Unraveling the mysteries of psychopaths

This post is also available in Dutch.

Psychopaths like Hannibal Lecter, typically show increased calculated and goal-directed aggressive behavior. Interestingly, this goal-directed aggression is not the whole story.

Image by Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1580537. The actor Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.

We often think of psychopaths as goal-directed and aggressive, but research has recently found something else quite interesting about them: They do not avoid signs of threat, whereas healthy people do.

Most of us know psychopaths from horror movies like Hannibal Lecter or from actual criminal records like serial killers, such as Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy was often described as a handsome and charming man until police discovered he had killed at least 30 women before finally being executed. What’s so fascinating about psychopaths is that they seem normal, even charming at first glance, but underneath they are manipulative and volatile.

Psychopathy is classified (DSM-V) as a personality disorder; this includes difficulties at the level of the self and at the interpersonal level. Individuals with this disorder show egocentric traits and derive their self-esteem from personal gain, power or pleasure. On the social level they express a lack of empathy, guilt and remorse after mistreating others.

Recent research at the Radboud University has uncovered another important difference between psychopaths and healthy individuals. Psychopaths show total absence of automatic avoidance tendencies (source article) towards threatful signals.

Approach and avoidance action tendencies
Healthy individuals automatically trigger their action tendencies after seeing emotionally salient information. Think about something appetitive in your environment like attractive men/women or chocolate… These stimuli generally trigger positive emotions, e.g. happy feelings that further elicit approach tendencies. We want to approach or come closer to the attractive person or move forward to eat the chocolate. The opposite holds for non-appetitive stimuli. Think about an angry person or a food that you dislike. You might feel negative emotions like fear or disgust that make you avoid the things you dislike as much as possible.

Researchers studied approach avoidance tendencies by using a computerized task with happy, neutral or angry faces that seem to trigger these tendencies. Depending on the instructions, participants either had to move toward (approach) or move away (avoid) from faces by using a joystick. The results of the experiment showed that for healthy people it was harder to approach angry faces than to avoid them, as approaching the angry face means we need to overrule our automatic tendencies.

What explains absence of avoidance towards angry faces in psychopaths?
An angry face signals threat and conveys aggression by the expresser. This in turn triggers fear in the observer and leads him to avoid the expresser, and minimizes the chance of a threatening and aggressive encounter. Interestingly psychopaths experience lower levels of fear, and this absence of fear in response to threat, may result in reduced avoidance and therefore increased aggression.
As we have seen, psychopaths show abnormal goal-directed aggressive behavior, as well as abnormal automated tendencies in response to emotional information.

Written by Mahur.
Edited by Marisha.



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