successful vs. unsuccessful psychopaths

Bill Hirstein and I have just submitted a paper to the SPP on the criminal culpability of successful vs. unsuccessful psychopaths, and I’m hoping to generate a bit of discussion on the distinction.

Gao and Raine recently published a review of studies distinguishing the two populations within five types of samples: a community recruited sample, individuals from temporary employment agencies, college students, psychopaths employed in business and industry, and psychopathic serial killers (Gao and Raine 2010). Studies suggest that unsuccessful psychopaths have reduced prefrontal and amygdala volumes and hippocampal abnormalities, resulting in reduced executive functioning, including impaired decision-making. Unsuccessful psychopaths also exhibit impaired autonomic/somatic markers and fear-conditioning deficits which contribute to poor and risky decision-making. In contrast, successful psychopaths do not show similar structural and functional impairments of the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. They seem to have intact autonomic function and possibly enhanced executive functioning when compared with normals. Gao and Raine hypothesize that successful psychopaths may have superior cognitive empathy (the ability to understand another’s perspective) without emotional empathy (feeling empathetic emotions).

Our hypothesis is that unsuccessful psychopaths’ deficiencies in executive processing may be severe enough to constitute evidence of diminished mental capacity. Many successful psychopaths, on the other hand, seem to have a healthy enough executive profile to correct for their lack of emotional empathy. In philosophical terms, they could have done otherwise. Like a colorblind driver, or a high-functioning autistic person, successful psychopaths would seem to have the ability to take note of their emotional/cognitive lack and make up for it so as to avoid violating the law. If an offender is capable of (knowingly) following a law, she is responsible when she does not.

I’d be happy to hear any comments on this line of thought, and to pass along the whole paper to anyone interested.


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