The Relationship Between Psychopathy and Criminal Behaviour

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About this sample


Words: 2255 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

Words: 2255|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

This essay shall focus solely on the relationship between psychopathy and criminal behaviour. To begin with, the essay shall offer a clear definition of psychopathy and its tendencies along with its prevalence and the way it is assessed. Next, the Attachment and Arousal theories of offending will be examined in relation to psychopathy to establish the link between the two and the need for future research shall be declared. Furthermore, the essay shall subsequently discuss the view that psychopathy reflects neurobiological roots and how this may link psychopathy to serious criminal behaviour. To conclude, issues and facts that have been analysed throughout the course of the essay will be reviewed, and the need to tackle the legal implications that arise from this research shall be expresse.

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The term psychopathy has been defined by Hare (2003) as ‘a syndrome characterised by a constellation of affective, interpersonal and behavioural features.’ This conveys that, interpersonally; psychopaths are arrogant, grandiose and manipulative, affectively; they lack empathy guilt and remorse and behaviourally; they are irresponsible, impulsive and thrill seekers (Hare, 1998). These features are associated with a deviant lifestyle which can lead to aggression and so hence, the condition is correlated with elevated levels of crime and has been linked to a heightened inclination for behaving violently. It is also positively associated with seriously violent crimes. Hare (1999) also found that not only do psychopaths commit twice as many violent crimes as offenders without psychopathy but they are five times more likely to recommit violent crimes and are responsible for more severe forms of violence. The general prevalence of psychopathy is 1.2%, around 0.3-0.7% in women and 1-2% in men (Patrick and Drislane, 2015). The most widely accepted tool for assessing whether or not an individual can be diagnosed as a psychopath is the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) which is completed on a basis of semi-structured interviews where there are 20 items and each is scored from 0 to 2 depending on the degree to which each is present in the person being assessed; the maximum score is 40. In the UK a diagnosis of psychopathy is given if the score is 25 or above whereas this score must be 30 in North America and 26 in mainland Europe (Hare, 2003). Before continuing, it is important to clarify that there is a difference between Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder. The clinical condition of psychopathy bears a strong overlap with (ASPD) but the two disorders are separable. ASPD is based predominantly on the behavioural aspects of an individual and this profile is characterised by a neglect of social norms and rules (antisocial behaviour, impulsivity and irresponsibility). With 60-70% of all male offenders being diagnosed with ASPD, it is a highly prevalent disorder. However, unlike individuals with a diagnosis of psychopathy, these individuals do not always show callous or unemotional traits. Furthermore, although many inmates who are given a diagnosis of psychopathy are also given a diagnosis of ASPD, only a third of those who are given a diagnosis of ASPD meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy (Coid, 1998). To explain and understand in depth these aspects of violent crime in psychopathy, there are possible theories behind serious and serial offending. 

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory of offending may be able to explain the relationship between psychopaths and violent criminal behaviour. Bowlby (1969) emphasised how important the attachment between a child and its primary caretaker (usually the mother) is. When a child has a physically and emotionally comfortable environment and is able to receive comfort and reassurance, they will develop a secure attachment and this optimal form of attachment allows a child to develop properly. He argued that if a child is to suffer a prolonged period of maternal deprivation early in life, they are not provided with an opportunity to learn how to be empathetic and therefore this increases a child’s risk for interpersonal difficulties. This is likely to have negative and irreversible effects which include becoming, a cold and affectionless character, a delinquent, and potentially unable to bond at all; all of which represent psychopathic traits. According to Bowlby there is a link between the absence of a mother figure, and affectionless psychopathy Fonagy et al. (1997). Waters and Noyes (1983) found that these types of individuals are aggressive towards objects firstly which then eventually shifts to violent acts towards people. The offences committed are emotionless linking the crime to psychopathy and as reported by Bowlby, violence and crime may be disorders of the attachment system. Supporting the notion of psychopathy being linked to criminal behaviour, a direct link between insecure attachment style and psychopathy was reported by Frodi, Dernevik, Sepa, Philipson and Bragesjö (2001) who found psychopaths who were incarcerated tend to show dismissive attachment styles. This is further supported by Fonagy (1999) who found that this dismissing style of attachment was more prevalent in populations of violent adult offenders who lacked empathy (a reliable predictor or psychopathy).

