I was recently reading a 2003 paper in the journal Nature called Forensic psychology: Violence viewed by psychopathic murderers which is both interesting and frustrating. Interesting because it demonstrates that, even amongst murderers, psychopathic murderers are different. Frustrating because the authors extrapolate their finding in a way that is ultimately misleading being so narrow as to completely miss the point.
I pick this particular study only because it is rather typical of scientific studies in the field: 1. it neglects to consider what the psychopath gets out of behaving the way he does, and 2. it let’s the psychopath off the hook.
13 psychopathic murderers, 17 non-psychopathic murderers, 39 psychopathic other offenders and 52 non-psychopathic other offenders were given the Implicit Association Test (IAT) .
Briefly, uppercase words (for example, ‘UGLY’) are classified as being ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’, and lowercase words (for example, ‘kill’) are classified as ‘violent’ or ‘peaceful’, by pressing corresponding buttons. When the same response key is assigned for both the unpleasant and violent words (this is termed the congruent condition), most people find the task easy. But when pleasant and violent words share the same response key (the incongruent condition), most people find this confusing. The association between ‘pleasant—unpleasant’ and ‘violent—peaceful’ is indexed by means of the IAT effect (reaction time for the incongruent condition minus reaction time for the congruent condition).
The psychopathic murderers showed a much lower IAT effect than the non-psychopathic murderers or the other psychopaths in the study.
The researchers’ conclusion
They conclude that there are two groups of psychopaths, one of which has an increased disposition towards extreme violence. So far so good. They also claim the following:
Our results indicate that the reduced violent-IAT effect seen in psychopathic murderers is likely to be due to their abnormal beliefs about violence, rather than to some other nonspecific effect such as poor impulse control and/or deficits in decision-making. Psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murderers and other offenders.
The great sociologist C. Wright Mills once said: “Every cobbler thinks leather is the only thing,” by which he meant ‘read what I write critically; I’m a sociologist and so I tend to have a sociological explanation for everything.’ Well, our researchers have done something similar. Because their test has found abnormal cognitive associations regarding violence among psychopathic murderers, they take it that this accounts for the psychopathic murderers’ predisposition to extreme violence. The authors’ speak of psychopaths having “deficient social beliefs” and “negative beliefs”, and it is these “abnormal beliefs about violence” (and not poor impulse control and/or deficits in decesion-making) that make them disposed towards extreme violence.
But this factor just happens to be what the researcher’s have been testing; just because they found it doesn’t mean that it is THE predisposing factor. Presumably if they had been testing, say, cholesterol-levels and found a difference they’d say that’s they key.
But it’s worse that that. Something in they way they phrase the matter concerns me. They say (with my reworkings in bold):
- “…due to their abnormal beliefs about violence”.
…due to their pleasure in violence (which is, of course accompanied by abnormal beliefs).
- “Psychopathic murderers have diminished negative reactions to violence compared with non-psychopathic murderers and other offenders.”
They have increased positive reactions to violence.
In the British TV show Cracker, the main character, Dr. Fitzgerald is asked why he drinks and smokes so much. “Because I like it!”, he says defiantly. This precisely the point. Maybe Fitz could be shown to have abonormal beliefs about drinking and smoking (he’s a gambler too), but he’s insightful enough to know that it’s not the beliefs that cause the behaviour – he does them because he wants to.
Psychopaths enjoy doing evil; they do it not despite the pain it cause others but because that pain increases their enjoyment.
Leave pleasure out of the picture and we missed an awful lot. Or am I wrong?