidence that individuals with psychopathy can actually identify and experience emotions under the right circumstances.
In my lab, we do experiments that reveal a complex relationship between psychopathy and emotions. In one study, we investigated the perceived lack of fear of individuals with psychopathy using a simple laboratory test. We showed a group of participants the letter “n” and colored squares on a screen. Seeing a red box meant that a participant could get an electric shock; green boxes meant they would not. The color of the box therefore indicated a threat. In short, the shocks were not harmful, only slightly uncomfortable, and this study was approved by appropriate human subject protection review boards. At some trials, we asked the participant to tell us the color of the box (which forced them to focus on the threat). At other trials, we asked the participant to tell us the case of the letter (which forced them to focus on the non-threat), although the box was still displayed.
We could see that individuals with psychopathy showed fear responses based on their physiological and brain responses when they had to focus on the shock threat. However, they showed a lack of fear responses when they had to tell us the case of the letter and the box was secondary to that task. Apparently, individuals with psychopathy are able to experience emotion; they only have a blunted emotional response when their attention is focused on something else. This is an extreme version of the kind of processing we all do. In routine decision-making, we rarely focus explicitly on emotion. We use emotional information rather than a background detail that informs our decisions. The implication is that individuals with psychopathy have a kind of mental myopia: The emotions are there, but they are ignored if they might interfere with achieving a goal.
Research in my laboratory and in others has uncovered additional evidence that individuals with psychopathy are able to experience and name emotions in the context of perceiving emotional scenes or faces, the pain of others, and experiences of regret. Here, too, individuals with psychopathy are able to process emotion when they focus on the emotion, but they display deficiencies when emotion is difficult to detect or secondary to their goal.
Many studies have shown that individuals with psychopathy are good at using information and regulating their behavior if it is directly relevant to their goal; they can, for example, act charmingly and ignore emotions to deceive someone. But when information is out of their immediate focus of attention, they often show impulsive behavior (such as resigning a job without a new one in line) and ominous decision-making (such as seeking publicity for a crime while sought by the police). They struggle to process emotion, but unlike the usual characters on television, they are not inherently cold-blooded. The image of the fearless killer draws from an outdated scientific conception of psychopathy. Instead, it seems that people with psychopathy have access to emotions – the emotional information is only stifled by the focus on goals.
Everyone can change
One of the most damaging errors about psychopathy – in fiction, in the news and in some of the ancient scientific literature – is that it is a permanent, unchanging condition. This idea reinforces the compelling good-against-evil trope, but the latest research tells a very different story.
Characteristics of psychopathy naturally decrease over time for many young people, from late adolescence to adulthood. Samuel Hawes, a psychologist at Florida International University, and his associates tracked more than 1,000 individuals from childhood to adulthood and repeatedly measured their characteristics of psychopathy. Although a small group showed persistently high levels of psychopathic traits, more than half of the boys who initially had high levels of those traits tended to decline over time and later in adolescence no longer presented with it.
With proper intervention, the prospects for improvement improve. We find that adolescents with psychopathy characteristics and adults with psychopathy can change and respond to treatments tailored to their needs. Several studies have documented the effectiveness of specific treatments designed to help adolescents learn to identify and respond to emotions. Parenting interventions that focus on amplifying the emotional warmth of the caregiver and helping adolescents identify emotions appear to reduce symptoms and problematic behaviors.
In a series of experiments, we investigated video games designed to train the brains of individuals with psychopathy by helping them improve the way they integrate information. For example, we show a group of participants a face and instruct them to respond based on the emotion they see and the direction in which the eyes are looking, which trains them to integrate all features of the face. Or we play a game in which our participants show a series of cards and see if they can pick up when we move the rules, and change which one is a winning or losing card. The participants are not told when the shift will take place, so they need to learn to pay attention to subtle contextual changes as they go. Our preliminary data show that laboratory-based tasks such as these can alter the brains and actual behaviors of individuals with psychopathy.
Such studies open up the possibility of reducing the social and personal harm caused by psychopathy. I believe society needs to dispel the myths that individuals with psychopathy are fundamentally violent, emotionless and incapable of change.
The behavior of individuals with psychopathy is fascinating – so much so that it does not have to be beautified to make dramatic plot lines. We need to work harder to help individuals with psychopathy so that they can notice more information in their environment and use more of their emotional experience. Pop culture can help those goals rather than hinder them.
A version of this article appeared on OpenMind, a digital journal that tackles disinformation, controversy, and deception in science.