Are psychopaths made in a certain way and unable to change?

Perhaps, says Aina Gullhaugen, a psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, but there is a discrepancy between the formal characteristics of psychopathy and what she has experienced in meeting psychopaths - which is kind of like saying Stalin was not a psychopath if she had met him and he seemed different than what the DSM describes.

Gullhaugen thought if psychopathic criminals are as hardened as traditional descriptions would have it, you would not find vulnerabilities and psychiatric disorders among them. She wondered if perhaps we have asked the wrong questions, and studied the issue in the wrong way. So Gullhaugen has burrowed into the minds of psychopaths and believes understanding is key, though obviously if they are psychopaths they could be pulling the strings.

“Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the most famous psychopath from the fictional world,” says Gullhaugen. “His character in the books and movies is an excellent illustration of the cold mask some have thought that psychopaths have. Because it is a mask. Inside the head of the cannibal and serial killer were tenderness and pain, deep emotions and empathy.”

Author Thomas Harris is said to have based his Hannibal figure on real life serial killers, after he conducted research at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. Harris showed how Hannibal's behavior was influenced by the psychological damage that occurred during his childhood. If so, such things can be treated, says Gullhaugen.

“I have gone through all the studies that have been published internationally over the past 30 years,” she says. “I have also conducted a study of the psychological needs of Norwegian high-security and detention prisoners.”

She says every published study of these worst offenders shows that they all have a background that includes grotesque physical and /or psychological abuse during childhood.  

“Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers,” she says. “And many of the descriptions made it clear that their later ruthlessness was an attempt to address this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way.”

 Gullhaugen questions about the methods that have been used to study psychopaths. “One way to examine emotional reactions is to show people pictures of different situations, and then study the response,” she says. “First the subject is often shown benign or neutral images, where you could be expected to be happy and relaxed. The physical reaction is a calm pulse, no sweat on the skin and the like. Then, suddenly there is a picture of a gun aimed at you. Most people will react to this, right? But when psychopaths do not respond in the expected way, we conclude that they have a biological defect.” 

Gullhaugen says we all need to put ourselves into the everyday lives that psychopaths often come from - which is fine for academic introspection and, as long as your family has not been murdered or tortured by these people who just need to be understood. 

“I found that research on the psychopath's emotions was incomplete,” she says. “We need other tests and instruments to measure the feelings of these people, if there are feelings to measure.”

Gullhaugen has not replaced conventional survey methods, such as a diagnostic interview and use of a checklist for psychopathy and neuropsychological tests but added more methods to see if she might get other results. She has used questionnaires that measure a number of interpersonal and emotional aspects of Norwegian high-security and detention prisoners. The results suggest that the so-called gold standard for the study of psychopathy should at best be changed, and at worst, be replaced.

“There is no doubt that these are people with what we call relational needs”, says Gullhaugen. “In the aforementioned case descriptions and my own study, it became clear that they both have the desire and the need for close relationships, and that they care. At the same time it is equally clear that they find it almost impossible to achieve and maintain such relationships.”

So you always kill the ones you love.

Gullhaugen's surveys conclude that where the most common survey methods would have shown that individuals reported good self-esteem, low depression and a sense of general wellbeing, other methods show that psychopaths suffer from underlying psychological pain.

One of the features that characterizes criminal psychopaths is an abnormal upbringing, as they describe it. Gullhaugen's research reveals that psychopaths as children have experienced an upbringing, or parenting style, that is quite different from the so-called normal part of the population.

“If you think of a scale of parental care that goes from nothing, the absence of care, all the way to the totally obsessive parent, most parents are in the 'middle,' ” explains Gullhaugen. “The same applies to how we feel about parental control. On a scale from 'not caring' all the way to 'totally controlling', most have parents who end up in the middle. But it is different for psychopaths. More than half of the psychopaths I have studied reported that they had been exposed to a parenting style that could be placed on either extreme of these scales. Either they lived in a situation where no one cared, where the child is subjected to total control and must be submissive, or the child has been subjected to a neglectful parenting style.”

This, says the researcher, is an example of how the psychopath's behavior is not unrelated to his or her life experiences, and it provides the basis for a more nuanced picture of these people's feelings, and a starting point for treatment.

Basically, psychology has not advanced in 100 years.  It's your mother's fault.

“The attachment patterns show that these children feel rejected. To a much greater degree than in the general population, their parents have an authoritarian style that compromises the child's own will and independence. This is something that can cause the psychopath to later act ruthlessly to others, more or less consciously to get what he or she needs. This kind of relationship – or the total absence of a caregiver, pure neglect – is a part of the picture that can be drawn of the psychopath's upbringing,” the researcher says.

Gullhaugen says that she has not studied enough cases to draw any final conclusions about this, but that three other studies show the same tendency. She falls back on the folk wisdom that biology and environment influence each other. The personality disorder that results can be seen as the sum total of a number of biological and psychological factors.

Gullhaugen found few significant differences between psychopaths and her “normal” group when, in her talk withf Norwegian prisoners, she examined the ability to experience a wide range of emotions. The differences that she found showed that psychopaths generally experience more negative emotions, such as irritability, hostility, and shame. But they do not feel guilty.

“They have more primitive emotions such as anger and anxiety,” says Gullhaugen. “This is what I found in the studies I conducted of strong psychopathic individuals who had committed serious criminal acts.”

When it comes to more positive feelings, however, there was little or no difference, suggesting that the psychopath's emotional life is more nuanced than first thought.

“When we recognize that the psychopath's upbringing and relationships are important, and that the psychopath's emotional life is more complex than what we have previously believed, we reduce the stigmatization of these individuals. Meanwhile, we also have a starting point for treatment,” she says. “I don't think we can get everyone back to a normal way of life. But it may be possible to help many to get on better with themselves and others. This in turn could reduce the risk of repeated serious crimes. Treatment is difficult, but possible.”

She also believes that a risk assessment should be conducted before deciding whether a person can be returned to the community.

“When you understand the problem better, it will be easier to predict all types of behaviour,” Gullhaugen says. “Our evaluations will be more extensive because of this, and will give a more comprehensive and accurate picture.”

Citation: Looking for the Hannibal behind the cannibal: Current status of case research, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, May 2011 vol. 55 no. 3 350-369 doi: 10.1177/0306624X10362659.