Crime Research

Investigating The Psychopathic Brain: The Pathways To Violence

The brain of a psychopath
Psychopaths have always been of particular interest within studies of human behaviour and criminal justice. Not only are they much more likely to commit violent crimes compared to non-psychopaths but they are incredibly resistant to rehabilitation techniques. It is hard to rehabilitate an individual through encouraging understanding of why their behaviour is wrong and implement strategies for them to change, when these individuals are incapable of feeling their actions are wrong, or have any remorse for them.  Furthermore, psychopathic individuals are cunning, manipulative and exceptionally good at reading people and situations, mimicking the emotions and feelings that are expected of them.  These skills have seen many gain themselves early release from incarceration only for them to go right out and commit the same crimes again and again.

Identifying The Psychopath

Being a ‘psychopath’ is not a mental health condition nor is it an official diagnosis; it is a type of personality, one which is likely also to be labelled ‘anti-social’. Within criminal behaviour psychopaths feature highly especially in very serious crime such as murder and serial murder.  In fact almost all serial killers are psychopaths.

When these personalities have been examined previously their inability to feel the same range of emotions as the result of us has been put forward as the main reason why they are able commit some horrendous and violent acts against others, and then go about their lives with no concern or outward indication that would alert anyone around them of what they had just done.

We commonly separate ourselves from psychopaths in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality under the assurance that they are rare specimens and not people we are likely to encounter in everyday life. This assurance and assumption is entirely wrong.

Psychopaths make up around 1% of our general population, although few become the serial killer figure we associate with their label. In fact research suggests you will find just as many psychopaths in high-flying corporate settings as you will inside a prison population, up to 21% to be precise.

The lack of emotional attachment, little concern or fear of other people’s feelings and a strong belief in themselves has pushed psychopathic personalities to do very well in the workplace.  They often climb the ladder of corporate success being able to think fast, make harsh decisions and focus entirely on business cutting out the personal.  Similar to the true narcissist, these are qualities attractive to employers who are looking for a focused, driven and ruthless leader. How long such individuals can maintain their success however, without stepping to far or straying into illegal activities is another matter but take a look within politics and corporate business and you’ll find psychopaths occupying some important positions.

“Being a psychopath might predispose someone to short-term success. They tend to be charming and flamboyant, which makes it easier to be successful in the short-run, although that may be purchased at expense of long-term failure.”

In a research study by Dirk Geurts and colleagues from Radboud University in the Netherlands, reward expectation in psychopathic criminals with high impulsive and anti-social traits was explored in detail. They examined individuals with psychopathy using fMRI brain imaging and highlighted that the reward networks of psychopath’s brains appears to be more active during decision making processes than those of non-psychopath brains.

FMRI is a modern brain imaging technique that when used for research allows scientists to view the changes in blood oxygenation in the brain. Functional MRI differs from standard MRI as scientists ask subjects to perform a task while their brain is being scanned. To ‘function’ as it were, to allow their brain response when carrying out the task, which areas are involved in that response and which are communicating with each other, to be viewed through how blood flows around the brain.

In order for brain regions to communicate with each other, neurons use oxygen when they are active and it is in this way that the different areas of the brain using oxygen at different times can be mapped.

“The regions of the brain that are engaged with processing the given stimuli are mapped, and brains faced with the stimuli are compared with brains at a resting state.”

Published in 2016 in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Geurts said individuals with psychopathic traits may have “an excessively sensitive reward centre” and it may be a “strong focus on reward and a lack of self-control” which promotes a stronger tendency for these individuals to commit crime.

The Emotional Responses of Psychopaths

Psychopaths have already been shown to display different emotional responses or rather, muted or non-existent emotional responses compared to non-psychopaths when shown distressing images and their brain activity is monitored using fMRI.

Their brain patterns in response to stimuli which would be expected to cause upset or stress show for psychopaths this does not happen. This can go some way to explain how they are often able to carry out brutal and violent acts on others and not appear affected by their actions or the pain they are causing.

Dr Adrian Raine has conducted studies with prison populations using PET imaging to take a look at the functioning brains of convicted killers considered to be psychopaths in direct comparison to the brains of non-criminals and non-psychopaths.  He found clear patterns of difference within the brains of psychopathic killers, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, the area responsible for final decision making and regulation of our behaviour.

