The Psychopath’s Mind

There is a concept that psychopaths have an ice cold, emotionless and hard persona. This is further supported by the stereotypes portrayed in popular movies.

This misconception, however, has been roundly criticized and at the forefront of this reassessment of the psychopathic mind is Norwegian University of Science and Technology researcher Aina Gullhaugen. She says, “A lot has happened over the past few years in psychiatry. But the discipline is still characterized by the attitude that a certain group of people is put together in such a way that they cannot be treated. There is little in the textbooks that say that these people have had a hard life. Until now, the focus has been directed at their anti-social behavior and lack of empathy. And the explanation for this is based on biology, instead of looking at what these people have experienced.”

In her experience as a psychologist, she found that there are discrepancies between the formal characteristics of psychopathy and her experiences in meeting and dealing with them. She theorized that when psychopathic criminals are hardened with traditional descriptions, there would be no vulnerable aspects or psychiatric disorders present in them. Thus, she reassessed the conclusions by changing the questions and reviewing the issues affecting psychopaths in a specific manner. This is what drove her to look into the psychopath’s mind.

Gullhaugen relates, “Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the most famous psychopath from the fictional world. His character in the books and movies is an excellent illustration of the cold mask some have thought that psychopaths have. Because it is a mask. Inside the head of the cannibal and serial killer have tenderness and pain, deep emotions and empathy.”

Thomas Harris, author of the book “Silence of the Lambs”, has admitted to have been based the Hannibal character on real life serial killers, after conducting research at the famed FBI Behavioral Science Unit. He developed the character through psychological damage incurred during Lecter’s childhood and this damage, according to Gullhaugen, is treatable.

Unfortunately, Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character. Gullhaugen focused her research in scientific literature and compared the Hannibal’s character and other offenders that high degree of psychopathy. She said, “I have gone through all the studies that have been published internationally over the past thirty years. I have also conducted a study of the psychological needs of Norwegian high-security and detention prisoners.”

Each of the studies conducted on these worst offenders indicate that their personal histories had physical and/or psychological abuse during their childhood years. The result of her efforts is all found in their article, “Looking for the Hannibal behind the Cannibal: Current Status of Case Research.”

She further added, “Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers and many of the descriptions made it clear that their ruthlessness was an attempt to address this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way.”

Her reassessment on how the world views psychopaths includes the methodologies used in the study of psychopaths. She said, “One way to examine emotional reactions is to show people pictures of different situations and then study the response. First the subject is often shown benign or neutral images, where you could be expected to be happy and relaxed. The physical reaction is a calm pulse, no sweat on the skin and the like. Then, suddenly there is a picture of a gun aimed at you. Most people would react to this right? But when psychopaths do no respond in the expected way, we conclude that they have a biological defect.”

In order to understand them, Gullhaugen proposes that individuals place themselves in the everyday life of psychopaths. These prevalent conditions include presence of criminal gangs or a difficult upbringing requiring desensitization and being strong as a requirement for daily survival. Maybe even the presence of guns and violence affect how one reacts to these kinds of stimuli, making a cold and emotionless reaction as the only rational and proper reaction to what they have grown accustomed to in their daily lives.

She thus declared, “I found that research on the psychopath’s emotions were incomplete. We need other tests and instruments to measure the feelings of these people, if there are feelings to measure.” In response, this is what exactly what she has done, adding on to the conventional survey methodologies which include a diagnostic interview and checklist of psychopathy and neuropsychological tests by using questionnaires that measure the individual’s interpersonal and emotional aspects. The results from the changes on the methodologies currently being used in the study of psychopathy would be changed and even improved with these efforts.

She relates, “There is no doubt that these are people with what we call relational needs. In the aforementioned case descriptions and my own study, it became clear that they both have the desire and the need for close relationships and that they care. At the same time, it is equally clear that they find it almost impossible to achieve and maintain such relationships.”

