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What Might Surprise You About Psychopaths

Scientific, research based, insight into the mind of a psychopath with a focus on neural mechanisms—and why not all psychopaths are bad.

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You're probably familiar with this guy.

Silence of the Lambs / Via

And for those of you who aren't, this is Hannibal Lecter as played by Anthony Hopkins, the dangerous fictional serial killer from Silence of the Lambs.

Despite his infinitely more real, equally heinous crimes, you might have less familiarity with this face. / Via

This is Theodore Bundy, more commonly known as Ted Bundy. He was a serial killer, kidnapper, and rapist. Probably the cruelest and most horrific individual murderer of the last century, Bundy was known for his gruesome sexual assaults and destruction of people before and after killing them. He was in life, and continues to be in death, the archetype of a psychopath. Lacking the feelings of guilt and empathy that normal people experience, he was able to simulate both to such an extent that he could appear warm and charming. Bundy was evaluated by a number of physicians and displayed facets of multiple disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder and multiple personality disorder; but most pronounced was his anti-social personality disorder, more specifically his psychopathic tendencies (psychopath, and often interchangeably, sociopath, are more specific terms that fall under the umbrella of antisocial personality disorder) (Department of Justice).

So what is a psychopath exactly? / Via

The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders is a massive compendium of all the identified mental disorders that a person can have. It's entry on what the public most commonly refers to as psychopathy is called "Antisocial personality Disorder," and is listed under the personality disorder section. There are quite a few criteria listed for someone with this condition, although it is not necessary to have all of these for a diagnosis to be made. One of the first criteria is that the individual being diagnosed must be at least 18 years of age, because the volatility of adolescence and the presence of developmental factors, although it also required that there be some symptoms occur before the age of 15. This is a distinction between what people refer to as psychopathic, as psychopathy doesn't require these specific age requirements and is more focused on personality traits. People with anti-social personality disorder "frequently lack empathy and tend to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Psychopaths often will appear cocky, and can have a deceptive ability to interact and charm other people. Psychopathy is also co-morbid with several other disorders including mood and anxiety disorders. Psychopathy effects between .2% and 3.3% of the general population; a common estimate is 1%.

And as it turns out, psychopathy isn't as binary as people might think.


After hearing about the horrible deeds and awful characteristics of psychopathy, it might suprise you to learn about the concept of the functional (or white collar) psychopath. . In his best selling book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, And Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton highlights the fact that not all serial killers are loose-cannon murderers, but instead that they might be some of the best CEO's, lawyers, military executives, and other high pressure jobs in the world. Dutton illustrates the difference in a psychopath's mind and non-psychopathic person's mind through citing a study done by Joshua Greene at Harvard University. Greene presented people with two moral dilemmas, an explanation of which can be found in the next section, explained in video form by Dutton himself. In general, people operate with two kinds of empathy, "hot and cold," empathy. You have the kind that you "feel," and the kind that is essentially our analytic, thinking and processing kind, where instead of feeling what another feels, we simply understand it. From a neurological standpoint, psychopaths don't see activation in the areas of the brain, namely the amygdala, that non-psychopaths get, but excel in the understanding of empathy sections (Dutton 18). Dutton goes on to cite Buzz Aldrin's moon landing, and how the touchdown was almost a disaster. Aldrin instead managed to navigate the thing to the ground and land it in the only clearing for miles with seconds to spare using a hyper-focus and calm not generally present in such a risky situation. While this has less to do with empathy, it does relate to the hyper-focus that psychopaths can demonstrate. Dutton isn't calling Buzz Aldrin a psychopath, but instead highlighting that individuals can display characteristics of psychopathy that ultimately help them. In explaining this, Dutton cites a study in which both psychopaths and non psychopaths were given a test where they would have to identify a series of mislabeled images (e.g. the word cat on an image of a pig). The goal is to report the word without being distracted by the image. Joe Newman, the experimenter, postulated going in that contrary to the popular belief that psychopaths are "incapable of experiencing fear, empathy, and host of other emotions," that they simply filter all of the unwanted stimulus out; that it doesn't affect them even if present. Instead of the neural dysfunction described by other researchers in the amygdala, hippocampus, superior temporal sulcus, fusiofrm cortex, anterior cingulate, and orbitofrontal cortex, Newman suggests that there is instead a hyperfocus or streamlining, where processing occurs without normal emotional interference (Dutton 63-64).

