Natural Rationality | decision-making in the economy of nature


Violence, psychopathy, folkspychology and the criminal brain: reflections on the Virginia Tech rampage

It is hard to think about something else today. Again, violence strikes us. Everybody wonders why these things can happen. These behaviors are beyond human understanding. One or two things, however, are worth mentioning. First, everybody, form BBC to CNN to CBC, describes the situation in folk-psychological terms, i.e., the everyday conceptual framework we use to describe and predict actions: X desires Y, A believe that P, etc. When we ask why, intuitively, we look for reasons, for certain beliefs, desires, intentions and motivations that the killer might have in mind beforehand. As philosopher Donald Davidson formulate it :

"If someone acts with an intention then he must have attitudes
and beliefs from which, had he been aware of them and had he the time, he could
have reasoned that his act was desirable. (1980, p. 85)"

The problem with that point of view is that we take those reasons that justifies actions as the cause of the action. All explanations of actions are reduced to identifying the beliefs and desires that cause an action. But what does it tells us? The killer had a desire to kill people, believed that shooting with a gun was a mean to achieve his goal? Is finding the motive enough? Psychopaths, or people suffering from antisocial personality disorder (and I assume that the killer is one) are not normal people, although they may look like:

Psychopaths are not necessarily the sadistic killers of popular fiction. But they lack empathy, and are unable to experience guilt or remorse. They are assertive and egocentric, may be highly manipulative, and are unconcerned by the negative consequences of their actions. When they kill, the crimes are usually well planned and committed for personal gain. But engage in conversation with a psychopath, and he or she might seem perfectly normal. [Nature 410, 296-298 (15 March 2001) Into the mind of a killer]

3-4% of the male population and less than 1% of the female population suffer from this syndrome (Mealey 1995). They lack empathy, show diminished affective reactions, and their prefrontal cortex (where behavior may be inhibited) are reduced in volume by up to 14% (see precedent link and this one). Murderer psychopaths are able to "associate violent and pleasant thoughts with greater ease than other psychopaths or non-psychopathic murderers". Their amydala (a brain area involved in emotional learning, memory and fear, among other, are dysfunctional. They don't learn to fear certain things, such as social reprobation:
The individual is less likely to learn to avoid the use of antisocial behavior to achieve their goals. Instead, the individual may learn to use antisocial behavior instrumentally to achieve their desires (they may receive the potential reward, e.g., financial gain, without the cost of the victim's distress). (Blair, 2005)
Hence psychopaths lack many moral emotions and moral motivations, due to an abnormal brain functioning. There may be a genetic influence, reinforced by the individual's experience. Some studies suggest that genetic screenings of psychopathy would be possible in children. In Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality Laurence Tancredi review and discuss the case of Ricky Green, a serial killler who murdered 4 people, and sketch an hypothesis on how alcohol, drugs and social environment of Green slowly rewired his genetically predisposed brain and turned it into a cold-blooded murder.

More profoundly, the problem with these behaviors is that they may emerge in any society. Evolutionary biology a population-based science: for many traits, there will be a distribution of traits. A few people are hyper-altruistic, a few others are psychopath, and the big majority is "normal", have social emotions but don't like to be cheated. Sadly, as Mealey concludes, psychopathy is an evolutionary stable strategy. We could expect them in any milieu. Yes, guns should be controlled, but this is not the only solution. Quebec has a gun-control policy stronger than the USA, and yet we had 3 shootings in Montreal since the last 20 years. The important things, I think, is to detect theses persons as soon as possible. Genetic, psychological, behavioral tests, whatever: but people that are born with an abnormal brain functioning that may lead to psychopathy should be treated and helped (psychological tests already exist, actually). Not as criminal, but as sick persons. We don't care about the beliefs and desires that lead to these behavior: maybe the killers in these rampages have 'reasons', they hated everybody, they suffer from social exclusions, they wanted revenge, etc. But that won't help to solve the problems. These people do not process information as we do. I really understood psychopathy the day I watch the movie Kalifornia. The character Brian Kessler (impersonated by David "x-files" Duchovny) reports his tragic meeting with the psychopath Early Grayce (Brad Pitt!):

I'll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don' know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing. That day I learned any one of us is capable of taking another human life. But I also learned there is a difference between us and them: it's feeling remorse. Dealing with it. Confronting a conscience. Early never did. [...] I remember once going on a school trip to the top of the Empire State Building. When I looked down at the crowds of people on the street they looked like ants. I pulled out a penny and some of us started talking about what would happen if I dropped it from up there and it landed on someone's head. Of course I never crossed that line and actually dropped the penny. I don't think Early Grayce even knew there was a line to cross.
At another place in the movie, the psychopath also say something like "you wonder what goes in my mind when I kill? Nothing". Nothing. They plan they murder, and they do it. Pure rationality without morality, just like predators. No shame, no guilt. They don't have the same 'reasons' if that means anything. Nobody can predict what one person will do. But if we take a "population of brains" perspective, we may be able to understand psychopathy, and find ways to avoid these horrors.