The term ‘psychopath’ is often used by the tabloid press. In fact, the diagnosis of ‘psychopath’ is no longer given – instead, the term ‘anti-social personality disorder’ is generally used.
When the word ‘psychopath’ is employed by the press, it tends to be used for its ‘sensational’ value to refer to a cold-blooded killer who may (or may not) have a diagnosis of mental illness.
It is very important to point out, however, that it is extremely rare for a person who is suffering from mental illness to commit a murder; someone suffering from very acute paranoid schizophrenia may have a delusional belief that others are a great danger to him/her (this might involve, say, terrifying hallucinations) and kill in response to that – I repeat, though, such events are very rare indeed: mentally ill people are far more likely to be a threat to themselves than to others (e.g. through self-harming, substance abuse or suicidal behaviours).
The word psychopath actually derives from Greek:
psych = mind
pathos = suffering
Someone who is a ‘psychopath’ (i.e. has been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder) needs to fulfil the following criteria:
– inability to feel guilt or remorse
– lack of empathy
– shallow emotions
– inability to learn from experience in relation to dysfunctional behaviour
Often, psychopaths will possess considerable charisma, intelligence and charm; however, they will also be dishonest, manipulative and bullying, prepared to employ violence in order to achieve their aims.
According to Professor Stephen Scott of the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, signs that a child may be at risk of developing psychopathy as an adult include:
- lack of emotion
- inability to experience feelings of guilt
- superficial charm
- a very ‘short fuse’ and explosive temper
- intense fascination with inanimate objects such as certain technological devices
- are not deterred from behaving in anti-social ways by punishment (may display indifference to being punished)
- impaired activity of the amygdala (a part of the brain that processes emotions and is known to be susceptible to damage as a result of severe and protracted childhood trauma) leading to a lack of emotional response to events/occurrences (such as the suffering of others) that non-psychopaths would find emotionally disturbing and upsetting. This idea is supported by post-mortem studies:
Post-mortem studies have revealed that they frequently have underdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for the governing of emotions (including the amygdala, as highlighted by Professor Scott); IT APPEARS THAT THE SEVERE MALTREATMENT THAT THEY RECEIVED AS CHILDREN IS THE UNDERLYING CAUSE OF THE PHYSICAL UNDERDEVELOPMENT OF THESE VITAL BRAIN REGIONS. It is thought that these brain abnormalities lead not only to a blunting of the individual’s emotions but also to a propensity in the individual to SEEK OUT RISK, DANGER and similar STIMULATION (including violence).
Damage To Prefrontal Cortex:
The healthy development of a region of the brain called the PREFRONTAL CORTEX depends, to a large degree, upon the child experiencing warm, loving, affectionate relationships as he grows up. Being deprived of this can potentially damage the development of this brain region(essentially, without these positive relationships, the brain does not produce enough OPIATES which are needed for the proper development of the particular brain area).
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-control, empathy and the regulation of strong emotions such as anger.
As ‘psychopaths’ reach middle-age, fewer and fewer of them remain at large in society due to the fact that by this time they are normally incarcerated or dead from causes such as suicide, drug overdose or violent incidents (possibly by provoking a ‘fellow psychopath’ to murder them). However, it has also been suggested that some possess the skills necessary to integrate themselves into society (mainly by having decision-making skills which enable this and operating in a context suited to their abilities, for example where cold judgment and ruthlessness are an advantage) and become very, even exceptionally, successful; perhaps it comes as little surprise, then, that they are thought to tend to be statistically over-represented in, for example, politics and in CEO roles.
WHAT KINDS OF CHILDHOODS HAVE ADULT ‘PSYCHOPATHS’ HAD?
Research shows that ‘psychopaths’ tend to be a product of ENVIRONMENT rather than nature – i.e. they are MADE rather than born. They also tend to have suffered horrendous childhoods either at the hands of their own parent/s or those who were supposed to have been caring for them – perhaps suffering extreme violence or neglect.
IS THE PSYCHOPATHY TREATABLE?
Whilst there are those who consider the condition to be untreatable, many others, who are professionally involved in its study, are more optimistic. Indeed, some treatment communities have been set up to help those affected by the condition take responsibility for their actions and face up to the harm they have caused. Research is ongoing in order to assess to what degree intervention by mental health services can be effective.
When Ten Year Olds Turn Killers – The Case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
The case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson is well known, so it is not necessary to go into details about it here. Suffice it to say, they were both, at the age of ten, found guilty of the profoundly disturbing crime of abducting and murdering the two-year-old James Bulger.
Surprisingly, there seems to have been little media interest in examining the early life experiences of either of the two boys who were prosecuted for the crime, so, in this article, I will look at the environments in which they grew up in order to establish if it is possible to find some clues as to what caused their deeply aberrant behaviour.
Clearly, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had profoundly intense pent-up anger which they displaced, in a most shocking way, onto the toddler, James Bulger, whom they abducted. But from where did this anger originate? In order to answer this question, it seems common sense to look at their respective home backgrounds.
Robert Thompson had six siblings and it has been written that both he and they were neglected. Furthermore, Thompson’s father left the family home when the young boy was just five years old; and this, it seemed, exacerbated his mother’s drinking problem. At one point, too, she attempted to commit suicide.
On top of this, Thompson’s father was violent, and, before he left his family, had frequently behaved in a threatening and intimidating way towards his son (Robert), and had also physically punished him on regular occasions.
It appears that due to this extremely stressful environment, all the children in the family became disturbed, taking out their anguish on one another – they would, for example, threaten one another with knives.
Indeed, the family was so disrupted, chaotic and unhappy that one child asked to be taken into care. When he later had to come back to the family home, such was his distress that he attempted suicide.
One point, in particular, I think, goes to show the extreme extent to which Robert’s mother neglected him: she was rarely with him to provide emotional support on the many days that it was necessary for him to attend court.
Jon Venable’s family, too, was deeply unhappy and unstable – indeed, this state of affairs had led his parents to divorce. His mother, it seems, was something of a narcissist and was, apparently, far more concerned about her love-life (she had a constant stream of boyfriends) than she was with looking after Jon. She also suffered from mental health problems (predominantly depression) and, like the mother of Robert, had attempted to commit suicide.
Venables was frightened of his mother as she could behave menacingly towards him – he would, for example, take refuge by hiding underneath chairs. More worrying still, he would cut himself with knives.
Together, Venables and Thompson would be absent from school without permission. They would shop-lift and become involved in violent incidents. They had also displayed cruelty towards animals – shooting pigeons with air rifles and tying rabbits to railway lines so that they were run over by the trains. Such cruelty towards animals is known to be one of the risk factors which predict the development of anti-social personality disorder (sometimes referred to as psychopathy) in adult life.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.