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The problem with psychopaths: a fearful face doesn’t deter them

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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fearful faceBuon giorno from Florence, where I’m presently under the Tuscan sun—sizzling like bacon, I should add—as a hive of awestruck, pale-legged American tourists wearing Nikes, cargo shorts and Polo shirts descend with digital cameras at the ready on the Renaissance city’s signature Duomo in the Piazza Della Signoria. As for me, I’m at an overpriced cafe with a “Coca-Cola Light” in my hand; in the square before me, a bedraggled carriage horse has its great tethered head to the ground, warily inspecting some lime-green gelato spilled moments ago on the cobblestones by a fussy little Australian boy. If I were of a literary rather than a scientific bent, I would find these scenes inspiring; Dante himself couldn’t imagine a stranger hell than his beloved Florence stuffed with such exotic modern characters, pigeons whiffling overhead. Instead, I’m gazing out across this piazza and wondering how many psychopaths there are milling about out there, the cleverest of whom often go unnoticed.

What prompts this strange thought is my earlier visit to a lesser-known tourist attraction here in Florence called “The Museum of Serial Killers.” After all, once one is finished marveling over masterpieces like Michaelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the famed Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Uffizi, it’s easy to get fatigued by all the religious iconography in this city. I found myself standing before fantastic, gilded works by the Italian masters and muttering, “Just another Jesus,” and “Oh, it’s only Mary again.” (What a pity so many artists of that age concentrated their talents so heavily on so few subjects.) So, though it’s sensational, The Museum of Serial Killers offers respite from these more venerable Florentine sites. Unfortunately, it’s also as tacky inside as its name on the marquee promises, mostly waxworks of notorious psychopaths such as the 15th century French sadist Gilles de Rais, a smiling and unctuous Ted Bundy leaning against a fancy sports car, even a disturbingly realistic reconstruction of John Wayne Gacy’s suburban living room—complete with decomposing corpses beneath the floorboards.

I confess, rather sheepishly, that the subject of serial killers has always held a certain dark allure for me. But I know I’m not alone. One person who shares my scholarly interest in serial killers, psychopaths and their unsettling ilk is an ironically personable young psychologist from Georgetown University named Abigail Marsh. I met Marsh last July at a very different latitude— on New Hampshire’s Squam Lake just a stone’s throw away from where the movie O n Golden Pond (1981) was filmed—during a Dartmouth-sponsored event called “Perceiving Other Minds.” She confided in me that her research interests may have something to do with the fact that she grew up in Tacoma, not far from Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer and the D.C. Sniper.

In her groundbreaking work funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Marsh and her colleagues have been exploring how “callous and unemotional” individuals tend to show a very specific cognitive deficit: namely, they are especially poor at recognizing, processing and responding normally to the facial expression of fear on other people’s faces (a “normal” response being ceasing an assault on the frightened person or offering aid). Curiously, their trouble in this area is not due to a problem with facial expressions in general—they do perfectly well deciphering the look of disgust, anger, happiness and so on on other people’s faces. In contrast, autistics have trouble with pretty much all facial expressions of emotion, suggesting that, for them, this generalized difficulty is meaningfully linked to their broad social disfunction. Rather, it’s only the look of fear that puzzles diagnosably antisocial people (and to a somewhat lesser extent, sadness). Thus, in a converted boathouse on Squam Lake in early July, Marsh discussed several key studies, all indicating a fear-specific facial processing deficiency in children and adults with persistent antisocial behavioral tendencies. That is to say, “behavior that violates the rights and welfare of others or breaks important normative rules.”

To begin with, Marsh noted, ethologists have long-argued that the fear display evolved in humans and other animals as a “distress cue” signaling the absence or reduced threat of harm in the other party. In many respects, it is a more acute distress cue than sadness because it usually signals a more urgent need. Marsh believes it’s no accident that the expression of the human fear display designedly contorts the person’s face in a manner that gives it a particularly “neotonous” (babyish) appearance. Just as the cute, bubbly faces of infants and toddlers convey complete innocuousness and tend to emotionally disarm us of any hostile feelings toward them or elicit caregiving responses, the fear facial expression in adults possesses similar infantile physical characteristics, such as wide, rounded eyes and high brows.

In a 2008 article [PDF] in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews , Marsh and coauthor R. J. R. Blair argue that:

 

Distress cues such as fearful or sad expressions have been theorized to stabilize social interactions among healthy individuals by eliciting affective responses that reduce the likelihood of continued aggression against the victim. Such affective response may include empathy and remorse. Both of these responses are elicited by the perception and correct identification of distress cues such as fear expressions. That antisociality is associated with a lack of empathy and remorse … supports the conclusion that antisocial individuals do not respond appropriately to distress cues.