The study conducted by Gullhaugen demonstrates how the common survey methods would show individual indications on self-esteem, low depression and sense of general well being together with other methods that underscore how psychopaths suffer from underlying psychological pain. She asks rhetorically, “Isn’t it strange that someone who claims to have a great life can also answer that his or her life experiences have had a catastrophic or tremendous influence on him, or…?” She further explains that in some instances, the interviewees were individuals who didn’t even try to answer questions for fear that someone in prison would get access to information. She further added, “They may have a vested interest in appearing in a certain way. At the same time, they reveal a little bit of what is behind the mask when they answer the various questions in private, without any of us present.”

One of the main characteristics in the development of criminal psychopathy is their abnormal upbringing. The research revealed that psychopaths, as children would experience a parenting style that is very different from what is normal in the general population. Gullhaugen explains, “If you think of a scale of parental care that goes from nothing, the absence of care, all the way to the totally obsessive parent, most parents are in the middle. The same applies to how we feel about parental control. On a scale from ‘not caring’ all the way to ‘totally controlling’, most have parents who end up in the middle. But it is different for psychopaths. More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales. Either they lived in a situation where no one cared, where the child is subjected to total control and must be submissive or the child has been subjected to a neglectful parenting style.” This, she says, is an example of how the behavior of psychopaths is related to their personal life experiences. This provides for a better image of their individual feelings and this can be the starting point for their treatment.

Gullhaugen remarks, “The attachment patterns show that these children feel rejected. To a much greater degree than in the general population, their parents have an authoritarian style that compromises the child’s own will and independence. This is something that can cause the psychopath to later act ruthlessly to others, more or less consciously to get what he or she needs. This kind of relationship – or the total absence of a caregiver, pure neglect – is a part of the picture that can be drawn of the psychopath’s upbringing.”

This conclusion, however, cannot be fully proven, as the research has not investigated enough cases, though three other similar cases yielded the same tendencies.

She further adds, “It’s hard to say exactly what has created the psychopath’s rock hard mask. Bit as others have said before me: You do not get a personality disorder for your eighteenth birthday present. Have seen what children and young people with these kinds of characteristics experience and what it is like for them, through my work in child and adolescent psychiatry. Of course, not all reckless behavior is explained by a bad upbringing, but we do not inherit everything either. That is my main point.”

Gullhaugen highlights that biology and environment influence each other and personality disorders result from the sum totality of the factors that come from both biology and psychology. She explains, “The combination of the individual’s biological foundation, temperament, personality and vulnerability are important components. The individual’s relational vulnerability is the very essence of the personality disorder in my opinion. I see that these people are apprehensive when they meet me. I see a clear vulnerability in them through behavior that betrays insecurity and discomfort on the inside. And now we have research that confirms the hurt, suffering and nuances of their feelings.”

Her research yielded very few significant differences between normal people and those known psychopaths during her study of Norwegian prisoners. She further examined the individual’s ability to experience a wide range of emotions and found that psychopaths have experienced more negative emotions, such as irritability, hostility and shame. These individuals do not feel guilt and have more primitive emotions such as anger and anxiety. She relates, “This is what I found in the studies I conducted of strong psychopathic individuals who had committed serious criminal acts.” In the realm of positive feelings though, there was little or no difference and this suggested that the psychopath’s emotional life has more nuances than what was first considered.

To address these discrepancies, new and improved diagnostic manuals are currently being developed and will most likely be available in 2013. This development pleases Dr. Gullhaugen, as changes and improvements are being undertaken. The modifications include the use of tools that avoid strictly define individuals into categories but allow a more individualized evaluation allowing for descriptions from normal to diseased. She further places her belief that these modifications would paint a more accurate picture of the disorder.

She concludes, “When we recognize that the psychopath’s upbringing and relationships are important, and that the psychopath’s emotional life is more complex than what we have previously believed, we reduce the stigmatization of these individuals. Meanwhile, we also have a starting point for treatment. I don’t think we can get everyone back to a normal way of life. But it may be possible to help many to get on better with themselves and others. This in turn could reduce the risk of repeated serious crimes. Treatment is difficult, but possible.”

She also recommends that a full risk assessment should be undertaken before reaching a decision on whether or not a person can be returned into the general population. She says, “When you understand the problem better, it would be easier to predict all types of behavior. Our evaluations will be more extensive because of this and will give a more comprehensive and accurate picture.”

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