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PsychopathyReview - Psychopathy
An Introduction to Biological Findings and Their Implications
by Andrea L. Glenn
NYU Press, 2014
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Sep 9th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 37)

In Psychopathy: An introduction to biological findings and their implications, Andrea L. Glenn and Adrian Raine rigorously and cleverly summarize a multitude of findings from studies of behavior, cognition, and brain functioning.  Their quest is to identify the unmistakable characteristics of psychopathy through converging evidence from self-reports of behavioral and cognitive habits (to identify traits) and unique brain activity and structure (to identify neural abnormalities).  This sort of 'qualitative meta-analysis' conducted separately in different fields and then scrutinized for congruities is augmented by some longitudinal data.  The authors use the latter to offer a glimpse into the 'making of a psychopath' through their attempts to partial out the contributions of nature and nurture. 

Let's begin by asking 'Who is a psychopath?', a question that is likely to be on readers' minds. Undeniably, news articles, biographies, documentaries, and fictional narratives (in movies, TV shows, and printed works) often detail more or less realistically the lives of individuals who have committed unspeakable deeds without much remorse.  Thus, the word 'psychopathy' tends to suggest a shiver of horror for the felonies committed and a guilty, but unsatisfied curiosity for their source(s).  The experience is similar to the one most laypersons face when accidentally spotting a crime scene.  That is, they are shocked and repulsed by the sight of blood, lifeless corps and/or body parts; and, at the same time, they experience an odd interest in the crime, including the identity of the victims and perpetrators, the nature of the misdeed, and the circumstances that motivate it.  Surprisingly, mainstream culture and professional diagnoses seem to agree on a set of defining characteristics, including not only dishonest and immoral conduct (e.g., parasitic lifestyle and delinquency), but also internal traits or dispositions (e.g., ability to manipulate and deceive others, lack of guilt, impulsiveness, irresponsibility, deficient empathy, failure to consider one's responsibility, and grandiose sense of self-worth) which are assumed to shape conduct.  Yet, even accepted definitions of psychopathy can bring to the forefront key unresolved issues within the sciences that study human behavior and the mind/brain that produces it:  First and foremost, do traits merely describe behavior or can they also predict it? If traits in adulthood are assumed to be stable internal dispositions whose expression (in the form of thoughts, emotions, and actions) is mostly unaffected by environmental input, traits can be expected to predict with reasonable accuracy an adult's behavior across multiple settings and circumstances.  However, evidence exists that dispositions and environmental influences interact.  Interactions can be conceptualized as instances of 'reciprocal determinism' (see Bandura, 2004), whereby environment, dispositions and behavior consistently influence each other, or as instances of environmental demands that can distort or even override initial dispositions (see Zimbardo, 2004).  The authors' primary pursuit, which is the identification of patterns of personality traits, behavioral habits, and brain functioning and structure that can define psychopathy across a multitude of studies, leads them to give much less coverage to the examination of environmental influences (i.e., the power of the situation).  Yet, such influences deserve a closer look as they may define scholars' view of the extent to which psychopathy is truly resistant to intervention.    

Second, the authors recognize that evidence in studies of psychopathy is collected from diverse samples of participants whose comparability is often a debatable matter.  Glenn and Raine address the issue of 'noise' in available data by searching for converging cognitive, behavioral and brain evidence.  Yet, information about traits is largely collected through self-reports (i.e., a variety of inventories, scales, and structured interviews) whose biases may introduce additional undesirable 'noise' in the data.  As per the authors' review of literature devoted to the identification of patterns of personality and behavioral traits that can define psychopathy and its subtypes, corroborating neurobiological evidence is not unambiguous or even consistently uniform.  Although the authors appear to believe that distinctive neurobiological patterns exist corroborating the claim that specific traits can uniquely identify individuals who are psychopaths, variability from study to study is not negligible.  Glenn and Raine address this issue by introducing the notion of specific subtypes of psychopathy (e.g., primary versus secondary psychopath, and successful psychopaths).  Yet, they also tacitly acknowledge that the diversity of samples of participants used in behavioral and neurobiological studies combined with researchers' reliance on self-report measures of psychopathology may introduce 'noise' in available data which remains at the present time difficult to remove.

Thirdly, even reliable evidence of neurobiological anomalies in the structure and functioning of the brain of individuals labeled as psychopaths is generally difficult to interpret.  Regarding anomalies associated with most types of psychopathology, structural and/or functional abnormalities may be the cause, the effect, or merely coexist with a given psychopathology.  Of course, also unclear is the extent to which specific anomalies are linked to specific patterns of conduct, affect, and cognition.    

Notwithstanding methodological and theoretical issues, the reader can be quite satisfied with the comprehensive review of traits allegedly defining psychopathy that have been collected from a variety of inventories and scales and that the authors summarize and attempt to connect to neurobiological evidence.  Overall, 'Psychopathy: An introduction to biological findings and their implications' outlines the need for more research that can address some of the unresolved issues related to mental health professionals' study and understanding of this form of psychopathology, its sources, and its (bleak) prognosis.  Methodological issues encompass the criteria for selection of participants, the utility of the variety of scales used, and researchers' reliance on data-gathering procedures other than self-reports.  Theoretical issues may entail a deeper understanding of the interplay of genetic and environmental influences through longitudinal studies involving not only large numbers of participants, but also control groups of comparable individuals.  Notwithstanding the quality of available evidence and the questions it raises, the book can be appreciated by students who want to be introduced to one of the domains of cognitive neuroscience that is rather complex and in the process of restructuring itself into not only a legitimate field of study, but also one that is independent from criminology.  The book can also be an interesting and useful read for established researchers who want to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a domain before considering it as a field of study.  All in all, the text is a good and valuable read which is difficult to put down.            


Works Cited:

Bandura, A. (2004). Model of causality in social learning theory. In A. Freeman, M. J. Mahoney, P. DeVito, D. Martin (Eds.), Cognition and psychotherapy (2nd ed.) (pp. 25-44). New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). A situationist perspective on the psychology of evil: Understanding how good people are transformed into perpetrators. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil (pp. 21-50). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.


© 2014 Christian Perring



Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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