Psychopathy and Criminal Violent Behaviour

Dr Scott Bonn on Psychology Today highlights the powerful relationship between psychopathy and criminal behaviour and violence, stating that in 2012 the FBI reported of 15-20% of the prisoners in the US were psychopaths. They are organized criminals, they take their time to plan and ponder the best way to achieve their aim and when it comes to murder that aim will most likely involve power and control. “Violent offenders who are psychopaths are able to assault, rape or murder without concern for legal, moral or social consequences”, he points out. So what is it that makes a psychopath able to be so unaffected and unconcerned about the consequences to their brutal and selfish acts?

Most research to date has focused on the psychopathic brain’s ability to feel little emotion.  A person with full blown psychopathy does not relate to others, cannot empathize with them and does not have any remorse in causing them harm as a result. And while this remains true and a significant factor within their behaviour, suggestions are now being made through new research that the decision making process may be a prime cause for their behaviour and why consequences to their actions are given so little weight, even when those consequences could mean a life behind bars or being put to death for their crimes.

A greater understanding of the psychopathic brain in its functioning and where it may be different to the non-psychopathic brain could be the key to intervention before such violent behaviour takes hold.

Psychopath’s Brains May Be Wired Differently

A new research study recently published in the journal Neuron has challenged the focus on psychopaths’ behaviours being due to their entire lack of empathy and emotion, and switched it towards the actual cognitive processes of those with psychopathy in how they make decisions on what actions they will or will not take.

Associate Professor of Psychology Josh Buckholtz has led the study examining the brains of 50 prison inmates.  The idea behind the research was to explore why those with psychopathic personalities often made decisions that led them into violence and anti-social behaviour, compared with those who do not display this type of personality. The results of the study highlight, according to Buckholtz “….not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make.” The paper was published in July 2017 by Professor Buckholtz from Harvard University with the underlying message that a psychopath’s brain may simply be wired differently.

In this study, Buckholtz explains “we are able to look at brain based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.”

In order to scan the brains of psychopathic individuals, Buckholtz and his colleagues took the scanning technology inside prisons and to his subjects.  The equipment they used functioned as a mobile scanner which they could take inside prisons, set up and calibrate and then use to obtain brain scans from as many prisoners as time and circumstances would allow while they were there.  This offered a unique opportunity to take advanced brain imaging technology to a group of individuals who outside of the prison walls would not be grouped together and not be available to study in this way.

The study team went into two medium-security prisons in Wisconsin with their equipment. Alongside Professor Buckholtz were researchers from the University of Wisconsin and The University of New Mexico.

Inmates’ brains were scanned using the fMRI scanner as they carried out a ‘delayed gratification test’. While the mobile scanner was running, inmates were presented with two options.  One would provide them with a smaller sum of money but they would receive this money immediately, and the second option would give them a larger amount of money but they would have to wait before they would receive it.  The test was designed to examine how impulsive the inmates were but also through the scanner imaging their brain while they were making these decisions, see which brain regions were involved during this cognitive decision process.

The results showed that for inmates who were classed as psychopaths (i.e. they scored highly on Hare’s Psychopath Scale) they displayed more activity in the ventral striatum area of the brain, compared to non-psychopaths.  Areas of the brain involved in decision making include regions of the prefrontal cortex which sits at the front of the brain just behind the forehead, and Buckholtz explained, “we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”

When faced with a decision, people weigh up what would be the best option for them which includes what would happen if they went with option A instead of option B.  This is an automatic process inside the brain where rewards are weighed against consequences and this process guides our ultimate decision making.

The ventral medial prefrontal cortex, says Buckholtz, is significant because it is the area of the brain that visualizes consequences, so when we are making a decision on whether to do something, it is this area which will consider what the future consequences of that action will be.  Buckholtz highlights that the outcome of this process directly impacts how the striatum area then responds to rewards.  The strength of this response is affected depending on the consideration of the consequences.  So in psychopaths, if this chain of process within the brain is not as strong, the value of immediate rewards may be “dramatically over-represented”.

