Monday, 12 December 2011

What are Psychopaths for?

This year The Differential Association has reviewed and debated new publications, some criminology classics, journals and political manifestos, but for the last get together of the year we decided to try something different and a less traditional book club choice, opting for an on-line lecture. We settled upon a SCCJR annual lecture delivered by Shadd Maruna entitled What are Psychopaths for?

The terms psychopath and psycho, are often bandied about in a casual manner, and the idea of a psychopath has certainly provided much grist for the Hollywood mill, but what is it that makes someone an actual psychopath? Delisi has referred to it as a personality disorder defined by a mixture of lifestyle and behavioural characteristics that result in wide-ranging anti-social behaviour. However, it is the work of Robert Hare that appears to have made the most impact on our understanding of what a psychopath is among practitioners and the public alike. Hare developed the renowned Psychopath Checklist, or PCL-R; a clinical rating scale which does exactly what it says in the tin: through a series of questions the subject's personality is rated, score high and you are officially a psychopath.

This is apparently the world's most widely used instrument to diagnose this personality disorder, so what sort of characteristics score high on the PCL-R? The behavioural and personality traits that are indicative of psychopathy are a grandiose sense of self-worth, glibness, artificial charm, shallowness, a lack of remorse, prone to boredom, delinquency and sexual promiscuity. Shadd contended that this description could be fully employed for the average teenager, and assembled DA members agreed that these were some pretty broad and loose terms to define ruthless social predators. While no one was particularly convinced by this method, the findings of this test have some serious implications.

Shadd argued that a psychopath was a pejorative clinical label. Is it possible for judges to delineate between the negative connotations of the label and the medical diagnosis? There is evidence which shows that being labelled psychopathic can trigger negative stereotypes in people's minds, and lead to increased desire for harsher punishments among the public. There are institutions across the UK, such as Broadmoor Hospital, which hold prisoners on indeterminate sentences while treating them for psychopathy. Given that the UK has no death penalty, this is the harshest sanction available. How many of these prisoners were stripped of their liberty indefinitely due to a high score on Hare's checklist? It is a bit unnerving to think the state has the power to hand down indeterminate sentences based on what some DA members felt were such fuzzy definitions such as superficial charm.

There was some debate about how helpful the diagnosis really is. Some of us felt that it diverted attention away from external and structural factors that cause crime. Others felt that while it certainly shouldn't be used as a rubber stamp, it could be useful in identifying people who needed help and indicating the best forms of treatment. While Hare's checklist didn't win many fans at the DA, people's support for some form of criminological psychiatry was connected to other explanations.

A recent BBC Horizons documentary highlighted the latest research which rather than probing personalities, used brain scans and gene testing to establish a foundation for cognitive explanations for criminality. There seems to be evidence that some sort of moral molecule that drives empathy can be singled out. They also illustrated findings which showed that certain parts of the brain remain dramatically under-active in serious and violent criminals. They concluded that this particular biological make-up can lead to certain negative personality traits, as proffered by Hare, however they did not determine criminality. Instead, structural inequality, family stability, social marginalisation and economic deprivation remain decisive criminogenic factors.

However, this is not the whole story; there is another element to the notion of the psychopath that moves beyond the medical, and which has deep cultural resonances. For the second part of Shadd's lecture he put us, that is the public, academics and all, on the proverbial couch.

As well as being a personality disorder, a psychopath is a social construct; working as a comforting myth. He believed that it helped people deal with anxieties of late-modern society. Bad things happen to good people all the time for no apparent reason, somehow the psychopath myth helps people believe in a world that is fundamentally fair and just. The psychopath is also, fundamentally, a scapegoat, bringing people together in a shared sense of hatred and condemnation.

It seems that people find it more comprehensible, or perhaps more palatable to believe that heinous crimes are committed by someone suffering from a personality deficit. But some members of the DA suggested that it is possible that a culturally embedded idea that paints violent criminals as alien others - depicting them as a different species who are cold, calculated and predatory - like this could stunt and prohibit the possibility for a broad and probing debate around the complex causes of crime. If these aren't simple misconceptions, but a functional social myth, then it is potentially a serious hurdle to developing a more considered public discourse on crime.

This lecture gave rise to a great debate, and even more questions. How do we debunk the psychopath myth? Or do we even want to do this, given that in the majority of cases victims of violent crimes know their attacker, does this notion keep people from living in a state of paranoia? Is there even such a thing as a criminal mind; and if there is, is it even useful? As we mentioned in our last blog, being aware of these social constructs is important, and interrogating them can allow us to put society under the microscope. Robert Hare's Psychopath Checklist seems to have valorised these social myths and opinions through medicalisation. Viewed from this vantage point, psychopathy tells us more about society than psychiatry.


This month's blog was written by Louise Brangan.

The views expressed in this blog are the author's alone.

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