Psychopathy, the brain, and bad behavior – Morality
© 2013 NeuroInstincts | All Rights Reserved
In trying to piece together why individuals with psychopathy have a certain pattern of behavior and seem to lack morality, we again look to the brain. Be aware that this is only a portion of the puzzle regarding psychopathy because science continues to learn more regarding this disorder through each new research study.
But, let’s look at what we know now.
There are many regions of the brain, including neurochemistry that are different for those with psychopathy. Aside from their minimal empathy, a tendency toward boredom, and aggression, one of the primary facets of their character that creates problems in their relationships is their lack of morality.
Lack of morality is extremely difficult for the partners of individuals with psychopathy or narcissistic personality to tolerate. Violations of morality can wound us deeply and are almost never resolved by a simple, “I’m sorry.” However, in relationships of this type, mates often find themselves distraught and confused by their partner’s propensity to engage in immoral behavior.
Examples of immoral behavior that has been shared with us are:
• cheating on a spouse while she’s pregnant
• having a secret child or family
• deception regarding occupational history to land a prestigious position
• several affairs (e.g., with hired help, their partner’s friends, or strangers)
• bouncing back and forth between past partners (with overlap)
• hiring escorts/ prostitutes although involved in a serious relationship
• a secret life in general (e.g., sleeping with men, however, married to a woman)
• purposely withholding information regarding an STD, yet encouraging mate not to use protection
• Using manipulation to destroy the reputation of a current or former partner.
What might be an underlying contributor to these behaviors?
There is one region of the brain that seems to have a primary role in morality, emotional processing (e.g., guilt), and social decision making. It is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Note this region is not the only area associated with those functions, but rather one of the contributing regions.
Why is the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vMPFC) relevant to psychopathy?
Before we go into the relevance of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, let’s take a quick look at where it is located within the brain. In the figure to the left, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex would be the area composed of the underside of the prefrontal cortex. It also extends to the middle portion (inside) of the prefrontal cortex. Looking at it from the underside, as though you were holding it up and getting to view it from that vantage is the best angle.
Research has determined that this region of the brain is involved in some pretty important functions! Specifically, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is associated with the following processes (Koenigs, 2012) –
• social decision-making ability
• learning from past experiences
• integrating our emotions into our decisions
• morality and guilt
In fact, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex seems to be one of the key regions of the brain associated with morality (Mendez, 2009). It is an area involved in social emotions – how we relate and treat other people.
Based on several fMRI studies it was found that primary psychopaths have reduced activity compared to normal or non-psychopathic individuals in this area of the brain (Motzkin Newman, Kiehl, & Koenigs, 2011). This seems to offer some suggestion of why individuals with strong psychopathic traits tend to have a pattern of immoral behavior and might seem surprised that others do not view the world as they do. Hyporesponsiveness of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is likely a significant contributing factor.
You might wonder what does this mean with regard to observing a consistent pattern of ‘bad behavior’ in relationships?
Among several other variables, to be a fully functioning human being there has to be a proper integration of emotions and morals.
Interestingly, many with psychopathy will tell their intimate partners that emotions are “not important” or that they have “control” of their emotions and easily manage stress (“I don’t let things get to me … but you seem to hold on to every little thing. Get over it!”) Both statements are in fact quite false.
1) Emotions are extremely important. A properly functioning emotional system leads to successful relationships and a chance at a happy life. Bonds, morals, and all emotional states have value. Now of course, if someone is extremely emotional or dysregulated that can be a problem as well, however, that’s not our focus here.
2) Psychopaths are not ‘controlling’ their emotions or stress as they might tell their partners; they simply do not experience certain emotional states. They have an underactive amygdala. Therefore, they do not feel much anxiety or distress. To make comments regarding their control of emotions usually is a manipulative tactic. They are using their natural lack of emotional distress and lack of fear as proof of a higher level of functioning above their partner or others.
What is the connection between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, emotions, and decision making?
When we make decisions, particularly those associated with a reward, pleasure or goal, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in communicating with several systems of the brain (Boes, Grafft, Joshi, Chuang, Nopoulos, Anderson, 2011). For instance, we have to be able to recall (automatically) what caused us to land in trouble and not repeat that behavior /decision again – extinction.
We have to be able to call upon our emotions, bonds we have, to make decisions that do not harm others who are in our lives. We have to be able to access the neurobiological system of morality to respond appropriately to what is right or wrong toward another. We need to have a controlling agent within our brain that can have an inhibitory role over the emotional brain or pleasure seeking region.
This seems to be associated with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and its strong interconnections with other regions of the brain. However, when this system is dysfunctional, those actions (within the brain) do not take place the way they should, leading to big problems.
Want to learn more about the ventromedial prefrontal cortex? Go check out our talk show skit video that has a little fun with learning these brain regions. The Talk Show Skit
© 2013 NeuroInstincts | All Rights Reserved | No Unauthorized Reproduction Permitted in any form