Here’s what actually happens in the mind of a psychopath

Rob Waugh

Psychopaths aren’t all snarling Hannibal Lecter types. In fact it’s quite possible you know one, or even work for one.

Around 3-4% of senior positions in business are occupied by psychos, as opposed to 1% in the population as a whole.

But a new Harvard University study has thrown light on what actually makes them tick, using tests on Wisconsin prison inmates, some of whom tested highly for psychopathy.

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Psychopaths – according to the standard Hare Psychopathy Checklist (Revised) – are charming, impulsive, often liars, and fail to take responsibility for their behaviour.

In this study, researchers asked the volunteer prisoners to perform tests to see how they responded to immediate gratification and delayed gratification – and found startling differences between psychopaths and those without the condition.

Inmates with the highest score on a psychopathy test showed higher brain activity in a region called the ventral striatum, which is key for assessing short-term rewards.

Psychopaths were far more likely to value short-term rewards, leading them to make impulsive decisions.

Professor Joshua Buckholtz said: ‘The more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response.

‘That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated – they may over-represent the value of immediate reward.

‘We found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.

‘If you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.

‘The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers.

‘If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.’