The thing everyone gets wrong about psychopaths

In recent years, kinesics has become a controversial pillar of criminal psychology.

There is plenty of literature to support a throughline between physical gestures and criminal intent, but it’s nearly impossible to adjust these cues for psychopathy—saying nothing of stable populations who merely have a tough time choreographing appropriate behavioral responses.

Psychopaths are generally believed to lack empathetic emotions, but a building body of evidence suggests that the disorder may actually signal an inability to regulate them.

A new cross-sectional study published in the Psychiatry Research journal employed a community sample and a sample of violent offenders to animate this point.

“Emotional dysfunctions have long been associated with psychopathy. Yet, the extent to which these dysfunctions include problems in emotion regulation (ER) has only recently become clearer,” the authors wrote in the new paper. “In his study, we first reviewed the theoretical and empirical literature on psychopathy and ER, and then examined associations between ER and psychopathy in four diverse samples from two countries (MTurk, college, community, and offender samples from the United States and Italy).

Psychopathy and emotional dysregulation

There were a total of three nonclinical samples (1,217) reviewed in addition to 164 violent male criminal offenders residing in seven different Italian prisons.

Each was tasked with completing emotional regulation assessments before being evaluated via the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS). The latter seeks the presence of the following traits: manipulative behavior, callousness, and narcissism.

Across all sample pools, those who scored high in psychopathy concurrently exhibited severe emotional dysregulation. Meaning there were instances wherein both criminal and civilian psychopaths exhibited empathetic traits and the inability to ascribe them to appropriate triggers.

“It is noteworthy that, in both samples examined, narcissism was significantly and positively related to higher DERS scores, whereas the relations between Machiavellianism and DERS latent variables were not significant in both samples,” the authors explained. “If psychopathy does not fundamentally involve an absence of emotions, it is possible that disturbances in emotional regulation may be linked to the expression of psychopathic traits.”

Independent research has indicated that emotional dysregulation can be triggered by a range of provocative stimuli in otherwise healthy individuals.

Returning to kinesics and its role in criminal law, we see now how the science privileges data that’s hard to anticipate. Mammals are historically unpredictable when faced with traumatic experiences and we know that trauma is expressed and perceived in a variety of different ways.

By comparing nonclinical communities alongside those imprisoned by reason of impulsivity, the researchers behind the new report were able to demonstrate a failure to understand the markers that distinguish malicious psychopaths and those chemically incapable of emotional conformity.

“Of note, the present findings provide some compelling evidence consistent with the clinical and theoretical intuition that emotion dysregulation may play an important role in the emotional functioning of individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits (Harenski and Kiehl, 2010). Replicating recent findings, these results suggest that the relevance of ER in the construct of psychopathy might be greater than previously believed,” the authors concluded.