What are the interests of psychopaths

Neurology: Researchers discover successful model of psychopaths

A lecture hall at the University of Regensburg: around a hundred law students sit on wooden benches and look out from behind their books. A moment ago it was still about administrative law, now Hedwig Eisenbarth takes over: "I would like to ask you to assess your own thinking and behavior", the psychopathy researcher at the university calls on the law students. The psychologist meanders through the rows and hands out questionnaires.

"I am concerned about whether I am harming someone with my behavior," is one point of the questionnaire. The students tick: wrong, more likely wrong, more likely right or right. “If I want, I can get people to do what I want without them ever noticing,” is another statement. Overall, the questions revolve around how stress-resistant or how fearless someone is, how unscrupulous they pursue their interests and how important they take other people's feelings. Eisenbarth then uses the answers to place the participants on a psychopathy scale.

"If someone has a lot of psychopathic characteristics, it doesn't immediately mean that they are dangerous or that they need therapy," Eisenbarth explains her attempt. “Psychopathy comprises a number of properties that can vary in severity. There is only a malfunction in extreme forms. "

Not just extreme cases and criminals

A surprising result of their test: the law students achieve quite high scores on the psychopathy scale - at least more than their fellow students from other departments.

But the "normal" psychopathy has so far hardly been researched. For decades, researchers turned their attention to extreme cases and criminals. It's not a coincidence. Compared to the general population, the number of psychopaths among inmates is much higher: They make up 20 percent of prison inmates, according to studies. And they relapse more often than others - three times as often within a year. The diagnosis of psychopathy now often depends on whether an inmate is released early - or not.

"It has been proven that psychopaths are less afraid," says Niels Birbaumer, professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. He examines the brains of psychopathic offenders in an MRI scanner. He found out that brain regions that have to do with fear are not very active in psychopaths. “Because of the lack of fear, criminal psychopaths do not fear the consequences of their actions. They also feel less guilty, because feelings like regret also arise from fear - the fear of punishment, ”adds Birbaumer.

The psychopath lacks repentance and consideration

A lack of remorse in the face of cruel deeds, inconsiderate behavior towards fellow human beings and the artful ability to charmingly wrap others around your finger - these are the characteristics that the US psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley first described people with psychopathic personality in a book in the 1940s. He presented the then new diagnosis to the public, combined with an appeal to his colleagues to help research the phenomenon.

The forensic psychologist Robert Hare followed up on Cleckley's research in the 1970s. The Canadian developed a checklist for identifying psychopathy that is used to this day. There is now a massive amount of data on imprisoned psychopaths - the American neuroscientist Kent Kiehl from the University of New Mexico alone has pushed over a thousand prisoners into the brain scanner since 2005. Like the Tübingen brain researcher Birbaumer, he found that brain regions in the so-called limbic system, in which feelings are processed, are less active in psychopaths.