 

Marsh relayed a chilling anecdote about a colleague of hers, University College London psychologist Essi Viding, who was going through a task with a psychopathic murderer in which a series of faces with different emotional expressions were laid out before the woman. When the murderer saw the picture of the fearful face, she scratched her head and said: “I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know it’s what people look like right before I stab them.”

It is important to emphasize that the difficulty these people have with the emotional expression of fear is due to a core neurological problem rather than a deliberate, selective inattention to fear. Specifically, functional MRI (fMRI) studies in both children and adults have revealed a telltale “hypoactivation” of the amygdala in response to fearful faces—essentially, this area of the brain fails to respond. In a recent study [PDF] in the American Journal of Psychiatry , Marsh and her colleagues exposed 36 children between the ages of 7-10 to a series of neutral, fearful and angry faces, which were projected onto a mirror while the children were in the MRI scanner. Using various assessment measures, such as “The Psychopathy Checklist” and the “Antisocial Process Screening Device,” twelve of the children had been clinically diagnosed as having “callous and unemotional” traits (antisocial). Another twelve had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the remaining children served as “healthy” or normal controls.

To illustrate the behavioral profile of an antisocial child, the authors provide the following case study for one of these children, a 12-year-old boy referred to as “Mark” to protect his identity.

 

Mark is well-liked by his peers; he is confident and charismatic and is an entertaining storyteller. His popularity contrasts with the behavior he exhibits with his family and peers, however. With his parents, he is defiant, deceitful, or manipulative in order to achieve his desired outcomes. With siblings and peers, he tends toward verbal and physical intimidation. He engages in physical fights, shoplifts from stores, and engages in frequent fire-setting. He particularly likes fireworks; recently he set off several fireworks outside his school and videotaped the aftermath. His father states that Mark has never appeared to experience guilt or regret after engaging in these sorts of behaviors and that he seems to be “totally self-centered.”

 

As the researchers predicted for this study, the brain scans of the antisocial children—Mark and his eleven other callous and unemotional cohorts—showed significantly less amygdala activation in response to the image of the fearful face compared to the neutral one. In contrast, amygdala activity spiked in children with ADHD and the healthy controls when they saw the fearful face.

Like other personality traits, the degree to which one is “callous and unemotional” varies between individuals. And one doesn’t have to be a full-fledged psychopath to share some of the psychopath’s antisocial propensities. In fact, in a particularly clever set of experiments [PDF] published in a 2007 issue of the journal Emotion , Marsh and her colleagues Nalini Ambady and Megan Kozak showed that even in normal, nonclinical populations, the ability to detect fearful faces is correlated with people’s “prosocial” behaviors in a seemingly unrelated task. In other words, the better one is at identifying fearful faces (normal accuracy rates hover around 70 percent and are generally lower than for other emotional expressions), the kinder they are to strangers. In this study, identification accuracy of fearful faces predicted whether—and how much—the participants would donate money to a woman in need. Those who were better able to discriminate between fearful faces from other emotions also rated strangers as being more attractive when they thought the strangers would learn of others’ judgments of their appearance (compared to when they thought the images were simply stock photos from a catalogue).

A convincing look of fear is also difficult to feign. I asked my partner, Juan, to demonstrate and I’d swear he either just had a spontaneous orgasm or the milk in his latte had just gotten its revenge. (A scarier thought is that I just don’t have an eye for fearful faces.) In any event, I asked Marsh whether any work had been done on psychopaths’ actual production of the fear facial expression, given that it’s widely believed that compared to the rest of us, psychopaths are less fearful in general, insensitive to aversive events and high in risk-taking. I wanted to know whether these characteristics showed on their faces—or rather, failed to show. Marsh led me to some recent work by a team of German psychiatrists who analyzed the emotional responding of 25 psychopathic prisoners in response to positive and aversive stimuli. In contrast to another group of prisoners with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the psychopaths showed significantly less facial expression in response to all of the stimuli (as measured by decreased electromyographic activity in the corrugator muscles), which the authors interpret as reflecting a pronounced lack of fear. Some showed no startle reflex at all to some rather unpleasant stimuli.

Ciao for now. I’m getting up to have a closer look at a young man on the other side of the piazza—he has the most curious look on his face … I can’t quite make it out …

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

Image ©iStockphoto.com/Cybernesco

Editors’ note 9/30/09: The second paragraph originally used the phrase "religious iconoclasm" in place of the correct term, "religious iconography." We regret the error.

