What Is Psychopathy?
On my second day in Madison, I had breakfast at a strip mall café with Joseph Newman, the psychopathy expert at the University of Wisconsin. Between bites of an omelet, he explained the theory that he’s been developing for nearly 30 years. In contrast to many of his colleagues, he describes what’s going wrong as more of a cognitive than an emotional problem: a learning disorder related to AD/HD, yet distinct.
“It’s like an attention bottleneck—a major informational processing deficit,” he told me. His studies of prisoners labeled as psychopaths have persuaded him that they tend to overfocus on tasks that seem to promise immediate rewards, blinding them to other stimuli, such as signs of another person’s suffering. “Once they see something they’re interested in, they don’t perceive another choice,” he said.
Newman’s theory inspired me to think back on all I’d heard from parents coping with children with AD/HD, who, because of their generally short attention spans, can be extraordinarily impulsive, disruptive, provocative, and just plain exasperating.
What can vastly aggravate this sort of situation is that both AD/HD and traits particularly associated with psychopathy have been found to be highly heritable, making it likely that many parents struggling with difficult children—kids who don’t seem to care or even be aware of how annoying they can be—are hotheads themselves. “The kids push, push, push, and the parents react in ways that make them feel so bad that they start to avoid them—which, of course, causes other problems,” says Newman.
In other words, it’s misleading to define the influences on a growing child as nature or nurture, or even nature and nurture. It’s always an interplay, with nature determining nurture, which in turn determines nature, and so on. And while van Rybroek’s compression model certainly may not apply to every young convict diagnosed with psychopathic traits—Newman and other psychopathy experts suspect that even the most saintly and well-prepared parents can’t deter some children from a predatory life—it did seem to fit Brandon, the angry Mendota center inmate, and Tyler, the 14-year-old robber.
After a few weeks at the Mendota center, Tyler told his therapists about the drunken stepfather who’d beaten him so often that he’d learned to hide in a kitchen cabinet whenever he came home. Tyler had never met his biological father, and said he knew his stepfather only by his nickname, Animal. Tyler’s mother was a stripper who spent little time at home until she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Shortly after that, Animal disappeared.
When Tyler first arrived at the Mendota center, he showed so little emotion while describing seeing his mother with sutures in her scalp that the intake worker interpreted it as evidence of a lack of empathy—a classic sign of a psychopath. Once the therapists understood his history, however, they reasonably questioned how Tyler could have learned to show or even feel any empathy when he apparently had never experienced it from others.
If such failures to nurture can create a fledgling psychopath, does that necessarily mean that van Rybroek’s brand of re-parenting can instill the missing empathy? Counterintuitive as it may seem to respond to youthful cruelty with kindness, what we do know is that a great deal of research suggests that warmth and strong relationships can help deter crime.
“Harsh and punitive parenting simply doesn’t work, despite how many parents and legislators still believe it does,” says Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, a leading expert on adolescent behavior. “The evidence would point away from boot camps, tough love, and incarceration,” he adds, “and more toward what the Mendota program is doing, even though they’re in the tiny minority.”
Van Rybroek and Caldwell say their periodic assessments of the Mendota youth show that most of them do benefit from their more nurturing approach, becoming less hostile and angry over time. One 17-year-old boy, whom I’ll call Jim, who’d been abandoned by his alcoholic mother and arrested for beating up his foster brother, told me how it worked for him. “Counseling is garbage, but it does help if you get someone you like to talk to and who listens,” he said. “When you realize the things other people do for you out of kindness, it can make a difference.”
One indirect but possibly enormously significant benefit of the Mendota center is that it gives angry, mentally disturbed youth a safe place to live while many of them simply grow out of their criminal tendencies. As millions of parents of teenagers—and readers of Lord of the Flies—understand, adolescents can be surprisingly savage. Leo Tolstoy, recalling his own youth, wrote that he could easily imagine “the most frightful crime being committed without object or intent to injure, but . . . out of curiosity, or to satisfy an unconscious craving for action.”
A pioneering 1993 study led by psychologist Terrie Moffitt found that while roughly five percent of the population can be predicted to commit crimes throughout their lives, most of the rest will engage in a surge of antisocial behavior roughly from age 7 to 17, and then desist. In recent years, brain scans have zeroed in on what accounts for this: the parts of the brain that govern impulse control, thinking ahead, and comparing risks and rewards—all of which are thought to be seriously compromised in psychopaths—are still maturing and often starkly deficient during adolescence. This may be the best argument of all for a separate, rehabilitative juvenile justice system.
At the Mendota Center, no one ever calls a kid a psychopath. At most, the center’s therapists will speak of someone as having “psychopathic traits.” Inmates are rigorously referred to as “youth.” Faith in the possibility of redemption is embedded in the language.