Another possible theory behind violent offending that links to psychopathy is the Biosocial Arousal Theory of offending. This theory addresses an individual’s level of arousal in conjunction with their social environment. Criminal offenders with low levels of arousal are less likely to establish appropriate ways of dealing with aggression and violence which causes them to be more prone to committing more violent crimes. A prime example for the theory is that of the thrill seeker; whose attributes are positively associated with psychopathy. Thrill seekers are risk takers who are biologically and environmentally prone to engage in criminal activity. It is an individual’s propensity be impulsive that is a distinguishing feature of the Biosocial Arousal Theory. In essence, impulsiveness is the inability to consider consequences for actions before engaging in the action. Lynam and Miller (2004) emphasised that impulsivity is a major component of violent crime, and therefore calls for the most research attention of all factors implicated in delinquency and crime and Derefinko, Lynam, Milich and Fillmore (2010) highlighted that impulsivity is linked to psychopathic behaviour. Thus, linking psychopathy and criminal behaviour. Though thrill seeking is reported to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors, it is believed that one of the primary causes for this behaviour is low platelet monoamine oxidase (MAO) activity in the brain. Katz (1988) argued that the brain structure plays an important role as everyone has a different brain and some have more nerve cells than others. 

Longato-Stadler and af Klinteberg (2002) conducted a study on male criminal offenders who had committed violent crimes and were diagnosed as psychopaths. Many of these offenders were found to have low levels of platelet MAO activity in their brain. Low MAO activity when combined with traits such as impulsiveness are highly correlated with violent criminal behaviour which indicates that this abnormality in MAO platelet levels may play a role in causing an individual to commit a crime. They also found though using EEG’s that these MAO platelet levels remain stable through an individual’s lifetime despite their current psychological state. This implies a genetic predisposition to abnormalities in MAO platelet levels which means an affected individual may be more likely to show psychopathic traits and commit criminal acts of violence. Since individuals with psychopathy are distinguishable in terms of brain structure to those with ASPD due to structural abnormalities in areas associated with empathy, it is considered by some to have neurobiological roots. It has been suggested that it may be these neurological differences in psychopaths that motivates them to commit such violent crimes. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that can act to reduce fear responses and enhances both prosocial and antisocial emotions depending on the situation an individual is in. Mitchell et al. (2013) found that urinary oxytocin levels were grossly elevated in convicted serious offenders who also scored highly on the PCL-R indicating that high levels of oxytocin may be naturally present in psychopaths compared to non-psychopaths and this reduced fear response may encourage the individuals’ impulsive nature leading them to commit a serious offence. 

Koenigs et al. (2012) conducted a study on prisoners’ brains which showed important differences between diagnosed psychopaths and non-psychopaths. It was found that psychopaths have reduced connections between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as empathy and guilt, and the amygdala which accounts for fear. It is the first study of its kind to show structural and functional differences in the brains of those diagnosed with psychopathy and these results can therefore help to explain the callous and impulsive crimes committed by psychopaths and solidify the relationship between psychopathy and criminal behaviour. A study conducted by Gregory et al. (2012) found that not only do psychopaths’ brains differ from healthy brains but they examined these differences within a population of violent offenders with ASPD. This population displayed significantly reduced grey matter volumes in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex compared to offenders with only ASPD and healthy non-offenders. This structural abnormality in a part of the brain that is associated with empathy and feelings of guilt is associated with impaired empathy, lack of a fear response and a lack of ‘self-conscious’ emotions (such as guilt). Therefore, it may have been this lack of empathy and guilt that aided the psychopaths with their violent criminal acts. However, it is not just a lack of empathy that makes someone a psychopath. 

Decety, Chen, Harenski and Kiehl (2013) used fMRI on the brains of 121 prisoners to better understand empathy dysfunction in psychopaths. Inmates were split into three groups; highly, moderately or weakly psychopathic. All inmates were shown images of physical pain and were then asked to imagine that same physical pain happening to themselves or others. when highly psychopathic participants were to imagine the pain happening to themselves they showed a pronounced empathic response in the right amygdala and the anterior insula among other regions which indicates that they are sensitive to pain. However, when imagining pain being inflicted on others, the same regions were inactive in the same participants. Instead, there was an increased response in the ventral striatum (a part of the brain that manages reward processing and decision-making) which indicated pleasure. This in turn may be a huge factor in attempting to understand why psychopaths commit violent crimes. As these individuals enjoy seeing others in pain and lack remorse this may be a good enough reason to them, to commit murder or rape. A study that contradicts this however was conducted by Geurts et al. (2016) who found that there was no difference in excitability of the ventral striatum (involved in subjective reward) in criminal and non-criminal psychopaths. However, they did find that it may be activity in an area of the brain known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex that can encourage antisocial decisions such as performing a criminal act. in highly psychopathic criminals there was an abnormally high connectivity between the ventral striatum and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. As this brain area manages impulse control, performance adjustment and self-inhibition and psychopaths are known to be incredibly impulsive and consider themselves as irresponsible, this notion is plausible. 

