The term “criminal minds” may have its origins in an 1928 editorial appearing in a special issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology which stated: “The problem of crime is the problem of the criminal mind.” No doubt that the editors decided to devote the special issue to crime due to the spike in mob killings in major U.S. cities, particularly Chicago. Yet, 85 years later, we continue to struggle with the very same question. What goes on in the criminal mind? And if we could find the answer, would we be able to prevent the recent tragic mass shootings or even the ordinary homicides that occur on a daily basis?

The answers to these questions generally start with attempts by mental health professionals to understand psychopathy. The characteristic traits of psychopathy are organized into two factors, according to psychologist Robert Hare’s now well-accepted criteria. Factor 1 incorporates a set of qualities that fall into the category of being callous, selfish, and remorselessly using others. The traits in Factor 1 include glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, and lack of empathy.

Factor 2 incorporates behaviors that fall into the general category of a chronically unstable and antisocial lifestyle. These behaviors reflect lack of ability to control oneself, sexual promiscuity, early conduct problems, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, juvenile delinquency, and many short-term marital relationships.

Hare’s two-factor concept of psychopathy is the basis for the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder, and will remain so in the revised code to be published in 2013. In Hare’s system, trained mental health professionals rate a potential psychopath on these two factors using a specifically-designed clinical interview called the Hare Psychopathy Check List-Revised (PCL-R). It takes a trained professional, according to Hare, to be able to cut through the lies, charm, and manipulativeness of the true psychopath, which is why the measure is in the form of an interview rather than a self-report questionnaire.

Hare estimates that psychopaths make up 1 percent of the population. However, although many criminals fit the criteria for psychopathy, not all psychopaths are violent criminals. According to Hare, “Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom.” Corporate psychopaths are more likely to be high on the Factor 1 traits since, obviously, most of them have avoided prison. The psychopath's superficial charm translates to the CEO's charisma, the grandiosity to self-confidence, impulsivity to tendency to take risks, and callousness to the ability to make tough decisions. Sophia Wellons, of Western Oregon University, writes in her 2012 paper, that the difference between the corporate psychopath and the incarcerated one lies in “executive functioning,” or the ability to make planful decisions. The psychopath in the boardroom is simply smarter than the one who’s in jail. 

As an aside, Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld claimed, based on his own 2012 study, that the typical U.S. president fits the criteria for psychopathy. This study received wide news coverage purporting that that political leadership and psychopathy are one and the same thing. However, among the many problems in this study was the fact that Lilienfeld incorporated a trait called “fearless dominance” into his definition of psychopathy. This is a trait measured by a self-report test. As I explained above, any self-report test of psychopathy is bound to be flawed. Psychopaths, by definition, lie. Therefore, tests that ask them if they lie are hardly likely to be valid.

Furthermore, fearless dominance is not generally recognized in the psychological community to be a core component of psychopathy. It’s very unlikely that Lilienfeld’s claim is a valid one, as you can read about here. Political leaders may seek dominance, but it is not of the fearless variety.  

The proposed causes of psychopathy are generally understood within a biopsychosocial  framework (Whitbourne & Halgin, 2013). The biological explanations cite neuroanatomical defects associated with the diminished capacity to feel emotions and control impulsive behavior. The so-called “warrior gene” (MAOA) may go awry in the psychopath, leading perhaps to these brain abnormalities and also defects in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward center.

Sociocultural explanations focus on parents who were overburdened, lacked parenting skills, or were antisocial themselves. Psychological theories emphasize deficits in classical conditioning making the psychopath incapable of learning to associate negative consequences with antisocial behavior. Psychological theories also point to possible difficulties in processing emotional stimuli.

Whatever the cause, psychopaths lie, and they lie a lot. In one study carried out in Western Sweden (Stromwall & Willen, 2011), 55 male and female prisoners candidly explained their strategies. Because they were already imprisoned, they had no motivation to lie. The three techniques that they said they used most often were these: (1) stick closely to the truth to make the lie plausible; (2) keep calm and relaxed, maintain eye contact, appear direct and forthright, laugh; and (3) either plan the lie carefully ahead of time or wait to hear what the questioner knows and then base the lie on the information the questioner provides. It’s a script ripped from the headlines, as it were, of a perp's interrogation on The Closer or Law & Order: SVU.  Psychopaths have honed their act to an exquisite degree. Of course, the ones who are caught are the ones whose lies were obviously detected. Imagine how many other more successful liars are roaming the population without getting caught in the act.

