Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner with Dr. Kent Kiehl, a leading researcher on psychopathy and self-described Psychopath Whisperer. Dinner was billed as story-time about psychopaths, and Dr. Kiehl did not disappoint.
As a tasty Mediterranean meal digested in my belly, I listened in rapt attention (and significant unease) as Dr. Kiehl described his latest “Perfect 40”, a convicted serial killer who scored the maximum 40 out of 40 possible points on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.
I don’t think Law & Order: SVU could have dreamt up a more chilling evildoer. This “Perfect 40” committed rape, incestuous rape, hebephillic rape, and at least half a dozen murders, all without a shred of guilt.
In addition to telling enough stories to give me nightmares for a month, Dr. Kiehl also answered questions about the science behind psychopathy. Here’s what I learned:
1. Psychopaths lack empathy but not theory of mind: Though psychopathy and autism are both social-processing disorders that primarily affect men, they are quite distinct. People with autism lack theory of mind abilities – that is, they cannot reason about other people’s thoughts and intentions.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, generally have pretty good theory of mind. In some cases, they can actually leverage their theory of mind abilities to manipulate others into doing what they want. Instead, psychopaths are distinguished by their lack of empathy. They can’t tell and don’t care what others are feeling. This is what enables the most dangerous psychopaths to commit heinous crimes: zero guilt about what they do to their victims.
2. Psychopaths don’t anticipate punishment. Pretend your television remote is broken, so that whenever you use it to change channels, it makes a little buzzing sound before delivering a painful electric zap. After just a few zaps, you’d learn to associate that buzzing sound with the pain to come. At that point, the mere sound of the buzz would cause your body to show a stress response: your palms would get sweaty and your heart rate would rise in anticipation of the expected zap.
This unconscious learning of the association between cue and punishment is called fear conditioning, and it happens in just about all animals – but not in psychopaths! In the broken remote example, psychopaths would consciously know that the buzz would be followed by a zap, but their bodies wouldn’t show any anticipatory stress response to the buzz. This indicates that something’s gone wonky with psychopaths’ learning and punishment-processing circuits.
3. Psychopaths may not experience withdrawal after halting drug use. Lots of psychopaths abuse drugs and alcohol, which is unsurprising, since they’re impulsive pleasure seekers who ignore consequences. I was astonished, however, to hear that psychopaths don’t seem to experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping their drug use. It could mean that psychopaths don’t get addicted to drugs in the first place.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has not been well-studied because it is logistically challenging to do so. It’s obviously unethical to test this in an experimental setting. You’d have to give psychopaths lots of dangerous drugs and then suddenly stop. Consequently, the only way to study this is to find drug-abusing psychopaths in the real world and strictly monitor them while they voluntarily quit their drug use – not exactly an easy thing to do!
Dr. Kiehl had anecdotal examples of psychopaths claiming no withdrawal symptoms. It’s possible that psychopaths are either lying about going through withdrawal, or that psychopaths’ bodies go through a physical withdrawal experience that they fail to consciously notice or remember.
I found this open question especially fascinating, as it could point to ideas for addiction treatment. Some good could come from psychopaths, at least indirectly.
4. Research with psychopaths is dangerous and scary. Administration of the real psychopath test (not the pop science version that Dr. Kiehl dismissed as pseudoscience) involves conducting an interview. In Dr. Kiehl’s work involving incarcerated psychopaths, he often found himself alone in a prison room with a psychopath.
Sometimes the psychopaths would think it was amusing to tell Dr. Kiehl that they could easily kill him before he could summon the help of a guard. At least one got too close for comfort, simply to show Dr. Kiehl that it could be done. Needless to say, it takes a special kind of personality to be able to do the research Dr. Kiehl does. He noted that some of his graduate students and research assistants don’t stick around for long because it’s just too stressful.
5. Research with psychopaths is fascinating. There’s a reason why shows like Law and Order: SVU and movies about serial killers are successful – it is utterly fascinating to see other people operate so callously outside the bounds of social convention and morality. There’s a gasp-inducing, “I can’t believe any human being could do something like that!” allure that keeps sites like Murderpedia in existence.
For Dr. Kiehl, the fascination runs even deeper. He’s not content to marvel at the mere existence of psychopaths; he wants to learn what makes them the way they are so that we can treat them or at least prevent them from becoming serial killers.
I was glad to vicariously experience a small glimpse of what it would be like to be a professional psychopath whisperer. It was at once thrilling and deeply disturbing. It was also enough to know that I would never want to ask Dr. Kiehl for a job in his lab.