Vol. 5, No. 2, 1999 Page 3&6

Testing theories about psychopathy’s roots

The most dangerous criminals are psychopaths, described by researcher Robert Hare as “predators [whose] game is to find and exploit prey.” Psychopathic criminals, Hare says, are grandiose, egocentric, manipulative, dominant, cold-hearted, conscienceless, and impulsive. He estimates that 15 to 20 percent of persistent criminals are psychopaths, and says that “a psychopath released from prison is five or six times more likely than other offenders to commit another offense and perhaps six or seven times more e likely to commit a violent offense.”

Much recent research has focused on the cognitive deficits of psychopaths, with two theories currently prevailing. One is the “violence inhibition mechanism” model, which suggests that psychopaths lack a normal response to distress cues from other people. . A second model, the “response modulation” hypothesis, postulates that psychopaths have difficulty shifting their attention from the performance of a behavior to an evaluation of its consequences. “This model,” L. Fisher and R. J. R. Blair say, “specific cally predicts that individuals with psychopathy will be more likely than non-psychopathic individuals to persist in a previously rewarded response, even if the rate of punishment for this response increases.” New research by Fisher and Blair suggests tha at both theories are true-and that deficits in response modulation and violence inhibition may stem from the same neurological roots.

Fisher and Blair studied 39 boys between the ages of 9 and 16, all attending a special school for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Subjects took a verbal IQ test and were administered the Psychopathy Screening Device, a rating scale for ps sychopathic behavior in children. In addition, the children were given two tests:

The researchers found that “there was a direct relationship between performance on the card-playing task and performance on the moral/conventional distinction task,” and that poor scores on both tests were linked to higher scores of psychopathology. These e associations remained significant when the researchers controlled for subjects’ mental age. These findings suggest, the researchers say, that “performance on both tasks is mediated by the same cognitive system and/or the same neural substrate”-perhaps t the orbito-frontal cortex and/or amygdala.


“Cognitive impairment and its relationship to psychopathic tendencies in children with emotional and behavioral difficulties,” L. Fisher and R. J. R. Blair, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6, December 1998, pp. 511-520. Address n not listed.

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