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Understanding Psychopathic Criminals

Egocentric and need to control others.

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Dysfunction of Orbitofrontal Cortex
Source: Public Domain

Psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder that has been linked to dysfunction of the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain. It is highly correlated with criminal behavior and violence. In Psychopathy: An Important Forensic Concept for the 21st Century, the powerful connection between psychopathy and crime was well-articulated by Paul Babiak and his colleagues. The seminal 2012 FBI report states that 15-20 percent of the two million+ prisoners in the U.S., which are 90 percent male, are psychopaths (1).

This is not surprising. Egocentrism and the need for power and control of a psychopath are the perfect character traits for a lifetime of antisocial, deviant or criminal activity. However, the relative ease with which a psychopath can participate effectively in crime and violence is very significant for the public and the criminal justice system.

Psychopaths are unabashed in their actions against others, whether it is defrauding someone of their life savings, manipulating law enforcement personnel during an interrogation or blaming their victims for their crimes. This is particularly true in cases involving psychopathic killers. When psychopaths commit a homicide, their killings likely will be planned and purposeful—that is, organized, and not committed in the heat of passion.

The motive of a psychopathic killer will often involve either power and control or sadistic gratification. When faced with overwhelming evidence of their guilt, a psychopathic serial killer such as John Wayne Gacy (the “Killer Clown”) will often claim they lost control or were in a fit of rage when committing the act of murder. In reality, however, their killings are stone-cold, calculated, and completely premeditated.

Sometimes, psychopaths commit serious crimes with the assistance of another person. If a psychopath does commit a serious crime with another individual, the research suggests that the other person will almost always be a non-psychopath. The psychopath will typically seek to avoid prosecution by manipulating the other individual into taking the blame for the crime. The other person is thus used as a scapegoat by the psychopathic offender. When a psychopathic, male serial killer takes on a subordinate partner it will generally be a female.

It is important to understand that not all violent offenders are psychopaths and, conversely, not all psychopaths are violent offenders. Violent offenders who are psychopaths are able to assault, rape, or murder without concern for legal, moral or social consequences. Psychopaths tend to be totally indifferent to the emotions or suffering of others. This allows them to do what they want, whenever they want, without concern, pity or remorse for their victims.

Those psychopaths who do engage in violence and sexual deviance are generally more dangerous than other criminal offenders and their likelihood of reoffending may be significantly higher than non-psychopaths. The FBI reports that psychopathic offenders generally have longer, more diverse and more serious criminal histories, and are more chronically violent than non-psychopaths, overall. In addition, their use of violence is generally more extreme and more directed toward particular goals than the violence employed by non-psychopaths.

Psychopathy is often misread, misdiagnosed, minimized or explained away by professionals whose jobs involve regular interaction with psychopaths, particularly in the mental health, judicial and law enforcement communities. This is due to the considerable deception skills of psychopaths. Their charm, poise and cunning frequently enable them to go unrecognized even by trained professionals.

Misconceptions about psychopaths and their improper identification by professionals can lead to serious consequences, ranging from mishandling strategies for interrogation, intervention, and treatment to accepting the fabrications and lies of a psychopath as the truth.

The 2012 FBI report states that the unique ability of psychopathic criminals to manipulate law enforcement authorities poses legitimate challenges for the criminal justice system. During interrogations, psychopaths are not sensitive to altruistic interview themes such as sympathy for their victims or remorse for their criminal acts.

As a result of their arrogance and illusions of invulnerability, they are more likely than non-psychopaths to deny charges brought against them by authorities. According to the FBI, there is also evidence that psychopaths are able to influence the system to either receive reduced sentences or appeal their sentences to a higher court.

This is likely due to the fact that psychopaths are extremely meticulous, compulsive and relentless by nature which helps them to coerce criminal justice practitioners. Moreover, psychopaths are very adept at imitating emotions such as remorse or guilt in the courtroom if they believe it will mitigate their punishment.

I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor and best-selling author. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website


1) Babiak, P., et al. 2012. “Psychopathy: An important forensic concept for the 21st century.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July.

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