The two ways a psychopath’s brain is different to other people’s

A study of 49 inmates at a psychiatric hospital found the way psychopaths make choices is very different to non-psychopaths.

Dr Josh Buckholtz, a neurologist at Harvard University, conducted brain scans on 49 prison inmates.

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things.

But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make.

The scans found two things about the minds of psychopaths.

  • The brains of psychopaths are extremely receptive to rewards.
  • The consequences of an action barely factor in their decision making process.

By contrast the mind of a non-psychopath will consider what they have to lose, and the consequences play a large role in their choices.

Buckholtz explained how this research moves the focus away from psychopaths as emotionless monsters.

And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices.

Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when they make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action.

In this most recent paper…we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.

The brain scans focussed on the connection between striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and found the connection was weaker in psychopaths.

The ventral striatum is involved in your reaction to rewards, and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex which is an area of the brain that shapes how you make decisions.

The research found a weak connection between the two in psychopaths and that could be why they are so reward focused, and do not think about consequences.

Holtz concluded:

They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions.

The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers.

If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.


NEURON, Volume 95, Issue 1, p221–231.e4, 5 July 2017

Disrupted Prefrontal Regulation of Striatal Subjective Value Signals in Psychopathy


  • Ventral striatal subjective value signals are amplified in incarcerated psychopaths
  • Medial cortico-striatal intrinsic connectivity is weak in psychopathic individuals
  • Cortico-striatal regulation of striatal activation is disrupted in psychopathy
  • Diminished cortico-striatal regulation is associated with more criminal convictions


Psychopathy is a personality disorder with strong links to criminal behavior. While research on psychopathy has focused largely on socio-affective dysfunction, recent data suggest that aberrant decision making may also play an important role.

Yet, the circuit-level mechanisms underlying maladaptive decision making in psychopathy remain unclear. Here, we used a multi-modality functional imaging approach to identify these mechanisms in a population of adult male incarcerated offenders.

Psychopathy was associated with stronger subjective value-related activity within the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) during inter-temporal choice and with weaker intrinsic functional connectivity between NAcc and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

NAcc-vmPFC connectivity strength was negatively correlated with NAcc subjective value-related activity; however, this putative regulatory pattern was abolished as psychopathy severity increased. Finally, weaker cortico-striatal regulation predicted more frequent criminal convictions. These data suggest that cortico-striatal circuit dysregulation drives maladaptive decision making in psychopathy, supporting the notion that reward system dysfunction comprises an important neurobiological risk factor.


Dida Halake’s comment:

From a sociological and political point of view, the study’s conclusion is common-sense: if psychopath’s have nothing to lose (i.e. they have no stake in society) they choose to take risks and ignore the consequences (as with Yahya Jammeh and his colleagues who had nothing when they staged the 1994 coup. Jammeh’s psychopathic killers were also paupers who had absolutely nothing).

Most governments try to ensure that most of their citizens have a stake in society – for example by providing them with education, jobs, housing. And certainly “daily bread”. The 1905 Russian Revolution which led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution began as a “Bread Riot”. The mass murderering psychopath’s took advantage of  the peoples’ hunger for bread.

So, it is commonsense that psychopath’s will risk everything and ignore consequences – for a reward: see also Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece”, an amazing play that is not very well known by the public.