Can you spot a psychopath?
I find that to be a fascinating question, as many of my friends have “hinted” that I might be one – a good one, I hope. Let’s take a look at this. Do psychopaths have cold-blooded, killer-like eyes and a stare that sends chills through your spine? Or are they smooth-talking, high-powered movers and shakers? Read on to find out. Let’s face it, it would be challenging to spot a psychopath by observing only their physical behavior. But they do give away some telltale clues during nonverbal communication. And one is how they move their heads – or don’t as the case may be. According to a new study, people who scored high in certain psychopathic traits are more likely to limit head movements. Many also display the so-called “psychopathic stare,” which Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare describes as “intense eye contact and piercing eyes.” As a rule of thumb, it’s not a great idea to make eye contact with psychopaths. “Studies have documented that psychopaths’ pupils do not dilate when viewing scary or graphic images and that they tend to hold gazes uncomfortably long — especially when engaging in deception or persuasion,” Dr. Hare writes.
A new study that used AI to analyze videos of interviews with 507 male prison inmates found that inmates who didn’t move their heads much while being interviewed scored high in psychopathic traits. The participants also completed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to assess their interpersonal, developmental, lifestyle and antisocial characteristics. Inmates who scored high in developmental and antisocial traits, including aggression, impulsiveness, and criminal behavior, tended to hold their heads still during the interviews. So, why is studying head movements so important, you might be wondering? It’s because our head movements can tell a story. The way you move your head, for example, can help send messages of agreement, dissent or confusion, while shaking your head or nodding can help emphasize a point. And when you combine head movements with gaze, you can send complex messages, such as degree of emotion, regulation of whose turn it is to talk and social control.
Although the study was not designed to determine why psychopathic individuals with exceptionally high antisocial traits limited their head movements, the researchers did propose a hypothesis: amygdala dysfunction, “a hallmark neurobiological feature of psychopathy, affecting emotional processing, reinforcement learning, and interpersonal interactions,” according to Dr. Hare. The researchers also pointed out that individuals with amygdala damage often violate personal space (standing too close to someone), intense focusing and inappropriate approaches. You can find the complete study in the Journal of Research in Personality. But what about you? Can you spot some of these traits in yourself?
I write “possible” because there is no consensus view of what constitutes sociopathy. Among the traits that many consider psychopathic are lack of empathy (and corresponding inability to feel remorse), narcissism, superficial charm, difficulty in forming long-lasting romantic relationships and indifference to social norms, especially where morals and ethics are concerned. Many sociopathic personality characteristics, such as charm (not superficial in this case), ambition and impatience, an ability to attack problems with cold-hearted logic (not letting emotions get in the way), are also traits successful lawyers, doctors, actors, politicians, statesmen, military leaders and corporate executives often display. In politics, especially, the politicians who go far are often smooth-talking manipulators who carefully adjust their moral code in a Machiavellian way to the moment’s requirements. So, are they what many call “Good psychopaths?” It’s tough to tell, but can we see clues early in a person’s life?
The “warrior gene”
A University College London study speculates that children who could become psychopaths tend not to laugh along with others. I should point out here that this study only included boys. Although science isn’t sure what makes a person become a psychopath, they have identified a specific gene that has been implicated. Its scientific name is the MAOA-L gene, but it’s often referred to as the “warrior gene.” Don’t freak out if you know somebody (or maybe even you) who has this gene. Having the gene doesn’t mean you’ll become a psychopath or a warrior, for that matter. It requires more than that. It requires a certain environment or experience along the way for these tendencies to emerge. That’s why researchers are studying children.
Laughter in children
UCL Professor Essi Viding, UCL’s Department of Psychology & Language Sciences, says that “children usually show their first signs of a disorder before age 14,” which is why psychologists are trying to identify specific characteristics in childhood that might indicate a budding psychopath. Researchers observed that boys suspected of psychopathy “display reduced neural response to laughter in the supplementary motor area, a premotor region thought to facilitate motor readiness to join in during social behavior. These findings suggest that atypical processing of laughter could represent a novel mechanism that impoverishes social relationships and increases the risk for psychopathy and antisocial behavior,” according to the researchers. In other studies, researchers have found that most children who show psychopathic tendencies don’t want to participate in group activities, are disruptive and show little regard for the emotions of their peers.
Professor Viding says we should be careful not to classify children as psychopaths, as this is still considered an adult personality disorder. Long-terms studies, however, show that certain children do run a higher risk for developing psychopathy later on. “That does not mean that these children are destined to become antisocial or dangerous; rather, these findings shed new light on why they often make different choices from their peers,” Prof. Viding said. Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr. Tara Swart says psychopathy is actually a spectrum with the main component being an inability to empathize with others, resulting in many problems, including unfulfilling relationships, difficulty in bonding, antisocial behavior and worst-case scenario, hyper-sexuality and outbursts of violence.