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  1. 1. pcummiskey 11:05 pm 09/29/2009

    I lost intrest about midway through the second paragraph. I’m sure it’s great being in Florence but get to the point already!

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  2. 2. Madame Etta 12:30 am 09/30/2009

    While enjoyably written, it was a rather long-winded article to tell us something most of us already know about psychopaths.

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  3. 3. way2ec 2:03 am 09/30/2009

    If the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, is the antisocial nature a kind of indifference? If they were able to recognize and respond to the fearful face, is it implied that they would be less "psychopathic"? And lastly, or more ghastly, what if they do recognize the fear they produce in their victims, and actually "feed" off of it? Although a brain scan might not register the same activity in the fear processing as a normal person, is a different part of the brain thus able to operate without the normal interference the normal brain would produce? If being able to "turn off" that part of the brain is what is required to be an objective scientist while studying both the victims fearful faces as well as the indifference of the psychopaths, I personally don’t have the stomach to study this. My amygdala might be hperactive, but from this article, the indifference, perhaps even the curiosity, the "dark allure", would seem to be just another sign that "… supports the conclusion that antisocial individuals do not respond appropriately to distress cues." One thing is for sure, if I was in Italy, I wouldn’t be visiting a museum of serial killers to find respite from the religious iconoclasm. Perhaps you might "enjoy" studying the Inquisition?

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  4. 4. No Frills 2:46 am 09/30/2009

    Guys if you were in such a hurry and that knowledgeable why didn’t you simply just go by the title and call it a day. Yes it was a bit long so what? If you don’t have what to chime in on the research GTFO.

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  5. 5. Madame Etta 4:27 am 09/30/2009

    The major point of a "comments" section is to comment on the written article, not to coarsely and vulgarly bash those commenting. There’s a learning process as a writer in reading gentle criticism, or questions invoked by the article. And, remind me please – exactly what did you have to chime in on?

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  6. 6. lix 4:52 am 09/30/2009

    There’s now a large amount of research suggesting that specific neurological deficits can be addressed through intense training, which reroutes important functions through different brain areas when the natural area is destroyed or incapable. I wonder if, in the long term, this could offer the hope of a cure for psychopathy – traditionally considered a completely untreatable disorder. Could we train psychopaths to recognize and respond more appropriately to the expression of fear?

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  7. 7. thamcore 5:32 am 09/30/2009

    very interesting and useful information about how to detect and how to deal with psychopaths and narcissists in the workplace at http://www.theoma.net

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  8. 8. pointy 9:37 am 09/30/2009

    The words "iconoclasm" and "iconography" are different. One of them should have been used in this article, but sadly wasn’t.

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  9. 9. bongobimbo 1:47 pm 09/30/2009

    Jesse, don’t mean "iconography?" "Iconoclasm" (in Greek, "the breaking of images") is the attitude shared by the Byzantine Iconoclasts, the early Cistercians, and most Protestants (at least until those Elvis medals got minted).

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  10. 10. silvrhairdevil 2:10 pm 09/30/2009

    I’m not too sure that I could recognize a Fearful look either. Aside from small children and actors, who shows fear these days?

    It took me several tries to replicate a Fear look in the mirror. I got Startle, Wary, Suspicious, even Panic in one go.

    Perhaps reading facial expressions should be taught in school, thus either weeding out the psychopath larvae or teaching them what that look means, hopefully diverting their future careers.

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  11. 11. Nancy 4:07 pm 09/30/2009

    You would have done better to visit the Museum of Torture in San Gimignano where the instruments of the death penalty used in the United States are featured. It’s because of simplistic "theories" and name-calling (such as a non-medical term, "psychopath") as used here that allows those in the United States to support such a barbaric practice.

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  12. 12. iplanes 5:43 pm 09/30/2009

    Does this mean perhaps that in peace time we imprison psychopaths but in wartime we praise them and hold them up as role models.
    Could it also be the case that having psychopathic tendencies is useful in areas such as politics and business.

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  13. 13. bostonprof 5:52 pm 09/30/2009

    @pointy and @bongobimbo
    Thanks. I noticed the same thing and was going to comment.

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  14. 14. bostonprof 6:15 pm 09/30/2009

    @Nancy
    Presumably you’re European and feel morally outraged that the death penalty is still very occasionally applied in the US? I don’t think calling psychopathy "name-calling" or non-medical is quite correct. Consider this.
    Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD or APD) is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as "…a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood." The individual must be age 18 or older, as well as have a documented history of a conduct disorder before the age of 15. People having antisocial personality disorder are sometimes referred to as "sociopaths" and "psychopaths", although some researchers believe that these terms are not synonymous with ASPD.

