Brain scans reveal two ways psychopaths think differently from the rest of us

Cold blood or crossed wires? A new study reveals why psychopaths turn to crime, violence and other anti-social behaviours.

Led by Josh Buckholtz, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard, researches scanned the brains of nearly 50 prison inmates. The results are striking. It turns out that it is not that psychopaths lack emotional connections – as had been long assumed – it’s that they are hard wired to make bad decisions.

    “For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things,” Buckholtz said. “But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.”

The researchers found that people with higher levels of psychopathy will over-value immediate reward and short-term gain, and all but ignore the potential consequences of dangerous or immoral actions.

“We found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy,” said Buckholtz. This is important because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for ‘mental time-travel’ — envisioning the future consequences of actions.

With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice tends to be “dramatically over-represented”. Psychopaths can’t see past their immediate desires to any long-term consequences of their actions. It’s not that they have no feelings. They might behave differently, if they stopped to think about it, but that is not how their brains work. Denied that ‘mental time-travel,’ they also seldom travel back to be troubled by guilt.


    “Even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices.”
    Buckholtz concluded. “The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

Still, there’s a reason the group of psychopaths participating in this study were prison inmates. That raw impulsivity and inability to consider the consequences of their actions can make people with psychopathic traits dangerous to be around.

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