Some men and women regularly prey on the people around them. Through charm and
manipulation, they take what they want and do as they please. Even the vilest acts
leave these predators remorseless.
People with this personality, who are known to psychologists as psychopaths,
sometimes pay for their deeds by going to jail or psychiatric facilities for
criminals. In the August Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers report
finding that psychopaths who evade the law may constitute a breed apart from those
who at some point end up behind bars.
In previous studies, imprisoned psychopaths speaking in front of a camera or
performing other stressful tasks expressed little emotion, either verbally or as
signaled by increases in heart rate and other bodily measures. They also displayed
problems in planning ahead, thinking flexibly, and controlling their impulses.
In the new study, a stressful task induced sharper heart-rate hikes in male
psychopaths who had eluded criminal conviction than in their previously convicted
counterparts or in nonpsychopathic men, reports a team of psychologists led by
Sharon S. Ishikawa and Adrian Raine, both of the University of Southern California
in Los Angeles. Moreover, nonconvicted psychopaths scored highest on a test of
decision-making skills and impulse control. The three groups scored comparably on
an IQ test.
“Heightened physiological reactivity to stress may improve the ability of some
psychopaths to evaluate risky situations and make decisions that benefit their
criminal careers,” Raine says.
The researchers recruited men from five temporary-employment agencies in the Los
Angeles area. Participants, aged 21 to 45, were assured that they couldn’t be
subpoenaed regarding uninvestigated crimes they revealed.
A total of 29 volunteers were identified as psychopaths on a self-report
questionnaire. The test probes for characteristics such as superficial charm,
frequent lying, shallow emotions, impulsiveness, a need for excitement, and a
tendency toward violent outbursts.
Court records showed that 17 of these men had past criminal convictions. Another
26 men recruited from the same agencies weren’t psychopaths and had no previous
Each participant had 2 minutes to prepare a speech detailing his personal faults
before presenting it in front of a researcher while being videotaped, a task
intended to elicit embarrassment and guilt. During this exercise, nonconvicted
psychopaths experienced a much greater rise in heart rate than men in the other
groups did, the researchers say.
This apparent higher emotional sensitivity to risky situations may also have
allowed nonconvicted psychopaths to outscore their peers on a card-sorting task
that requires subtle judgments, the researchers add.
“The stress-induced heart-rate rise in nonconvicted psychopaths is a big
surprise,” remarks psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld of Emory University in
Atlanta. These results don’t establish that there are basic differences among
psychopaths, Lilienfeld cautions.
It may be that the traits underwriting success in society are the very ones that
help some psychopaths evade capture, Lilienfeld speculates. Having the moxie to
found and run large companies, for example, would put a smart psychopath in a
position to get away with the crimes he or she commits.
Psychologist Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is
skeptical of the new findings. Jumps in heart rate could indicate that
nonconvicted psychopaths simply tried harder on the speech test and may not
reflect differences in their core personality traits, he says.