Last week, many of the world’s top psychopathy researchers gathered in Washington, D.C., for the biennial conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. I’m an associate member of the organization, so I attended as well.
The scientists presented the newest, most cutting-edge research in the field with 60 oral presentations and 100 posters. I contributed two posters based on the data collected from you, the Lovefraud readers.
Impressions of research
At the conference, it was obvious that there are many very bright people trying to unravel the mysteries of the psychopathic personality disorder. Some of the topics discussed included:
Origin of the disorder: The experts are settled on the idea that the seeds of psychopathy are genetic, and that environmental influences, including parenting, determine whether the disorder actually takes hold in particular individuals.
Parental warmth: Researchers indicated that when a child is at risk for becoming psychopathic, the best thing parents can do to help the child develop empathy and a conscience is to be warm and loving with the child. This can be difficult when the kids are acting out, but punishment does not work. An important technique is to maintain eye contact with the child, because many potentially disordered children avoid eye contact.
Brain research: Several researchers presented evidence indicating that the brains of psychopaths are physically different from those of people who are not disordered. Plus, other research indicated that there are differences in the way psychopathic brains process information.
Development of the disorder: Researchers presented information that shows adolescence is often a critical time, when the disorder either develops or dissipates in a young person. Although I didn’t hear anyone say this, I infer that adolescence may be the last chance to divert a person from becoming a full-blown psychopath.
Fast talkers: Stephen D. Benning, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, presented research on how psychopaths talk. He discovered that people high in psychopathic traits tend to cram more words into their conversation, and because of this they seem more convincing and create a positive impression on observers.
Novel approaches to treatment
One of the most interesting sessions for me was about novel approaches for treating youth and adult psychopaths.
In a presentation called Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths, researchers at Eberhard Karls University in Germany described how they were able to teach diagnosed psychopaths to regulate impulses in their own brains, which led to improved behavior.
Another study was A randomized controlled trial of Omega-3 supplementation in youth with callous-unemotional traits. As the title suggests, at-risk children were given fish oil supplements, with a control group receiving sunflower oil placebos. The researchers found that both groups of children improved.
This was attributed to the “placebo effect,” which is well known in medical literature. Essentially, because people believe they are being treated, they get better, even though they are not receiving any real medication. The kids and/or their parents thought they were being treated, and the belief enabled their behavior to change.
The researchers described above all gave 15-minute presentations about their work. In addition to that, 100 more studies were presented in poster fashion. That means researchers created posters summarizing the key points of their research, along with relevant charts and graphs. I presented two posters, called In Love With an Exploiter, based on the 2011 Lovefraud Romantic Partner Survey, which many of you completed.
When I conducted the Internet survey, I asked respondents to rate partners according to the criteria proposed in the first draft of the DSM-5 and answer questions about the experience, including harm suffered. Analyzing the data, I discovered two interesting phenomena, which I reported at the conference:
Sexual deception correlates with increased harm to romantic partners
One of the questions I asked in the survey was, “Did the individual lie about his/her sexual orientation?” Of all survey respondents, 81.5% said the individual was truthful about sexual orientation, and 18.5% reported that they lied.
Analyzing these two groups separately—data about putative sociopathic individuals who told the truth about their sexual orientation vs. those who lied—showed that sexual deception correlated with increased harm suffered by the romantic partner. On almost every measure, individuals who were sexually deceptive displayed more antisocial traits, more antisocial behavior, and caused more harm to their romantic partners, than those who were not sexually deceptive.
The results were particularly striking when comparing sexually deceptive vs. not sexually deceptive in regards to physical violence and sexual demands: Victims reported more physical abuse or injury (46% vs. 33%). They reported having their lives threatened more often (49% vs. 30%). They reported more pets injured or killed (23% vs. 12%). They reported more cheating (87% vs. 72%). And they reported uncomfortable sexual demands (53% vs. 37%).
How age affects the harm experienced by romantic partners
In another analysis of the survey data, respondents were divided into two groups—those who were involved in youthful relationships, where both parties were between the ages of 14 and 30 when they met, and those relationships were both parties were age 31 or older.
Respondents of both age groups reported two of the top characteristics of antisocial personality disorder, manipulativeness and callousness, at similar rates. However, all other traits—deceitfulness, narcissism, irresponsibility, impulsivity, aggression, hostility and recklessness—were reported at higher rates among the younger individuals.
Comparing the youthful vs. mature involvements: Victims reported more physical abuse or injury (54% vs. 29%). They reported having their lives threatened more often (42% vs. 28%). There were more reports of the putative antisocial individual threatening suicide (31% vs. 17%). And the victims themselves more often considered suicide (46% vs. 34%). In regards to financial harm, the youthful victims more often lost their homes (36% vs. 23%), lost their jobs (31% vs. 24%) and incurred debt (69% vs. 56%).
Just about every presentation ended with the researchers talking about “future directions” — what else needs to be researched.
My suggestion to the SSSP would be to do more research that can have direct impact on what goes on in the real world. The work being done on treating potentially disordered children, I felt, was particularly important. Anything that can be done to help kids not grow up to be exploiters is good for society.
I’d also like to see research on what happens to victims of psychopaths and how people like Lovefraud readers can be helped. None of the main sessions addressed this topic at all.