Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy - Day 1
#SSSP2019 opened with the presidential address by Adelle Forth - drawing attention to the importance of emerging researchers in driving forward our understanding of psychopathy. Specific mention was paid to the hard work being done by the SSSP student committee in engaging early career researchers.
The address emphasised the unintentional neglect by researchers to better understand the victims of psychopathy. Previously, we have favoured the exploration of risk assessment, related personality traits (e.g., the Dark Triad), biological deficits (e.g., amygdala activation), and the manifestation of psychopathy in adolescence (e.g., callous-unemotional traits). Where victimisation is acknowledged, this is typically constrained to abuse experienced by the psychopaths themselves - not on the survivors of their crimes. Forth commented on three areas of research currently being undertaken by her research students.
First, the experiences of victimisation in the workplace (e.g., neglect, impact on reputation, sexual and physical assault), whereby victim statements were often - but not always - at disparity with their first impressions. In many cases, victimisation directly led to individuals quitting their jobs and suffering psychological detriment; consequences which vastly outweighed any positive growth reported. Second, the experience of victims previously - and currently - in intimate relationships with psychopaths. Psychopaths met their partners in a variety of ways, not restricted to online networking, and red flags were present at the start of the relationship (e.g., hot tempered, too attentive, cold stare). The mental and physical impact on the victims and their children was severe. Third, the methods used by psychopaths to manipulate their relationships were highlighted. Typically, psychopaths used 'love bombing' (e.g., giving high levels of attention and gifts) and 'gas lighting' (e.g., making victims question their memory) to assert power and control in the relationship. When asked how they could be helped in the future, victims noted that access to support and education for service providers is key - we need to learn to effectively communicate our research to those in a position to action change.
Session 1 - Interpersonal Relationships and Psychopathic Traits Across the Lifespan [Track 2]
This session opened with a story about “Beth”, a lady who grew up in an abusive home and showed severe CU (callous-unemotional) traits, but who was later adopted by a caring family, treated, and eventually became a high-functioning healthcare professional. Elodie Mormont (University of Liège) reported on early interactions between mothers and their CU children; noting that mothers often described their children as manipulating their facial expressions to “fit” the situation and that they felt “powerless” around their children. However, levels of psychopathy in the children were not considered high enough to cause concern. Celine Choa (University College London) followed with an exploration of the role of parental punishment in the manifestation of CU traits. Such children are often considered to be insensitive to punishment and so find difficulty in learning right from wrong. However, it appears that psychological aggression (with the purpose of causing shame) might play a role. Suhlim Hwang (Univeristy of Pennsylvania) continued this theme with an exploration of engagement strategies by teachers. CU traits negatively predicted motivation and engagement with school. Moreover, when teachers exhibited harsh, relative to reward-focused punishments, there was lower school engagement in students with low CU, but not high CU traits (who may be less impacted by discipline). The final talk in this seminar was by Kimberly Mularczyk (Charleton University) who discussed the role of psychopathic coworkers, and so moving discussion of interpersonal relationships to adulthood. This talk highlighting that some psychopaths aren’t so smooth-talking, and so resort to bullying, intimidation, and aggression as a means of manipulating others. The use of physical intimidation is thought to be best related to the overall conceptualisation of psychopathy, with the exception of the lifestyle facet - likely because responsibility is important for maintaining a job.
Session 2 - The Biological Underpinnings of Psychopathy: Gaps in the Literature [Track 2]
Two talks within this session highlighted new evidence pertaining to the role of cortisol and testosterone in the manifestation of psychopathy-related personality traits. Alexandria Johnson (University of Alabama) noted that whilst cortisol was positively associated with CU traits, there was no interaction between testosterone and cortisol in females. This finding was unexpected and might be the result of non-clinical samples being assessed. Natalie Goulter (The University of New South Wales) followed this up by showing that for secondary psychopaths, higher levels of cortisol and testosterone were reported, however, such measures do no contribute to behavioural differences. There is clearly a need for more research in this field to clarify this position. Stuart White (Boys Town National Research Hospital) changed emphasis and discussed recent findings indicating that individuals with high, relative to levels of CU traits exhibited decreased PAG responses - however this was in the context of no behavioural changes, which leaves us with the question, why do these individuals end up eliciting a reactive aggressive response to social provocation if their brains don’t exhibit typical signs of antecedence. Finally, Craig Neumann (Univeristy of North Texas) wrapped up the session with an innovative approach, urging us to move away from variable-centred analysis, in favour of person-centred analysis. Specifically, Neumann grouped individuals based on their amygdala activation profiles instead of their psychopathy scores. Individuals with lower amygdala activation self-reported the highest psychopathy scores, especially in regards to the affective component. Interestingly, a second group - characterised by a hyperactive amygdala response - did not seem to differ from normative groups.
Five-Minute Blitz Talks
CU traits predict gun carrying and gun use, and low levels of CU traits moderates the relationship between peer gun use and participant gun carrying.
CU traits improve the statistical prediction of recidivism above the Positive Achievement Change Tool (PACT).
Anxiety and victimisation may be a consequence of aggression in kids and not a cause; with anxiety being a marker of the severity of behaviour problems.
Youths with Conduct Disorder combined with high, relative to low CU traits exhibit grey matter volume reductions in key areas associated with psychopathy (e.g., insults and orbital frontal cortex).
High levels of anxiety is associated with higher empathic responses and over-reactivity to threat and so anxiety can counteract the CU traits associated deficits.
CU traits add to the level of peer rejection associated with conduct problems. Peer rejection may stem from perceptions of individuals being mean, untrustworthy, not nice, and aloof.
Typically, psychopathy is associated with maladaptive implications for workplace success. However, successful psychopaths excel on certain interpersonal traits such as boldness and egocentricity.
Dehumanisation may facilitate negative and violent attitudes towards women. High-scoring psychopaths may see women as sub-human.
Less information travels through subcortical structures in psychopathy meaning their behaviour is less likely to be impacted by emotional information. However, psychopaths have a hyper efficient dorsal attention network meaning they can focus on goal orientated behaviour.
Different interpersonal factors of psychopathy show unique vocal tendencies and strategic modulation of those characteristics.
Session 3 - Communicating Psychopathic Research Effectively [Track 2]
In the final session of the day, we examine the importance of, and means to, communicating psychopathic research to the general public. Jens Foell (Florida State University) opened the session discussing logistics. Our research can be communicated to the public across a variety of platforms including written (blogs, Twitter) visual (Ted talks, public engagement events), and verbal (podcasts) means. We need to find the appropriate method for our research, and one which works best for our style and strengths. The importance of clear communication was then followed up by Laura Drislane (University of Michigan). Few disorders convey such fascination with the public as psychopathy, however said individuals are inherently poor at identifying or describing the symptoms of mental disorders; relying mainly on the media for their knowledge. This has important legal implications for jurors who believe psychopaths cannot be treated. We have an important responsibility to change this perception with real, research-driven information. Stuart White (Boys Town National Research Hospital) made a case for the need to change our approaches of dissemination dependant on the specific group we try to approach. We need to remember the context in which we are speaking and to avoid the process - stick to the key outcomes and why they are important. Be creative and focus on the issues which matter to them the most but make sure you are honest about our intentions and be respectful about our competencies. Finally, Kasia Uzieblo (Ghent University) drew the day full circle by highlighting the importance of making contact with victims of psychopaths and inviting them to contribute to the development of our research. A special mention is made to the Aftermath: Surviving Psychopathy Foundation to help support individuals who have been victims of psychopaths and to help them recover from their past experiences. However, victims often struggle to be believed by their families and healthcare professionals - this needs to change.