    Psychiatrists are medical professionals, by the way, in case you missed that.

    The criticisms about not distinguishing these appear to have some merit. There is a whole article on this topic. See the reference: Hare, R.D., Hart, S.D., Harpur, T.J. "Psychopathy and the DSM–IV Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder".

    Suffice it to say that there is plenty of medical thought aimed at these terms, even if you’re not aware of it.

    As to how barbaric it must seem to you that a few people get put away in the US for heinous crimes, usually after 15+ years of an exhaustive appeals process, when it comes to crimes against humanity, and murderous disregard for human rights, measured over the past 100 years Europe has shown an incredible propensity towards this affliction. Even measured over the last 20 years, there has been ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide in Europe (the people of the former Yugoslavia are also Europeans, by the way). And when it came time to stand up and stop it, guess who went to the front of the line?

    If you’re not from Europe, it is likely that any other area of the world has had a decent share of morally reprehensible homocides in the past 100 years, save perhaps Antarctica. If you’re from there, I apologize.

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  15. 15. Marc Lévesque 6:37 pm 09/30/2009

    [...] Guttmacher (1973) [...] concluded that the ‘average’ murderer was free of any prominent psychopathology or mental illness, but possessed a defective conscience. The effect of a socially disadvantaged family life, emotional deprivation and inadequate nurturing all apparently contributed to a defective conscience, causing the killer extreme frustration that could lead to murder [...]

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  16. 16. jurasketu 11:35 pm 09/30/2009

    That really is bizarre though – isn’t it? Unable to recognize fear? That seems so basic.

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  17. 17. alexisalvarez 3:39 am 10/1/2009

    You write: In other words, the better one is at identifying fearful faces … the kinder they are to strangers.

    This just doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t it more likely the other way around? That those who are more likely to be kinder to strangers — those who are more socially or emotionally "evolved," let’s say — are better at identifying (and responding appropriately, or humanely to) fear, as well as other emotions?

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  18. 18. alexisalvarez 3:46 am 10/1/2009

    You write: "In other words, the better one is at identifying fearful faces …, the kinder they are to strangers."

    Isn’t it more likely to be the other way around? That those of us who are more socially or emotionally "evolved," let’s say — those of use who are NOT anti-social or pathological — are more likely to respond more kindly (or appropriately or humanely) to expressions of fear, as well as other emotions?

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  19. 19. RedCharm 12:14 pm 10/1/2009

    Interesting article though I do have an issue with the term anti-social used throughout and in some comments.

    I being described as very anti social believed myself to have a high level of empathy and am quite emotional. This more than anything has made me more reclusive socially. I am not oblivious to social workings, but rather am quite astute on reading peoples body language and facial expresions. Which makes me question the correlation between anti-social behavior and psychotic behavior.

    Also how is it that through my life, the only 2 people who I (not being a psychiatrist) would describe as having sever psychotic disorders had rather large social networks, and were relatively out going in a social aspect?

    Sorry ive always had an issue with the stereotype of anti-social behavior and being a psycho.

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  20. 20. razumikhin 5:19 pm 10/1/2009

    Actually, Squam Lake and Florence are at very similar latitudes: 43 442 433 N, and 43 472 03 N respectively.

    Perhaps the author meant longitude.

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  21. 21. ecsalomon 8:23 am 10/2/2009

    @RedCharm, The way "antisocial" is used among the general public is very different from the way the same word is used among psychologists and psychiatrists. In general usage, "antisocial" means basically "asocial"–that is, it describes someone who doesn’t engage as highly in social activities as is normative. However, among psychologists and psychiatrists, "antisocial" usually means acting in ways to harm other people. Its opposite psychological term is "prosocial," which is used to describe helping behavior.

    When the author uses "antisocial" here, he is using the latter definition, which is appropriate. When people call you "antisocial," they are probably using the former. It is worthwhile to keep the distinction in mind.

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  22. 22. Dragons Are Magic 4:35 pm 10/2/2009

    This was interesting to me, because I thought the most psychopathic people recognize fear just fine, but they have absolutely no qualms about causing it nor any desire to help the fearful. To think they don’t even "understand" what it means when someone shows fear reminds me of autism. I thought psychopath meant "knows he/she is doing wrong but does not CARE…"

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  23. 23. mo98 6:09 am 10/3/2009

    The work with 7-10 year-olds helps understand what may go wrong later in adult lives. What forms of learned hardenning versus tempering would exaggerate, for example, the fear of being an open book to yet another unknown abuser or their stereotypes?