Here is that video of Dutton explaining the situation described above

Click on the "via Bigthink" button below.

Expanding on Newman's work

The University of Wisconsin Madison / Via

Joseph P. Newman has studied psychopaths for a number of years, his interest developing when he took an interest in brain lesions in relation to creating artificial psychopathy. Newman coauthored an experiment in 2000 about the hemispheric limitation of attention in psychopaths. The idea was that since psychopaths had shown deficiency in the ability to focus on peripheral tasks and to take language based input in a task with another focus, they should have trouble processing and remembering words shown to them while their attention was centrally focused somewhere else, more so than a control group. This experiment specifically was done to distinguish if the deficiency was due to a generalized left hemisphere abnormality, or if the primary left hemisphere focus was just detracting from secondary focus. The experiment was designed so that participants had to remember 8 words, randomly and quickly displayed on a computer screen in different locations, where they would have to recall both the word and location. The experimenters got results which established that both control participants and psychopathic participants had more trouble remembering words presented to the left spatial field than the right, thus demonstrating that the problem was not a general deficiency among psychopaths but simply a phenomenon of recalling location in that spatial field in normally functioning people. Having established this, the original hypothesis that the explanation for the psychopathic deficiency in left hemisphere dominant tasks was due to primary vs. secondary focus as opposed to just left hemispheric deficiency, further backing the theory by other researchers that the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain may house the primary goal attainment center of the brain. This would even further explain a possible reason why psychopaths have trouble including cues contrary to their goals in behavior (e.g. if their goal is to steal something, the secondary focus of it being amoral or emotionally damaging to someone else is irrelevant).

(Bernstein, A., Newman, J. P., Wallace, J. F., & Luh, K. E.. (2000)

Obviously, this attentional deficit is not the only abnormal part of a psychopaths brain. Let's look at some other differences in the attitudes and behaviors of psychopaths.


In a study published by Gray, Smith, Morris, and Snowden in 2003 a test was given to variety of participants ranging from violent psychopathic ones to non-psychopathic, non-violent ones. The test that was done was an IAT, Implicit Association Test, and it was essentially measured the effect on severely psychopathic killers. The way this test was performed is by taking upper case words and characterizing them as either pleasant or unpleasant and doing the same thing with lower case words that were classified as either violent or peaceful. Most people perform the task more quickly when the same keys are used for all classifications, but when they are paired incongruently, normal individuals are confused and need more time to process the terms that have been switched. Individuals are assessed by the difference in response time between their congruent (same keys for both unpleasant and violent) and incongruent (same key for the violent and pleasant words) terms, to see how individuals implicitly feel about the contrast of violence and non-violence. The researchers found that "psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murders and other offenders" (Gray et. al). What's interesting about this, despite on the surface appearing obvious, is that even people that had committed murder—and more importantly psychopaths that were in jail for reasons other than murder—didn't seem to have this implicit abnormal reaction to violence. Thus a very specific grouping of psychopaths demonstrated this abnormal reaction to the violent terms, suggesting that their actions are not due to the general lack of impulse control seen in psychopaths, but instead those same abnormal or deformed views about violence. You can take a sample Implicit Association Test by clicking on the link below (the faint gray "Via" button right under the image and above the text).

