Thursday, December 29, 2005

Blank Stare

One of my mother's former students was set on fire by a young man (they were both tweens) a few months ago. The firestarter was angry over something trivial and a notorious bully--he forced his way into the victim's house, doused the poor child in some flammable liquid, lit a match, and watched the flames.

This led my mother and I to discuss psychopathy. As much as we would all like to believe that the parents are to blame or the schools or the Evangelical Christians or Al Qaeda, for a small group of people, it appears that they are not born with the necessary processing systems required for appropriate social behavior. There are a lot of theories about psychopathy, including the role of empathy and affective processing in developing a social consciousness.(for reviews: Blair, RJ. Dev Psychopathol. 2005 Summer;17(3):865-91; King, JA. Neuroimage. 2005 Nov 21).

If in these individuals, there are serious impairments in the circuitry mediating socially appropriate behavior and a lack of functioning in the regions needed to "teach" social norms, then all the behavior modification, parenting, and warm fuzzies in the world are not going to prevent the instrumental aggression characterizing psychopathy, that aggression resulting in deleterious societal consequences. Currently, we do not have a pharmacological intervention that is optimally efficacious in treating psychopathy and, if we have learned anything from the treatment of other psychiatric illnesses we would understand that we have no way of ensuring compliance even if we found a miracle drug.

My mom looked at me for a long time after our conversation had wound down...and then she asked the question with no answer. It's even better than the "if a tree falls in the woods..." question.

Should psychopaths be held accountable for their actions, then?

I just stared at her blankly.

Obviously, if someone can not exist in society without causing harm to others then they can not be allowed to be free...

What does "holding someone accountable" mean?...

There is no real answer to this question--I do, however, think it is good food for thought, albeit contextually morbid...

You're welcome.


At 6:41 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Your concept of psychopathy rankles me. Too much nature, not enough nurture. I can't believe setting fire to someone is a robust phenotype. There has to be a critical period of plasticity during which this result is not foreordained--and in which the tendency may even be reversible. This has a lot to do with your question of "holding someone accountable"--which to me means punishment, the basis of our criminal justice system. But many kinds of bad temperament obviously are curable or work-aroundable.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I watched an interesting documentary once about children who were neglected during the first year or two of their life - critical, apparently, in developing a sense of empathy. The statistics (and we all know how *ahem* accurate those are) said that a staggering percentage of criminals incacerated in our current system had experienced this type of neglect and, therefore, had not developed the ability to be empathetic. Unfortunately, even if these things can be learned or developed later in life, they aren't getting them in prison.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous pelican said...

Psychopaths are clearly able to control their behavior, even if they are not able to feel empathy or to embrace a moral code. They are able to be charming, to earn and maintain trust, and to appear caring and empathic for long periods of time. Psychopaths continue in these "prosocial" behaviors until it serves their purposes to abandon them.

This arsonist chose to set fire to that girl, knowing full well it would cause harm, and fully intending to cause that harm.

If "being accountable" means "feeling guilty and agreeing that one's behavior was wrong", he probably is unable to have that experience. However, him having the experience of remorse does nothing for his victim or society as a whole.

The fact that a psychopath cannot feel empathy or guilt is not relevant to questions of punishment by incarceration, which attempts to achieve two purposes: ensure the individual being punished is not free to continue to harm others, and to illustrate to others who may be considering harming someone the negative consequences of that decision.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

I agree that many personality traits are indeed just that, and, thus, behavior can be modified around it. I also believe in the power of critical periods--it is important to keep in mind, however, that some critical periods happen well before the child is born.

Full-blown psychopathy is a bit of an enigma to me. I understand subclinical pschopathy and antisocial behavior disorders (probably the firestarter's problem), but true psychopathy is a much different beast. Protecting society from someone who causes harm to others is a necessity, so in that case, those individuals should be held accountable. There are other people who take "accountable" and the purpose of incarceration a little differently. I don't think as a society we have ever defined the purpose of jail (or even the death penalty) to include certain types of individuals.

With that said, Pelican brings up some good points. Although not all true psychopaths are charming or functional in social circles, the neural underpinning governing certain social behaviors can be quite intact. That does not mean that other socioemotional functions, like those controlling empathy, instrumental agressions, etc. are not dysfunctional, even if they share the same neural networks. We now are beginning to realize that many of these behaviors are dissociable.

I think the key element here is the concept of remorse. Remorse may be the key to figuring out what type of "accountable" you hold someone to. It also may help define what type of behavioral modification, if any, will be successful.

I'm not sure how they assessed "empathy" in that jail population, Jessica, but I'm going to look into it--thanks. I know that many animals, including humans, react to (behaviorally and in terms of neural activity) to pain or distress in a conspecific--rats and non-human primates will even stop taking a reward if they know that reward hurts another conspecific. Psychopaths seem to be missing this reaction--they have no evidence of a response to the distress/pain of others (although these lab tests are a bit artificial and may not be "real" enough to evoke a response in someone with a blunted response).

I love to hear how you all think about these things. Thanks for the stimulation.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger James said...

I believe there are many psychopaths, or some variant thereof of that type, running around us all the time, and I also believe that most psychopaths are able to control their behavior. Why do I entertain this admittedly frightening thought? When a nation can go about killing hundreds of thousands, or even millions of its people, you don't just do that sort of slaughter with a few nut jobs who like to dose people with lighter fluid and then fling matches - no, there's something much more fundamentally amiss there, and whatever that something is normally is contained on the whole.

This morning I was watching Werner Herzog's "Lessons of Darkness", which is about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. On the whole the movie is a bit melodramatic and tedious as far as I'm concerned, but one part of it very much caught my attention. Herzog takes you into a torture room where you see lined up a large collection of miscellaneious instruments used to torture men and women, and he introduces you to a woman who was forced to watch her two sons tortured to death; I sat there in wonderment. Where in the world do the kind of people who'd do this sort of thing, and it wasn't just one individual, far from it, come from? Well, heck, they're walking amongst us, they live down the block, they likely live in the same building.

So if they're mixed in with the rest of us, why aren't they so apparent? In a well structured, law abiding society, and historically it appears that being in a democracy seems to have some sort of restraining effect, these people are somehow kept in check. Likely they realize that they will be held accountable in the only way we know how to hold them accountable, which is to lock them up and take them out of normal society. So long as the society they're in has no use for their inner demons they lay low, they stay off the societal radar screen, though occasionally one pops up in a moment of road rage, or an out-of-line promiscuous and deadly use of lighter fluid.

Actually an interesting question overall, and now that I've given it some thought I think that'll be the subject I play with over at my blog tomorrow or Sunday - thank yoiu!


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