Reuters (SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry 001;58:737-745. ) Friday October 12 5:23 PM ET

Psychopathic Criminals Lack Fear Factor, Emotion

By Alan Mozes

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Criminals diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder--the so-called psychopaths of the world--appear to have abnormally low emotional responses to either negative or positive experiences, according to researchers.

As a result, these individuals may be driven toward extreme antisocial and violent conduct, either in a search for an emotional ``high'' or because they fail to fearaggressive behavior.

``Psychopaths do not experience feelings like fear of punishment, empathy with other people, sympathy for their victims, shame (or) remorse, which naturally inhibit the execution of violent impulses,'' said study lead author Dr. Sabine C. Herpertz from Aachen Technical University in Germany.

Herpertz and her team observed the reactions of 25 psychopaths-- currently incarcerated in high-security facilities for capital crimes-- to a series of 24 slides depicting images of pleasant, neutral and unpleasant situations. The investigators analyzed theprisoners' facial expressions, while registering the men's ratings of how they felt after each slide exposure. They also observed the prisoners' palm sweat.

The researchers then compared the arousal levels of the psychopaths with those displayed by a group of 24 non-incarcerated healthy men, as well as with a group of 18 criminals suffering from borderline personality disorder (BDP).

Psychopaths are distinct from people who have BDP. Psychopaths, despite evidence of charm and skill, are commonly unable to maintain affectionate relationships with others while routinely engaging in impulsive, amoral, and hostile behavior unhampered by guilt.

On the other hand, BDP patients are more likely to turn their aggression against themselves than others and are capable of close ties with others--even though they are subject to instability in relationships, severe mood swings and delusions.

In a recent issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Herpertz and her colleagues reported that the psychopaths displayed much less of a reaction to stimuli regardless of content, displaying very little facial movement or skin response. Almost one third of the psychopaths lacked any blinking response--which the researchers viewed as an inability to be startled, scared or induced to flee.

The BDP criminals also frowned significantly less than the healthy non-criminal group and did not appear to alter their facial expressions when faced with pleasant or unpleasant material. However, the BDP group behaved more in line with normal reactions than with the psychopaths in terms of blinking and skin reaction, indicating a healthier capacity to respond to stimuli.

Psychopaths, the authors noted, seem to be unique in the depth of their inability to register either fear or generally appropriate reactions to either friendly or dangerous environments. Herpertz and colleagues suggest that this might explain why psychopaths tend to more frequently engage in violent and premeditated crimes.

``Violent crimes may happen at the culminating point ofan... outburst, or they may be committed in a cold-hearted, callous manner,'' Herpertz told Reuters Health. ``These results suggest a general deficit in processing (emotional) information. The decreased emotional responsiveness was found to be specific to psychopaths...(and they) showed a higher degree of premeditated aggression than BDP offenders.''

She and her colleagues call for more research into the ''psychological roots'' of violent behavior among people with personality disorders.


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