Talking once again about different kinds of psychopathy, this time on a neurological level

Arjun Sethi a,b,*, Sarah Gregory b, Flavio Dell'Acqua a, Eva Periche Thomas a, Andy Simmons c, Declan G.M. Murphy b, Sheilagh Hodgins d, Nigel J. Blackwood b,1 and Michael C. Craig / Via ELSEVIER/Science Direct

While this image isn't as eye capturing as a blood splattered face, it should tell us quite a bit more about what's actually going on inside the head of someone with psychopathy. Essentially, there are two types of psychopathic behavior that researchers identified using the PCL-R, which is the method of assessing psychopaths developed by Robert Hare. The two groupings that they created based on this assessment were Factor 1 psychopathic behavior (emotional detachment) and Factor 2 (anti-social behavior). The researchers found that they could correlate each of these factors to specific activation or lack thereof in two distinct networks of the brain. “Whilst differences in a ventral ‘temporo-amygdala- orbitofrontal network are related to antisocial behavior in psychopathy, we report that emotional detachment is related to abnormalities in a dorsal ‘default-mode’ network" (Sethi et. al). The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the medial temporal lobe (MTL), and the angular gyrus form the dorsal 'default-mode' network mentioned above. The MRI scans done of of the aforementioned regions granted the researchers a new understanding of the condition of psychopathy, allowing them to find a correlation between scoring high in emotional detachment or antisocial behavior depending on the activation in each region. To see where these regions are, see the continued section below (Sethi, A. et al).

And here's what some of the jargon from the last blurb looks like in the context of the brain

Arjun Sethi a,b,*, Sarah Gregory b, Flavio Dell'Acqua a, Eva Periche Thomas a, Andy Simmons c, Declan G.M. Murphy b, Sheilagh Hodgins d, Nigel J. Blackwood b,1 and Michael C. Craig / Via ELSEVIER/Science Direct

As mentioned in the last section, activation in this region correlates to Factor 1 psychopathic behavior.

Reward processing in antisocial and psychopathic children and adolescents

Brodmann, Mysid. Colured by was_a_bee. / Via Wikipedia

While fascinating, the previous section was a very narrow analysis of neurology and psychopathy. We move now to a journal which offers a comprehensive review of the abnormality or lack thereof in children and adolescents that demonstrated anti-social behavior of any kind, looking at the areas of reward and punishment processing in the brain. This journal did not perform an original experiment, but instead looked at some behavioral examinations and some fMRI studies to analyze this issue. A general trend was that children that displayed antisocial personality characteristics in general were surprisingly unaversive to punishment and continued reward seeking behavior even when the risk of punishment was very high. The youth that this seemed to be most pronounced in were those that displayed the most psychopathic tendencies, specifically those with generally low anxiety and other core features of the disorder. Somewhat unsurprisingly, one of the individual studies cited in this overview suggested that these behaviors were due to abnormal processing in brain areas associated with punishment (e.g. the amygdala). The same study suggested that there may also be increased activation in areas that process information for rewards, like the orbitofrontal cortex and striatum. Finally this study suggested that there may have been dysfunction in the higher order structures such as the orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex, which "play a role in outcome evaluation, representational value of reward/punishment and error monitoring" (Elliot et. al, 2000)(Amy L. Byrd, Rolf Loeber, Dustin A. Pardini).

Testosterone and psychopaths?

Chicago Business News / Via

To continue our exploration of the psychopath, we turn to a study that examined the effect of testosterone on empathetic processing. Researchers in this case wanted to look at the effect of testosterone on men’s socio-cognitive ability, as there had been suggestion that testosterone impairs empathetic behavior. This was tested by administering a number of self-report tests when the participants (male, college students) arrived for their first day of participation. These included a psychopathy self-assessment task, called the Self-Report Psychopathy-Short Form (SRP-SF), and a test known as Reading the Mind in the Eyes task (RMET). This test is administered by presenting people with regions of the eye and having them describe the emotion of the person in the picture; a higher score indicates better emotional understanding. The participants were then either given a testosterone dose in the form of Androgel or a placebo. The findings were that generally speaking, testosterone makes you less empathetic, which was represented in the lower scores on the RMET after application of testosterone. This was mostly the case in people that were had relatively low Factor 1 (“callous, unemotional, manipulative and deceitful facets of psychopathic traits”) psychopathic traits, as they tended to perform relatively well on the RMET in control groups and poorly with testosterone. This was not the case for people that scored higher in factor 1 psychopathic traits, who performed poorly across all categories, but also saw negligible difference between control groups and those that had testosterone applied. This suggests that the ability to detect emotionality through images is in some way impaired in psychopathic individuals demonstrating factor 1 traits (Carré, J. M. et al).

