Spotting a Psychopath

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Shadow of a man

In March this year, the family of 31-year-old Morgan Huxley sobbed as a Supreme Court jury found Daniel Lee Kelsall guilty of his murder.

22-year-old Kelsall was convicted of indecently assaulting Huxley in a Neutral Bay apartment on September 8, 2013, before brutally stabbing him more than 20 times.

But despite being sentenced to at least 30 years imprisonment, Kelsall remained emotionless as he was led from the dock. A psychologist stated that Kelsall was a ‘young man of superior intelligence, with a known history of emotional detachment,’ and expressed the view that he suffered from a personality disorder with psychopathic traits. Outside court, Huxley’s ex-girlfriend described Kelsall as a ‘worthless psychopath.’

But the findings of a new study could help to prevent future tragedies – researchers at UNSW have developed a new diagnostic tool which they say can identify psychopathic traits in children as young as three.

The Study

The study involved over 200 children aged between three and six, who were assessed using various tests which ‘measured their ability to recognise changing and static facial expressions as well as their reactions to distressing and neutral images.’

Parents and teachers were also interviewed to assess whether the children were able to empathise with others and engage emotionally.

Disturbingly, they found that around 10% of children in this age group ‘showed callous and unemotional traits’ and were unable to demonstrate remorse or empathy.

Researchers say that the findings could help to identify children most at risk of engaging in antisocial or criminal behaviour later on in life. By diagnosing these children early on, psychologists can intervene and help to ensure that they get the support they need to develop emotional skills and move in the right direction.

What Makes a Psychopath?

Psychopathy is one of the most difficult disorders to diagnose – even for mental health professionals.

This is because psychopaths often appear to be composed, charming and intelligent – while at the same time being incapable of expressing emotions such as love, remorse, honesty and empathy, and have an increased tendency to express anger and aggression.

Studies have demonstrated that psychopaths experience different emotions to those of others when they are shown videos of people and animals in pain and distress. When placed under an MRI scanner, researchers found that they had ‘reduced activity in regions of the brain associated with pain,’ with scans revealing that psychopaths had the ability to switch empathy on and off.

Are Psychopaths More Likely to Commit Crime?

While being able to identify psychopathic traits in children early on may help to address anti social behaviour, it is important to bear in mind that these traits do not necessarily mean that a person will go on to commit crimes.

However, there is an observable link between psychopathic tendencies and criminal activity – although only 1% of the population are believed to be psychopaths, they comprise 25% of the prison population in the United States.

Researchers suggest that the link between psychopathy and criminal behaviour is due to aggressive tendencies, an inability to rationalise, a lack of foresight and increased risk-taking. One paper noted that, ‘even though not all the psychopaths come into close contact with the justice system, their defining features clearly place them at high risk for crime and violence.’

But even more interesting is how psychopathic tendencies affect a person’s criminal behaviour. Studies have shown that, compared to other offenders, psychopaths have a relatively short criminal career – in other words, they go through a ‘phase’ of offending early on, becoming less antisocial as they get older – with most giving up criminal activity by the age of 40.

Furthermore, psychopaths are more likely to reoffend ‘because of the persisting and enduring assemblage of interpersonal, affective and behavioural characteristics that define the disorder.’ Despite this, psychopathic offenders were more than twice as likely to be released on parole than non-psychopathic offenders.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that they are often charming and highly skilled at the art of persuasion.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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