The Psychopath and Violence: Predatory and Affective

Most people imagine that the psychopath is controlled - but not always.

Posted Dec 07, 2015

If we base our conceptualization of the psychopath on television and film characters, we see the psychopath as a methodical and controlled perpetrator of horrific violence. Perhaps the former Showtime television show “Dexter” comes to mind in which he would carefully select his victim and line the “kill room” with plastic wrap prior to committing the deed. While Dexter’s depiction made for good television, his character displayed only one of two types of violence typically seen in the psychopath. I will describe both types of violence, and please note that though the psychopath can be male or female, I will refer to the psychopath in the male form in this article.

The first type of violence – the one we usually see in the media – is predatory violence, which is violence that is planned, purposeful, and emotionless (Meloy, 2012). Siegel and Victoroff (2009) refer to the same type of violence as “predatory attack.” According to Declercq and Audenaert (2011), this form of violence is "cold-blooded," which calls to mind what some refer to as the reptilian stare of the psychopath. The psychopath who displays predatory violence may, for example, stalk his target for hours, days or weeks, and he displays a cool, emotionless exterior as he hunts and ultimately captures and exploits the target.

The second type of violence which the psychopath displays is affective violence, which is impulsive, reactive, and emotional (Meloy, 2012). Similarly, Siegel and Victoroff (2009) refer to this type of violence as “defensive rage” in which the rage behavior is activated by a threatening stimulus that is real or perceived. According to Declercq and Audenaert (2011), this form of violence is "hot-blooded." The psychopath who displays this type of violence flies off the handle when challenged, questioned or rejected. With this type of violence, there is no planning; there is no methodical calculation.

One important point is that there is an absence of deliberation or concern for the consequences of the aggression - especially legal ones - with either type of aggression (Anderson and Kiehl, 2014). While all humans have the capacity – the internal structures – to engage in both types of violence, the psychopath displays one or both types of violence with a far greater frequency and with more significant intensity than their nonpsychopathic counterparts. Now, I’ll share some key differences within the two types of violence.

Autonomic Nervous System arousal

With affective violence, the individual has intense autonomic nervous system arousal (Meloy, 1988). In this aroused state, the psychopath may appear to lose total control of himself. On the other hand, predatory violence involves minimal or no autonomic nervous system arousal (Meloy, 1988). This distinction makes intuitive sense, as the psychopath who looks cool and collected is able to look that way because his autonomic nervous system is not truly aroused or elevated. The psychopath who becomes affectively violent, however, appears filled with adrenaline and energy, as if he is in the throes of the fight response and is poised for attack.

The goal of violence

The goal is clear when the psychopath displays affective violence: He is responding to a threat, and the goal is to reduce or eliminate the threat. The goal with predatory violence, however, is far more wide-ranging and idiosyncratic. The controlled psychopath who stalks his prey could be motivated by any number of factors, all of which would bring him either material gain (e.g., money, property) or subjective gain (power, sense of control, sexual gratification). The point is that predatory violence doesn’t respond to a threat perceived in the here-and-now.

The role of emotions

As a rule, psychopaths display shallow affect, which means that they do not feel and process emotions in a deep and integrated way. They may feel some feelings, but the feelings are usually restricted to annoyance, irritability, anger or disgust, as well as the occasional fleeting feeling of blissful control and power. The psychopath who displays predatory violence has no conscious emotion during the commission of the violence. If you ask a psychopath, for example, how he felt when he committed a particular act of violence, the psychopath will often look at you with a blank face and say, “I didn’t really feel anything at all.” On the other hand, the psychopath who displays affective violence may have a subjective experience of emotion. Remember, however, that emotions look different in the psychopath, so when the psychopath has an emotional response during the commission of affective violence, the depth and breadth of the emotions is shallow.

Over time, more research on the psychopath will be conducted so that we continue to gain a greater understanding of the violence we see him commit. It is important to note that both types of violence can be extremely dangerous for anyone in the psychopath's path, leading to posttraumatic psychological symptoms or minor injuries or, at the most severe end of the violence spectrum, death. When the psychopath does display violence - affective or predatory - the only safe place to be is a place away from the psychopath.

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Anderson N.E., & Kiehl K.A. (2014). Psychopathy and aggression: When paralimbic dysfunction leads to violence. Current Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience, 17, 369-393.

Declercq, F., & Audenaert, K. (2011). Predatory violence aiming at relief in a case of mass murder: Meloy's criteria for applied forensic practice. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 29(4), 578-591.

Meloy, J.R. (2012). Predatory violence and psychopathy. In H. Hakkanen-Nyholm & J. Nyholm (Eds.), Psychopathy and law: A practitioner's guide (pp.159-167). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Meloy, J.R. (1988) The psychopathic mind: Origins, dynamics and treatment. Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson.

Siegel, A., & Victoroff, J. (2009). Understanding human aggression: New insights from neuroscience. International Journal of law and psychiatry, 32(4):209-15.