A very recent MRI study by Hosking et al. (2017) examined 49 inmates and found there was a weak connection between the ventral striatum (involved in evaluating subjective reward) and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (involved in envisioning future consequences of actions) in inmates with very high psychopathic tendencies. This indicated that psychopathic individuals are not able to think of the consequences for their antisocial criminal acts. This effect was so pronounced in fact, that researchers could guess accurately how often an inmate had been convicted of the crimes they had committed, relative to the strength of the connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, the stronger the connection was, the more their reward signals in their brain were dominating their decisions. 

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In conclusion, the relationship between psychopathy and criminal behaviour is significant. In terms of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory of offending, it can be said that insecure attachment styles such as dismissive are directly linked to criminal psychopaths. However, in terms of the Biosocial Arousal theory of offending, there has been no actual specific testing of the theory so it cannot fully explain why individuals differ in their forms of stimulation (deviant and delinquent compared to culturally accepted forms). Newcomb and McGee (1991) have also stated that further research into this study must be conducted with older participants as thrill seeking behaviour and impulsiveness-related deviance has not been explored into old age as of yet. The notion that neurobiological reasons cause psychopaths to commit violent crimes provides conflicting opinions. It is clear that psychopathic tendencies do not ultimately lead to criminal behaviour but it seems that the neurological abnormalities lead to the expression of psychopathy in the act of a criminal offence. The combination of the lack of empathy, an inability to assess future ramifications and exaggerated reward centres lead an individual to make a decision that regular individuals would analyse as psychopathic. Legal implications arise from this research which could be classed as controversial. If this horrifically violent criminal behaviour can be accounted for by a ‘dysfunction of the brain’ then it becomes very difficult to assert responsibility. For example, if a psychopath intended to and succeeded in, viciously murdering someone, they may be able escape accountability and prison time by arguing diminished responsibility just because their brain is wired a certain way. Aspinwall, Brown and Tabery (2012) found that more lenient sentences were given when a biomechanical cause of psychopathy is presented which means that the individual would be less impeachable. 

Works Cited

  1. Coid, J. W. (1998). Assessment and measurement of personality disorder. Psychiatry, 1(7), 25-28.
  2. Fonagy, P. (1999). Psychoanalysis and psychopathy. International journal of psycho-analysis, 80(5), 1075-1092.
  3. Frodi, A., Dernevik, M., Sepa, A., Philipson, J., & Bragesjö, M. (2001). Attachment styles in patients with anxiety disorders, patients with personality disorders, and normal controls. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 189(5), 321-328.
  4. Hare, R. D. (1998). Psychopathy, affect, and behaviour. In Handbook of psychopathy (pp. 133-155). Wiley.
  5. Hare, R. D. (1999). Psychopathy as a risk factor for violence. Psychiatric Quarterly, 70(3), 181-197.
  6. Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the revised psychopathy checklist (2nd ed.). Multi-Health Systems.
  7. Patrick, C. J., & Drislane, L. E. (2015). Triarchic model of psychopathy: Origins, operationalizations, and observed linkages with personality and general psychopathology. Journal of Personality, 83(6), 627-643.
  8. Reidy, D. E., Shelley-Tremblay, J. F., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011). Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and somatic complaints among undergraduates. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33(4), 524-532.
  9. Serin, R. C. (1991). Psychopathy and violence in criminals. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 6(4), 423-431.
  10. Wilson, R. J., & Seaman, C. A. (2010). The role of psychopathy in predicting the criminal behavior of women: A prospective study. Law and Human Behavior, 34(2), 149-157.
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The Relationship Between Psychopathy And Criminal Behaviour. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from
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