Of the violent offenders in prison, those with psychopathic syndrome are harder to rehabilitate.
Photo Credit: CBC

Psychopaths’ brains can’t process punishment


Brain scans indicate the brain of a psychopath is different from others’ and bolsters the idea that they are unable to learn from punishments imposed on them, indicates a study published in The Lancet. This could provide new insight into developing rehabilitation programs for violent offenders with psychopathic syndrome and early interventions for children who appear to be devleoping it.

Psychopaths are people who show conduct problems from an early age that escalate through adolescence and usually result in criminal offending in adulthood. They show a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse, persistent lying, grandiosity. They are often glib and charming and they are very successful at manipulating other people.

Psychopaths continue offending and hurting

British and Canadian psychiatrists ran a test on violent offenders with and without psychopathy, as well as on normal people. “We wanted to further our understanding of why these men are unable to learn from the sanctions that are repeatedly imposed on them and why they continue committing offences and hurting other people,” says Sheilagh Hodgins, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and co-author of the study.

“No matter what behaviour they engage in, they always expect it will end in a reward. And so they fail to attend to, and take account of punishment. This is further evidence that they may not be gleaning the message which is ‘stop doing whatever you’re doing because the people around you don’t appreciate it.’ And they simply don’t seem to be able to get that message,” says Hodgins.

ListenPsychopaths are ‘overly optimistic’

One program has had promising success with psychopathic offenders in western Canada, but Prof. Sheilagh Hodgins says “for political reasons” it is not being widely offered to offenders. © CBC/Doc Zone

Canadians have been “pioneers” in developing offender rehabilitation programs, she says. And they have been very successful with violent offenders who do not have psychopathy. But for those who do, something different is required.

“We have to get them to attend to punishment. These individuals are overly optimistic. They really presume each time that they decide to engage in behaviour that it will lead to a reward,” says Hodgins. “So we have to be able to get them to be able to predict that perhaps if you do ‘a’ it will lead to 50 per cent success or there’s a 50 per cent chance it will lead to a punishment. But if you do ‘b’ maybe you have an 80 per cent chance of a reward but a 20 per cent chance of a punishment. They don’t seem to be able to do that kind of thinking before they engage in a behaviour and then to choose which behaviour is really likely to lead to a reward.”

Some success in rehab, but…

Based on this idea, psychiatrists devised a program that has had some success at rehabilitating some psychopathic offenders at a penitentiary in the western city of Saskatoon. “But presently, for political reasons, we don’t seem to be offering these programs to most offenders,” says Hodgins. The government currently in power in Canada has a tough-on-crime agenda and is committed to budget cuts, so it has axed some prisoner rehabilitation programs and spent more on creating space in prisons..

Children must be treated early

Early intervention is critical in trying to change psychopathic behaviour. “The most important thing would be that parents to understand that it’s very important to treat conduct problems in children,” says Hodgins. There are parenting programs that are highly effective in reducing conduct problems in children. They may not be as effective for those children with psychopathic traits, but she says research is underway to find to effective treatments for them.

“Psychopaths are very expensive and they do a great deal of harm and they cause a great deal of suffering. And so we need to prevent the development of this type of individual.”

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