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  24. 24. royniles 4:58 pm 10/4/2009

    What psychopaths don’t recognize are these corresponding emotional feelings in themselves. It’s really that simple. Just as you no doubt feel Juan’s curiosity while I’d be more interested in Juanita’s.
    Why certain of these feelings are lacking is not so simple.

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  25. 25. bkelbar 5:05 pm 10/6/2009

    In regards to his statement "What a pity so many artists of that age concentrated their talents so heavily on so few subjects" I have to offer up the fact that in that time artists weren’t known in the capacity that they are today, as higher thinkers and whatnot. Back then they were seen as just another craftsman like a brick builder or carpenter. Their work was dictated by the rich patrons so alot of them were religious works. They were often the ones that were later preserved for modern viewing. You get the gist.

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  26. 26. splashy 5:34 am 10/7/2009

    These kinds of things are something I have tried to get people to understand for a very long time. Some folks just can’t, or won’t, understand that some people have problems, and you just can’t tell by looking at them. You have to be around them for a while, and making a snap judgment that they should be able to function in our competitive society is really not going to work.

    I’m thinking that there are all kinds of deficiencies or personality traits that make it so people can’t integrate into our darwinistic society, that penalizes people if they can’t compete by denying them housing, food and health care. Those that are so judgmental against people that have these deficiencies, and cause these penalties to happen to them, are absolutely wrong, cruel, and uncivilzed.

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  27. 27. RedRoseAndy 11:43 am 10/7/2009

    The difference between psychopaths and anyone else in society is that psychopaths love themselves, and so their actions do not have such an impact on their conscience. Their prime motivation is that the evil they cause is all right because it is fun. As a Christian I know that the Bible teaches us that in order to become a Christian you must first hate yourself. So it was simple for me to develop an hypothesis that in order to cure a psychopath all one would have to do is to turn their self-love into hate.

    There are two ways to do this. For the professional treating a psychopath the Kadir-Buxton Method is used to stun the patient, and while the patient is stunned their voice is emulated and they are told in the first person to hate themselves instead of love themselves. When the patient comes to they suddenly behave like any normal person.

    The other way, which can be used on partners is to wait until the psychopath is asleep and then mimic their voice in the first person telling them to hate themselves instead of love themselves. On a following night you can always put into their mind that they want to join their local Church, where they can learn a better mode of behaviour.

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  28. 28. SecretAgentMom 5:27 pm 10/10/2009

    I have to agree with pcummiskey on this one. I read about half before I came over to see the other responses. The article just could not hold my attention, which is suprising because I do have a faciniation about the behavior and functioning of serial killers.

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  29. 29. alkanakana 7:27 pm 10/17/2009

    I have two questions,

    Are psychopaths actually not able to experience fear?

    Given all that, why are they violent? Are there non-violent psychopaths?

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  30. 30. sonoran 1:39 pm 10/29/2009

    This is a very interesting article. My interpretation is that empathy/sympathy mechanisms in the brain are somehow tied to the recognition of fearful faces. The popular image of a "psychopath" however is someone who goes out of their way to harm people. The serial killer spends a lot of time and effort to find, stalk and kill strangers. So beyond simply being unable to process empathy and sympathy, they seem to derive some kind of reward from the infliction of pain and death. That would imply that they recognize it a some level and "like" it.

    Either this understanding of what psychopaths are is wrong, or there’s more to this than simply being unable to be sympathetic.

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  31. 31. empeppas 2:48 pm 10/29/2009

    Awesome, very informative article. I hope research soon helps us to learn what factors are involved in creating these differences in the brains of individuals with psychopathy.

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  32. 32. empeppas 2:50 pm 10/29/2009

    Good question, I’m curious to know the answer to that as well.

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  33. 33. Steve Skeete 3:24 am 10/30/2009

    Psychopaths have problems recognising fear. So, it seems, do bullies, business-persons, and those who jump off bridges and other structures.

    Apart from the inability to recognise fear though, there must be some other factors that motivate psychopaths since not being able to recognise fear would not be a problem if one had no intention to hurt others.

    A quick question to end. I have heard of psychopaths (and other murderers) who when caught and imprisoned are courted, and often married by persons who find them "charming" and "eligible". Is it that some are unable to recognise fear, while other are equally unable to express it?

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  34. 34. Maria 4:45 am 11/2/2009

    I wondered rather what has happened to the amygdala? This article raises some deeper questions. If the amygdala is pretty mature at birth and babies appear to be ‘hardwired’ to look at and respond to facial expressions – then what has gone on in between birth and the age of the children in the study? Nature/nurture again? The only bit that irritated me in the article was the comment re. the religious art etc. Faith mattered to people in those days – hence the emphasis – possibly!

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