Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Psychopaths

What makes someone go off the deep end? What is going on in the mind of a serial killer? Let's dig into the psychology of a psychopath.

Science of People

Master Manipulators. Serial Killers. Psychopaths.

What makes someone go off the deep end? What is going on in the mind of a serial killer? Are master manipulators crazy?

In this post I want to answer all of these questions and more. We are going to dig into the psychology of psychopaths.

Before we get too far into the science, the term ‘psychopath’ should not be used lightly.

What is a Psychopath?

According to researchers, psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the general population and as much as 25 percent of male offenders in federal correctional settings.

The Mayo Clinic describes psychopathy as a personality disorder where, the person “typically has no regard for right and wrong. They may often violate the law and the rights of others.” Often, psychopaths have little empathy, antisocial behavior and lack inhibitions.

The Science of Psychopaths

A new study conducted by Austrian researchers Sagioglou and Greitemeyer found certain personality traits linked to liking bitter tasting food and drinks.

500 participants were shown a list of foods from all across the taste spectrum–salty, sour, bitter, sweet — and were instructed to rate how much they liked the foods. Once submitted, the men and women each took a personality test measuring:

The results of the study revealed that having a preference for bitter tastes is linked to having a “dark personality” or associated with psychopathy, narcissism and everyday sadism. People who dislike bitter tastes, however, were found to be more agreeable, sympathetic and cooperative.

Dark Personalities

The researchers theorized that the reason why people with dark personalities have a predilection for bitter tastes was because they enjoy sensation-seeking and super-tasting.

Sensation-seeking: a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings that are “varied, novel, complex and intense”, and by the readiness to “take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”

People with darker personalities have a preference for the ups and downs of these intense experiences. Those who enjoy caffeine and spicy foods have already been positively correlated with sensation-seeking. A mild, normal-person sensation seeking experience would be like riding a rollercoaster, for example.

Super-tasting: having a high sensitivity to bitter compounds.

Super-tasting has previously been linked to increased emotionality in humans, another characteristic typical of psychopaths. They prefer to eat foods that are bitter. We can speculate that psychopaths would enjoy bitter foods because, in the wild, bitter foods are a warning sign of being poisonous, so they might get a thrill from eating them (again, sensation-seeking behavior).

Normal-behaving people, or “non-tasters”, would find bitter foods unappealing–they are also reported to be more relaxed and calm.

With all this in mind, the researchers’ results indicated that people who prefer bitter taste experiences were linked to having more hostile thoughts and behaviors. These are people who checked “yes” next to “given enough provocation, I may hit someone” and “I enjoy tormenting people.”

In other words, keep a lookout for people who order black coffee at your local coffee shop, or enjoy gin and tonics at the bar–it may tell you a key insight into their true personality.

Psychopathic Tendencies

This is very disturbing footage of a psychopathic child from the 1990 documentary Child of Rage:

Beth shows what are called ‘psychopathic tendencies,’ which psychologists believe is due to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents. Beth is NOT a psychopath; after therapy and strong, loving relationships, Beth is now a fully functioning adult. Luckily, her psychopathic tendencies never grew into true psychopathy.

Psychopathic researchers found that psychopaths often have these common traits:

  • Lack of empathy, guilt, conscience or remorse
  • Shallow experiences of feelings or emotions
  • Impulsivity and a weak ability to defer gratification and control behavior
  • Superficial charm and glibness
  • Irresponsibility and a failure to accept responsibility for their actions
  • A grandiose sense of their own worth

The Warning Signs of Psychopathy

Psychopaths are typically highly impulsive and highly emotional. They are at high risk of substance abuse and incarceration. According to Joseph Newman at the University of Wisconsin, “Criminal psychopaths are about three times more likely to commit violence than other offenders and about two-and-a-half times more likely to commit other antisocial acts such as lying and sexual exploitation.” They are very difficult to have relationships with because they lack social kindness and empathy. Researchers believe that psychopathy has roots in early childhood. Children who show an early lack of fear, indifference towards peers and appear callous in the face of emotion are at the greatest risk.