How about something as simple as recognizing facial features? How do psychopaths do there?

Yahoo / Via

In this study, participants were shown facial expressions through black and white images on a computer screen with a range of emotions. Response time was measured for identifying the emotion correctly. Some of the participants had been assessed as psychopaths and others were not, some were criminal psychopaths, some were non-criminal psychopaths, some were criminals deemed non-psychopathic, and some were normal people with neither psychopathy nor a criminal record, thus creating four groups. The Self-Report Psychopathy scale was used to assess individuals for their level of psychopathy. In doing this experiment, researchers found that between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, the recognition of fear and surprise was slightly deficient (i.e. they responded slower to these emotions than the non-psychopaths did). This suggests that some of the antisocial aspects of psychopathy like, for example criminality, are not necessary for the emotional recognition of a psychopath to be worse than a non-psychopath (Stanković, M. et al). Note that the faces shown above were not the ones used in this experiment.

Psychopaths show an augmented reaction in recognizing fear. How do they handle fear within themselves?

Nation of Change / Via

This study analyzed the lack of connection between emotional processing and cognitive processing. This may explain the lack of anticipation of punishment and lack of autonomic response to stimuli that seem threatening. In this study, participants were shown a neutral stimulus (images of faces, two men with mustaches and two men without mustaches) and then eventually using Pavlovian methods were made to associate the unconditioned stimulus, (which was uncomfortable air pressure applied to the body for a short duration of time) with these faces. In other words, some faces were always shown with the painful air pressure directly after, and the others were always shown with no painful air pressure afterwards. During thus whole process the brain was scanned, twice during each depiction of the conditioned and unconditioned stimulus. The researchers ran this experiment on 10 psychopaths and 10 non-psychopathic individuals. The fMRI results showed that the normal participants displayed activation in the “front limbic circuit involved in emotional learning … The brain circuit involves the left amygdala, left anteromedial OFC, anterior and posterior cingulate, right anterior and left middle insula, supplementary motor area, and secondary somatosensory cortex bilaterally.” The researchers also noted that more activation of these areas was shown when the conditioned stimulus was shown, the assumption being that since they were aware of the shock they were about to get, there was more significant neural reaction. The psychopathic individuals on the other hand showed no significant activation anywhere except for the left side of the amygdala. This suggests a deficiency in emotionally detached psychopathic individuals because of the nature of these areas, which are critical for emotional learning. These findings suggest that psychopaths simply do not really have the same fear reaction as normal individuals, potentially explaining some of their actions.

(Birbaumer N, Veit R, Lotze M, et al.)

If you take nothing else away from this, understand that psychopathy is more complex than blood lust and ax-murder.


Psychopathic "sliders," to use Kevin Dutton's words, like emotional detachment, callous behavior, impulsiveness, and general disregard for the rights of others can create horrible people. But, there are also some beneficial traits that we're glad surgeons, pilots, and bomb disposal experts, do have: A goal-oriented hyper focus with a willingness to take carefully calculated risks, remaining unaffected by the anxiety of a normal person. There are a number of neural mechanisms implicated in defining what a psychopath is, and hopefully you've learned a little bit about those associations. If you ever do encounter a psychopath, I hope you know a little bit more about what is going on in their head.

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