Dissecting the mind of the devil in disguise

Deemed as crazed, psychopathic individuals, serial killers are straight out of a thriller film—and neurological studies give explanations for their behavior.

Raped, battered, and eventually strangled to death. These were the conditions that police found of young college girls who disappeared across the United States in 1974. Only later did police discover that the culprit was not the stereotypical creepy-looking bald man, but one with superficial charm and intelligence that could easily lure women in. As one of the most notoriously sadistic serial killers in history, Ted Bundy confessed to at least 30 murders in a span of four years—for which he felt no remorse. “What’s one less person on the face of the earth, anyway?” he asked, a few moments before meeting death on the electric chair.

I plead not guilty! 

The term psychopath conjures up images of aggressive, violent behavior such as characters portrayed by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs or Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Not too far from reality, psychopaths are characterized by their grandiosity, glibness, callousness, and violent behavior that distinguishes them from other criminals. 

Unlike most who navigate their way through the world using emotion and conscience, psychopaths literally could not care less. “All the emotional stuff are switched off,” Anthony Beech, a professor emeritus from the University of Birmingham proceeds. “Sadistic, sexual motivation…They’re aroused to sex, dismembered bodies…Ted Bundy, for example, is a person with deviant paraphilia. And what people said about him is that he was very charming, a nice person at one kind of level,” he explains, debunking claims of the serial killer’s coldheartedness. 

What is interesting, however, is not all psychopaths are murderers. “If we think of some politicians, [they are] sort of conning, [manipulative liars],” Beech comments. He bases this off of the psychopathy checklist—a 22-item list of perceived psychopathic traits and behaviors—of Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. In Beech’s lecture, he noted that money, power, status, and control are also heightened desires for psychopaths—desires that put politics in the spotlight. For the most part, “the unsuccessful [psychopaths] are in prison, [while] the more successful ones [become politicians or run large companies],” Beech adds. 

Even history mentions those who are at the extremities such as Hitler and Stalin—leaders who were unconstrained by shame or empathy and were completely determined to meet their ends regardless of collateral damage. Psychopaths usually mask their shortcomings with manipulative and amoral nature; they sweep universal social obligations under the rug without hesitation. 

They made me do it

Early childhood years are when brain development is at its peak, as rapid rewiring of brain connections occurs through genetic and environmental influences. The amygdala, found within the temporal lobe, is an important area of the brain involved in social behavior. This region is what controls responses associated with fear, memory, and emotion.

“It kicks in the fight or flight mode,” Beech says, explaining that it is the amygdala’s way of scanning environmental threats. For psychopaths, however, amygdala activity is low, resulting in an overall lack of fear and anxiety. “[Psychopaths] don’t see anything as a threat,” allowing them to commit such crimes without recoiling in any way. 

Unsualities in the brain can also be attributed to traumatic upbringings. “There was one particular person who had to spend his whole childhood basically up a tree, because every time he came down from the tree he would either be sexually or physically abused by someone in the family,” Beech narrates, suggesting a strong link between abuse and psychopathic features. Perhaps, these piled abuses mold a child to become desensitized to provoking experiences in the future, making them less empathetic toward the feelings of others.

It is still unclear whether genetics takes a huge chunk of influence on psychopathic predisposition during childhood years. As much as violence is an intrinsic story in the evolutionary history of man’s survival, researchers are more inclined to think that a person’s behavior and thinking stem from what they were exposed to growing up. “There aren’t genes for criminality…if you’ve got parents who are criminals, and you’re brought up in a criminal family, then you’re more likely to be a criminal.” 

An inferred illness?

Psychopathy itself is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’s fifth edition (DSM-V), which is the leading reference for criteria used in the diagnosis of psychological disorders. Nonetheless, the manual does include antisocial personality disorder and narcissism—two traits that Beech says may lead to psychopathic behavior when combined. 

Furthermore, primary and secondary psychopathy are differentiated by which of these two traits is dominant. Primary psychopathy is marked by prominent narcissistic behavior, whereas in secondary psychopathy, antisocial traits are more visible. Beech also suggests that the distinction may be in the direction of the causative relationship between the two; in primary psychopathy, narcissism drives antisocial behavior, while in secondary psychopathy, antisocial traits drive narcissistic behavior. 

Regardless of the type of psychopathy, Beech states that what motivates criminal psychopaths to continue committing crimes is thrill-seeking behavior. 

Regarding reintegration

Beech notes that not all those diagnosed with psychopathy undergo treatment. In the United Kingdom, if a sex offender scores higher than 30 out of 40 on the psychopathy checklist, they are not placed in a treatment program. It has been found that attempts to deprogram these individuals only make them better at manipulating people and more likely to continue committing other offenses. 

This does not mean that there is no way to curb psychopathic behavior. Criminal behavior is a result of multiple factors, including appropriate socialization. Individuals should be placed in an environment where they can learn to channel sexual and aggressive drives in proper ways to reduce the risk of committing crimes.

Another way to discourage criminal behavior is to emphasize consequences. Rather than appeals to empathy, a focus on how crime leads to prison may be more effective, especially for primary psychopaths. 

Beech also mentions that, besides cognitive behavioral therapy geared toward reducing aggressive behavior, newer forms of therapy now exist. He cites Bruce Perry’s neuro-sequential model of therapeutics, wherein each part of the brain receives a different treatment. He explains, “If [offenders are] impulsive, where’s the impulsivity come from? It comes from the fact that the prefrontal cortex is not working so well. Where’s that fight or flight stuff? Well, it’s come from the amygdala, it’s overactive. We can’t get away from the fact that we are the products of our brain function, really.” 

But then again, it all boils down to whether they have the will to stop their heinous crimes or give in to their dark desires, itching to strike once again.

Gabrielle Lema

By Gabrielle Lema

Bea Condes

By Bea Condes

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