A lack of self-control and a strong focus on rewards is strongly linked to criminal behaviour, new research finds.
Brain scans have revealed this is the critical difference between an ordinary psychopath and a criminal psychopath.
Despite popular belief, being a psychopath does not automatically make someone a criminal — although it does help.
Many criminals have psychopathic traits, such as impulsive and antisocial behaviour.
However, many people with psychopathic traits never commit criminal offences.
The new research used brain scans to investigate what turns an ordinary psychopath into a criminal psychopath.
Dirk Geurts, the study’s first author, explained the research:
“We carried out tests on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals, and 20 non-criminal individuals, half of whom had a high score on the psychopathy scale.
The participants performed tests while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner.
We saw that the reward centre in the brains of people with many psychopathic traits (both criminal and non-criminal) were more strongly activated than those in people without psychopathic traits.
It has already been proved that the brains of non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits are triggered by the expectation of reward.
This research shows that this is also the case for criminal individuals with psychopathic traits.”
Mr Geurts explained the results:
“There is a difference in the communication between the reward centre and an area in the middle of the forebrain.
Good communication between these areas would appear to be a condition for self-control.
Our results seem to indicate that the tendency to commit an offence arises from a combination of a strong focus on reward and a lack of self-control.
This is the first research project in which convicted criminals were actually examined.”
Both impulsivity and very antisocial, egocentric behaviour are key to criminal psychopathy, said Professor Robbert-Jan Verkes, who led the research:
“Especially [these] traits seem to be connected with an excessively sensitive reward centre.
The presence of these impulsive and antisocial traits predict criminal behaviour more accurately than a lack of empathy.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Geurts et al., 2016).