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How psychopaths control their ‘dark impulses’ © Getty Images

How psychopaths control their ‘dark impulses’

Published: 29th September, 2019 at 12:00
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The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is related to self-control, could determine how well someone with psychopathic tendencies can control their impulses.

Why do some psychopaths end up in jail, while others hold down lucrative careers? New research suggests that the answer lies in a region of the brain that’s linked to self-regulation.


Psychopathy is a personality disorder that’s characterised by callousness, impulsivity, dishonesty, a lack of empathy, and superficial charm. It’s estimated that around one per cent of the general population would meet the clinical criteria for psychopathy. Contrary to popular belief, though, only a minority of psychopaths are violent.

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Psychologists at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Kentucky in the US wanted to find out why some psychopaths are successfully able to control their ‘dark’, antisocial impulses, maintaining careers and even intimate relationships.

The researchers recruited people from two different populations: adults in long-term romantic relationships, and undergraduate students. Any people found to have psychopathic tendencies in these groups would be deemed ‘successful psychopaths’.

The participants completed questionnaires to assess their level of psychopathy, and had their brains scanned in high-resolution using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The researchers found that participants with higher levels of psychopathy had a greater density of grey matter in their ‘ventrolateral prefrontal cortex’ – a region of the brain that’s involved in self-regulatory processes, such as the damping down of impulsive emotions like fear and anger.

“Our findings … suggest that these individuals may have a greater capacity for self-control,” said Emily Lasko, a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the study.

Understanding the neurological differences between psychopaths who manage to control their antisocial tendencies, and those who don’t, could point the way to new treatments.

“If we are able to identify biomarkers of psychopathy, and importantly, factors that could be informative in determining an individual’s potential for violent behaviour and potential for rehabilitation, we will be better equipped to develop effective intervention and treatment strategies,” said Lasko.


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James Lloyd
James LloydStaff writer, BBC Science Focus

James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.


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