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Is there a cure for 'evil'?

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Could there possibly be any evidence-based therapy or rehabilitation for someone said to be 'evil', such as a serial killer?

Asked by: Gavin Ansell, Staffordshire

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Serial killers and other offenders dubbed ‘evil’ by the public and media usually meet the criteria for what forensic psychologists call ‘psychopathy’. Cool and calculating, these individuals combine superficial charm with callousness and a lack of empathy.

Traditionally, this group was seen as being nigh-on impossible to treat. However, this pessimistic perspective was recently labelled an ‘urban myth’ by psychologists in New Zealand, and there is limited evidence that intensive group and individual therapy programmes, based around the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can help reduce violent offending by psychopaths, if not change their personalities per se.

Another promising, but preliminary, line of research suggests that computer-based cognitive training can help psychopaths experience empathy and regret.

What’s the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? © iStock

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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