Mind & Body

This Is One Way Psychopath Brains Are Different, According to a Harvard Study

Dealing with a psychopath can be a trying task. Psychopathy doesn't make clear, honest communication particularly easy, but it shouldn't be directly synonymous with evil, danger, or violence. There's a key difference in the brains of psychopaths that you may relate to more than you realize.

Brain Blame

It's easy to fall into the trap of talking about psychopaths like dangerous, horrible people. But one way their brains differ from that of non-psychopaths is pretty relatable: They overvalue immediate rewards. While your brain may consider the future consequences of rash decisions, the brains of psychopaths are wired in a way that doesn't consider repercussions, according to a 2017 study published in Neuron.

"For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that's why they do all these terrible things," said Joshua Buckholtz, a senior study author and associate professor of psychology at Harvard. "But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don't have, it's the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole. And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices."

What'd You Expect?

For the study, Buckholtz and his team took 49 prison inmates through a delayed gratification test and studied their brain scans as they made decisions. The test gave the inmates two options: receive a smaller amount of money right now, or a larger amount of money later. What the team found was that people who scored high for psychopathy showed more activity in a brain region called the ventral striatum, which is known to be involved in evaluating subjective rewards. They found that those with high psychopathy scores had weaker connections in the brain between the ventral striatum and other parts of the brain involved in decisionmaking. Basically, this weak connection makes it harder for them to foresee the consequences of their immediate actions.

Buckholtz wants to erase the image of psychopaths as heartless monsters and believes the results of this study support his case. "They're not aliens, they're people who make bad decisions," he said. "The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive overeaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren't inhuman, they're exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction."

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Want more? Check out Kent A. Kiehl's "The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto May 16, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.