If for example the decision being made is whether or not to commit a crime, this cognitive assessment process would include consideration of the potential consequences of carrying out the crime, i.e. getting caught, going to prison, pain may inflict on the victim of the crime etc.  If these consequences outweigh the immediate benefit of committing the crime such as obtaining money or achieving revenge, the decision most likely would be not to do it.  If however, it is felt the benefits outweigh the consequences, a person will most likely carry out the crime.

In this research, scientists are indicating that the assessment process for those who rate highly on the psychopath scale is different to how it works for the rest of us.  The communication networks between the area of the brain which considers future consequences and the area of the brain that makes the final decision and acts on it, behave differently.  The immediate benefit or value of the decision can seem much more attractive despite the consequences. This means for psychopaths, the scale is tipped in the favour of the benefit of the decision rather than the consequences.

This research from Harvard University adds to the increasing science we are witnessing regarding psychopathic brains and how they may operate, especially when considering why such individuals can display more violence than those who are not considered to be psychopathic. Each viable study carried out in this field can provide more potential answers to some of the burning questions we all have around psychopaths. From this current study, it seems that psychopath’s behaviours may be dominated by not only their lack of emotions but a disposition to over-value the rewards they perceive from decisions that may lead them into violence.

Cover image credit –

Disrupted Prefrontal Regulation of Striatal Subjective Value Signals in Psychopathy

Jay G. Hosking, Erik K. Kastman, Hayley M. Dorfman, Gregory R. Samanez-Larkin, Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Kent A. Kiehl, Joseph P. Newman and Joshua W. Buckholtz

Psychopathy is a personality disorder with strong links to criminal behavior. While research on psychopathy has focused largely on socio-affective dysfunction, recent data suggest that aberrant decision making may also play an important role. Yet, the circuit-level mechanisms underlying maladaptive decision making in psychopathy remain unclear. Here, we used a multi-modality functional imaging approach to identify these mechanisms in a population of adult male incarcerated offenders. Psychopathy was associated with stronger subjective value-related activity within the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) during inter-temporal choice and with weaker intrinsic functional connectivity between NAcc and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). NAcc-vmPFC connectivity strength was negatively correlated with NAcc subjective value-related activity; however, this putative regulatory pattern was abolished as psychopathy severity increased. Finally, weaker cortico-striatal regulation predicted more frequent criminal convictions. These data suggest that cortico-striatal circuit dysregulation drives maladaptive decision making in psychopathy, supporting the notion that reward system dysfunction comprises an important neurobiological risk factor.

Access the full paper

Further References:

  1. Agerholm, H (2016) 1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths according to a new study – here’s why, Business Insider.
  2. Bonn, S. (2016) Understanding Psychopathic Criminals, Wicked Deeds, Psychology Today.
  3. Geurts, D. E. M., von Borries, K., Volman, I., Bulten, B. H., Cools, R., & Verkes, R.-J. (2016). Neural connectivity during reward expectation dissociates psychopathic criminals from non-criminal individuals with high impulsive/antisocial psychopathic traits. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(8), 1326–1334.
  4. Harvard University. (2017, July 5). Probing psychopathic brains: Study shows psychopathic brains are wired in a way that can lead to dangerous and violent actions. ScienceDaily.
  5. Raine, A (1999) Murderous Minds: Can We See the Mark of Cain? The Dana Foundation.
  6. Reuell, P (2017) When brains overvalue immediate rewards, Harvard Gazette.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2017, Sept 30) Investigating The Psychopathic Brain: The Pathways To Violence. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from

Related Books:

  • The Brain Defense Murder in Manhattan and the dawn of neuroscience in America’s courtrooms has been called “the best kind of nonfiction” by Michael Connelly, this riveting new book combines true crime, brain science, and courtroom drama.

  • Without Conscience A compelling portrait based on 25 years of distinguished scientific research, Dr. Robert D. Hare vividly describes a world of con artists, hustlers, rapists, and other predators who charm, lie, and manipulate their way through life.

  • The Psychopath Inside Neuroscientist Jim Fallon’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain, is compelling and essential reading for understanding the underpinnings of psychopathy.

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