What about the psychopath who becomes a serial killer? Of the famous examples of psychopathic serial killers, perhaps none is more well-known to the public than Ted Bundy (1974-78), who murdered at least 30 women in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Florida. He escaped from prison following his first arrest but was later caught and sentenced to death in Florida. Bundy never pleaded insanity; in fact, quite the opposite, as you can tell from this chilling quote: “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”

Less well-known but more deadly was the “Sunday Slasher,” Cory Eugene Watts. Between 1974 and 1982, Watts murdered at least 80 victims but was undetected for years. He finally was caught and incarcerated, dying in prison in 1982 of prostate cancer. He also was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

The serial killer with antisocial personality disorder seems to be a very different creature than is the mass murderer who goes on a shooting rampage. Two recent cases, tragically, bear this out. The 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who committed the January 2011 Arizona mall shooting that wounded and nearly killed Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (but killed 6 others), was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

 James Eagen Holmes, a brilliant 24-year-old graduate student, seemed to be decompensating before entering an Aurora, Colorado movie theater where he opened fire, murdering 12 and wounding 58 people. Because neither of these men took their own lives, forensic psychiatrists and psychologists were able to conduct examinations to determine their diagnoses. Sandy Hook elementary school shooter

Adam Lanza, 20 years old, turned a gun on himself after killing 20 schoolchildren, six teachers and school administrators, and his mother. It is too soon to determine what his diagnosis might have been although a range of post-hoc diagnosticians are hard at work. 

As debate about the causes of these mass shootings continues, one fact remains clear: The majority of people with the type of psychological disorder that Loughner, Holmes, and possibly Lanza have or had do not commit acts of violence. A 2006 report by the MacArthur Foundation on Violent Risk Assessment concluded that 18 percent of people with a psychiatric disorder commit acts of violence at least once a year. However, their diagnosis is not likely to be schizophrenia—the most frequent diagnosis is antisocial personality disorder. People with a diagnosis of schizophrenia were less likely to commit acts of violence. Substance abuse significantly increased the risk of community violence. According to this report, 31 percent of people with both substance abuse and a psychiatric disorder commit one act of violence a year.  

The MacArthur Report examined 134 risk factors in hospitalized patients, finding that about half of these factors were associated with later violence in the community. The strongest predictors were a past history of violence, having been physically abused as a child, coming from a disadvantaged neighborhood, being suspicious of others (but not delusional), having violent thoughts, and being chronically angry. Hallucinations were not associated with higher risk of violence, though if a person heard voices commanding a violent act, he or she was more likely to commit that act.

How can we, as mental health professionals, teachers, friends, and parents, take results such as these and use them in their daily lives to predict acts of mass violence? The simple answer is that we can’t. Acts of mass violence are so rare (thankfully) that no statistics can serve as predictors. The MacArthur Foundation is taking the results of its report and developing a software program that would take clinicians through a tree-like risk assessment protocol. On an informal basis, however, such an assessment would be almost impossible to conduct.

The field of forensic psychology is developing rapidly. The American Psychology-Law Society, Division 41 of the American Psychological Association, hosts a website that is rich in resources and information on training, finding, a professional, and the latest research. We can only hope that as more people acquire this background and training, we will finally get more than a peek into the workings of the criminal mind.

Click here to see a video of my interview on WGBY, the Springfield MA PBS station on 1/9/13.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Stromwell, L.A. & Willen, R.M. (2011). Inside criminal minds: Offenders’ strategies when lying. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 8, 271-281.

Whitbourne, S.K. & Halgin, R.P. (2013). Abnormal psychology: Clinical perspectives on psychological disorders (7th Ed.). New York: Mc-Graw-Hill.

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