The Brain of a Psychopath 

Researchers believe that psychopaths have different brain activity patterns than non-psychopaths. Specifically, less exhibit less activity in the amygdala where fear is processed and in the orbital frontal cortex or regions where decision making happens. One study found that people with antisocial personality disorder (often linked with psychopathic behavior) have an average of 18% less volume in the brain’s frontal gyrus.

In another study from the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers compared 27 psychopaths to 32 non-psychopaths and found the psychopaths had less volume in their amygdala–where empathy, fear processing and emotional regulation happens. This study also found that psychopaths have less activity in the area of the brain that processes empathy. 

This suggests that there is a relationship between how the brain functions and the behavior of a psychopath.

Were Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein Psychopaths?

The CIA has released all kinds of interesting personality reports of historical figures. Read some of the findings below. See any similarities?

Adolf Hitler:

Henry A. Murray was tasked with putting together a personality evaluation of Adolf Hitler in 1943. The report concludes that Hitler was a masochist and a suicidal neurotic narcissist.

Fidel Castro:

In 1961, the CIA’s psychiatric staff put together a report stating Fidel Castro was “so highly neurotic and unstable a personality as to be quite vulnerable to certain kinds of psychological pressure. The outstanding neurotic elements in his personality are his hunger for power and his need for the recognition and adulation of the masses.”

Saddam Hussein:

Jerrold Post, the founder of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, found that Saddam’s pursuit of power is tied with messianic dreams and “there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction…While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation.”

We can’t say conclusively if Hitler, Castro or Hussein were ‘psychopaths’ but we can spot some of their tendencies.

Can Psychopaths be Cured?

There is no ‘cure’ for psychopaths, but the earlier psychopathic tendencies are spotted, the more help can be given. It is incredibly difficult to teach empathy, but loving relationships and therapy can help reengage healthy, social behaviors. The discussion on treating psychopaths is not that different from the conversation about lowering recidivism and helping criminal rehabilitation.

Since researchers estimate that 25% of criminals in state facilities show psychopathic tendencies, we know that the treatment could be one in the same. One model that has had some success is called the Decompression Model. This was developed by staff at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) and is based on the fact that psychopaths don’t think about or respond to punishment the same way as non-psychopaths (due to brain differences). In this way, punishment doesn’t discourage bad behavior–in fact, criminal psychopaths are six times more likely than other criminals to commit new crimes following release from prison. 

The Decompression Model is all about positive reinforcement. Whenever good behavior is spotted, staff members at the MJTC immediately offer some kind of reward. This is because even though psychopathic brains don’t respond to punishment, they do respond to rewards. This increases and reinforces learning a new behavior.

Results: “Over 300 subjects who were treated at MJTC were matched with similar subjects not treated at MJTC and followed over a 5 year period. 98% of the non-MJTC youth were arrested again within four years, while only 64% of MJTC youth were. This is a 34 percent reduction in recidivism!

MJTC youth were 50% less likely to commit a violent crime, and while non-MJTC youth killed 16 people after their release, MJTC youth didn’t commit a single homicide! Furthermore, detailed economic analysis revealed that “for every $10,000 spent at MJTC, the state of Wisconsin saved $70,000 by reducing the future costs of incarceration.”

The BIG Take-Away

Maybe there is someone in your life who you are thinking shows psychopathic tendencies. If so, this last study with MJTC criminal youth is crucial for you.

When dealing with psychopaths, punishments do not work.

Trying to give consequences, punish or shame for behavior will only make them worse–remember, their brain doesn’t respond to punishment and fear in the same way as ours. Positive reinforcement is the kindest and most effective thing you can do. Most importantly, I think this is a better way to interact in general. Always look for good behavior to reward instead of bad behavior to punish.

Always reward the good, and you will see more of it.