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What’s new in psychopathy research

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.

Lovefraud research

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%).

Future directions

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.

 



12 Comments on "What’s new in psychopathy research"

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  1. Delores says:

    It sounds to me like the research is tying to avoid reality and fix what cannot be fixed. How did the professionals go from “It cannot be cured” to “Maybe it can be prevented”. I know hope springs eternal; mine did for 40 years. I first had the hope that the psychopath father of my children would change; now I hope my children are not like him but I know they are. I did not know what a psychopath was when I married him but I found out soon enouth that he was dangerous and I tried to protect my children from him. I devoted my life to being a good mother, limiting their contact with him and hiding their dad’s psychopathic dirty secrets from them. And they are both psychopaths, just like their dad.

    I still try to deny it but their behavior refutes my denial. I am constantly confronted with my children’s lies, deceit, irresponsibility, lack of generalized learning and my grandchildren are bing medicated for ADHD…but aren’t all children medicated for ADHD in this day and age? See, I still have hope for my grandchildren.

    I guess it is hard for the experts to give up hope but I do not believe there is any hope. I did my best to give my children the love of both mother and father, I gave them unconditional love and taught them my honesty, empathy and responsibility but it did not take. They lie, manipulate and use others. I failed with my children and I was doomed from the start by thier sperm-donor’s genes.

    I still love my children. I cannot not love them. I still hope that they will wake up from a bad dream and that my grandchildren will survive and thrive but I fear for them all. I do not claim that I was a perfect mother, but I did everything these professionals suggest as a preventative to psychopahy and it did not work. It was born into them and my efforts were futile. All I can say is maybe they would be worse if I had not tried to lead them to love, honesty, empathy, understanding and responsibility. I suspect they could be worse.

    But now they say I love them too much, I enmesh them, I feel enough for everyone, I am too controling. According to them, I was a perfect mother when they were growing up but now I am too emotional, too angry and too controlling. I suppose it seems that way to them. As I watch them become more and more like their dad, I cannot hide my fear and disaproval. They say I will not let them be who they are and perhaps they are right. They could have been anyone they wanted to be except psychopaths like their dad. I cannot condone that.

    Before the psychopath decided to come back into their lives it seemed ok…they had psychopathic traits but were still loving and caring. They are now his targets, all of my efforts are undermined and they think I am the villain. Maybe I am. I just could not continue the charade with him active in our lives again after 30 years. He imposed himslf on them and tried use them to impose himself on me again. I was forced to tell them the truth to save myself and they do not want to know the truth.



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    • fightforwhatsright says:

      Delores:

      I am sorry to hear about the pain you’ve endured. I hear you when you say you feel there is no hope. I don’t think there is hope for victims who still have them in our lives in some way. I am glad the experts are willing to study them as that gives us more information. Thinking of you today and thank you for sharing your many years of abuse to remind us that they don’t change.



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  2. salvation2012 says:

    My ex spath had the environment to nurture that disorder… holy cow, to a T! His mother would not hug, nor give eye contact… it was so difficult to try to create a relationship with her… she never hugged her kids. I remember asking my ex about growing up without hugs and he said, “thats just not what we did in our home.” My mom told me she thought my ex’s dad was the same as my ex… I did not see that until well into the marriage. Perhaps the gene was there and the environment promoted and developed it… he was angry as a child… signatures in his elementary yearbooks state how he was a fun guy but pissed off all the time or mean, or an asshole… I was shocked to read that after he was removed from my life and really discovered who he is.

    Having a background in psychology and social work, maybe someday I would consider venturing into this area for either research or counseling. Not nearly ready yet, perhaps in due time. I enjoy reading Donna’s work, it makes so much sense. Back in the day when I practiced social work, I had one Borderline Personality client… I was only 24 at the time and had a regular upbringing and saw only good in people, and was so easily taken by her… my mentor had to work with me to see what was really going on and maintain appropriate boundaries… her other side eventually came out when she realized she didnt have me. Wow, it can happen even in professional relationships… I guess my disposition in life set me up to be easily taken in my personal life as well. Thanks for sharing the details of the conference…



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