Brain Differences Within Psychopaths In Respect To Structure And Actions


Psychopathy is defined as, “egocentricity, impulsivity, callousness, and lack of remorse for behavior that is frequently antisocial and hurtful to others.” and thus is classified as a personality/mental disorder. Like many other mental illnesses, psychopathy may be linked to a different structure or makeup of one’s brain, which is one of the main points I will be looking at. Psychopaths themselves have a hard time with empathy and emotion and that lack of remorse can sometimes result in criminal actions. This subject can connect to the larger theme of biological psychology in that I am going to be looking into the structural brain differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths. This research will also lead me to how psychopaths act and why which can connect to a later subject in the class, emotion and motivation since psychopaths have difficulty expressing emotion and their motivations, unlike non-psychopaths, is solely themselves regardless of who they hurt in the process. Why I chose this topic I chose this topic because the concept of mental illness and how it affects people and why it is the way it is has always interested me. I have always been interested in crime and watch a lot of documentaries about criminal psychopaths. Also I just watched the Ted Bundy tapes and the idea that someone can do so much evil but almost get away with it is remarkable and I wanted to learn more about what exactly a psychopath was. Our own psychology textbook describes psychopaths as “charming, personable, and engaging” which is so shocking because before I saw the tapes and read that bit of the book I always thought psychopaths were like the stereotypical crazy killers depicted in movies. So long story short I was interested in finding out more about exactly what makes a psychopath and how they act. Discussion of Research First, a discussion of the structural differences of the brain within psychopaths is necessary.

There have been many studies done to determine exactly why psychopaths are the way they are and the vast majority have concluded that an impaired or shrunken amygdala can account for some of the dysfunctionality within a psychopath. R. J. R. Blair, Ph. D., the director of neurobehavioral research in Nebraska, wrote two articles regarding the structure of a psychopaths brain, in his 2003 study he stated, “two recent neuroimaging studies have confirmed that amygdala dysfunction is associated with psychopathy” the amygdala is responsible for controlling emotions and thus an imbalance would cause the tendencies talked about in the definition of psychopathy; lack of remorse, impulsivity etc. Blair also brought up in his 2007 article that, “individuals with psychopathic traits show reduced amygdala responses to emotional expressions” which makes sense seeing how psychopaths tend to not have a lot of empathy. Another part of the brain, although close to amygdala, that may account for the impulsivity of psychopaths, is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (orbitofrontal and medial frontal cortex) (VPC), “which is assumed to be involved in cognitive processes such as decision-making.” which would account for impulsivity in psychopaths. Weber et al. also mentions how the amygdala and VPC are “highly interconnected” in their 2008 article, suggesting that, “psychopathy is associated with both amygdala and prefrontal dysfunctions”. In the end, psychopaths are defined as lacking remorse and being impulsive and the reason for those character marks would be an impaired or less reactive amygdala and VPC. Now that the structural differences have been established, it is important to know what else differentiates a psychopath from the average person. Experiments have been conducted to determine common trends in psychopathic behavior. For example, in an experiment performed in Oregon, Wisconsin, prisoners (half of which were psychopaths and half of which were not) were asked to play a card game in order to compare the response perseveration of psychopaths to non-psychopaths. Subjects sat in front of a screen with a hundred card deck on it with the words “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?” on it and two buttons in front of them, either play a card or quit the game. If a player chose play a card and a face card was presented, then they would earn five cents but if an integer card popped up, they would lose five cents. Every turn the same page asking the player if they want to play appears. As the game goes on the probability of losing increased by ten percent every block of ten cards.

The observers measured how many cards the subjects decided to play before quitting. They also tested players in three different conditions; condition I being that the subjects received immediate feedback and could respond instantly, condition IC being identical to I except they received cumulative feedback as well, and condition ICW which was identical to IC except the screen for the next play did not appear until five seconds after the previous play. In the end, the results were: The mean numbers of cards played by psychopaths and controls were 89.6 (SD=16.9) and 62.8 (SD=27.9), respectively, in Condition I; 80.8 (SD=24.6) and 61.8 (SD=24.5) in Condition IC; and 48.4 (SD=31.9) and 48.3 (SD=21.6) in Condition ICW. These statistics show that is spur of the moment decisions, psychopaths display more response perseverance than the controls in the study. Perseverance in psychology is defined as, “the tendency to continue a response set for reward despite punishment or changes in environmental contingencies that reduce the adaptiveness of continued responding”, suggesting that psychopaths have difficulty recognizing the increasing probability in punishment even instantly prompted but when given time to think about decisions and view the feedback and they are much more rational. In instant decision situations though, the results of this experiment suggest that impulse control is something psychopaths struggle with, even if a decision they make affects them negatively. As Lilienfeld et al. (2017) stated, “they [psychopaths] know full well that their irresponsible actions are… wrong; they just don’t care.” which is validated by this experiment in that although they are rational thinkers when cumulative feedback is given and they are forced to adapt (the five second wait), when it comes to decisions they have to instantly make, their ability to determine the correct course of action is not strong. Along with their lack of remorse and egocentric tendencies, this experiments proves that impulsivity and response perseverance is also common in psychopaths. Conclusion Throughout my research I found out that most psychopaths are not violent or serial killers but that it is very likely that I have probably even met one before. I also learned that psychopaths are the way that they are due to their brain structure being different than the average person. In terms of the real world, I can use my new knowledge to be more cautious when talking to people and being more aware if I am talking to a potentially dangerous psychopath (although again most psychopaths are not violent but just in case). Through my research as well I can understand people and their actions more around me even if I do not agree with them. This understanding and knowledge can help me in my future career hopefully as a teacher and being able to connect with students.


  1. Blair, R. J. R., (2007). Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The Amygdala and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex in Morality and Psychopathy, 11(9), 387-392. Blair, R. J. R., (2003). The British Journal of Psychiatry. mso-fareast-language:RU Neurobiological Basis of Psychopathy, 182(1), 5-7.
  2. Freer, J., (2019). Intro to Behavioral Psychology. Biological Psychology, Slide 27.
  3. Intrator, J., Hare, R., Strizke, P., Brichtswein, K., Dorfman, D., Harpur, T.,Bernstein, D., Handelsman, L., Schaefer, C., Keilp, J., Rosen, J., & Machac, J.(1997). Biological Psychiatry. A Brain Imaging (Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography) Study of Semantic Affective Processing in Psychopaths, 42(2), 96-103.
  4. Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Namy, L. L., Woolf, N. J., Cramer, K. M., & Schmaltz, R., (2017). Psychology: from inquiry to understanding. Psychopathic Personality: Don’t Judge A Book by its Cover. 3(1), 594-595.
  5. Newman, J. P., Patterson, C. M., & Kosson, D. S., (1987) Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Response Perseveration in Psychopaths, 96(2), 145-148.
  6. Weber, S., Habel, U., Amunts, K., & Schneider, F., (2008). Behavioral Sciences and the Law. Structural Brain Abnormalities in Psychopaths- A Review, 26(1), 7-28.
01 February 2021
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