Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"The Psychopath Whisperer" by Kent Kiehl

One of my messages all along has been that child sexual abuse should have its penalties in line with other crimes that cause similar harm. The truth is I don't know much detail about the criminal justice system, and reading this book was part of trying to remedy that.

As a book, it has its weaknesses. I pretty much agree with <this review>.

But it was a fun, engaging read, and there's a lot to learn from it. Many of his anecdotes are very entertaining, including the one where he was detained after an airplane flight. He had been typing up on his laptop his notes from an interview with a psychopath, written in the first person as spoken by the psychopath. To his seatmate it looked like his confession of being a serial killer himself.

The bottom line scientific message is that psychopaths have atrophied limbic systems, and they are already atrophied pretty early in life. Dr. Kiehl describes in detail the painstaking research that led to his conclusion. And while his scientific journey is entertaining at times, the bottom line for us is just that simple. Lots of researchers would be ecstatic to have an entire lifetime of research lead to a conclusion that simple and clear.

The limbic system atrophy that is already present early in life suggests that psychopaths aren't responsible for their condition. Perhaps this means they should be locked up in hospitals instead of prisons, but I say either way society deserves to be protected from them once they have committed a series of serious crimes.

The standard assessment tool for psychopathy is the <Hare Psychopathy Checklist>. One thing I learned is that psychopathy is not just a total lack of conscience.

Suppose we consider an "ideal type" of someone who sets out to take what they want in life, with total disregard for consequences for others. A psychopath is different from that, and has traits that would get in way of that goal. Consider for instance empathy. A normal understanding of other people's minds would aid in manipulating them and getting what you want, but they are very poor at that. One of the strangest stories involved the guy who spent his days casing out places to burglarize. But if he saw an attractive woman, he'd grab her, take her to a secluded place, and rape her. He would then leave her with his phone number in case she wanted to get together again for more sex. This is an astonishing flaw in understanding other people, and was not in his selfish interest.

Similarly, poor behavioral controls and impulsivity are probably not helpful for them in achieving their own selfish goals. Psychopaths are not ideal criminals -- they do get caught a lot, and one reason they take such risks is that they seem unfazed by prison or punishment more generally. You can certainly imagine someone with a total lack of conscience who nonetheless obeys the law most of the time because they see the likelihood they would get caught and don't like the associated punishments.

Kiehl also describes the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center, a resoundingly successful program for treating troubled youth by using positive reinforcement instead of negative. That's great, though it stands all by itself in this book. It will be great if there is a way to treat psychopaths to make them less dangerous. They would still be psychopaths, but it's their influence on others that society really cares about. This corresponds to how pedophilic child sex abusers can be taught not to abuse kids, but they are still pedophiles.

The book confirmed my sense that an awful lot of criminal behavior is punished lightly. As a citizen, I expect the state to protect me against burglary. If someone is arrested after 50 burglaries, serves time, gets out and repeats that pattern twice more (we're at 150 now), I have an intuition I'd like this person to be put away for a decade or more so I can be protected from him. In this I sympathize with the "law and order" streak in voters. I guess the criminal justice system would burst because an awful lot of people commit lots of burglaries. But I think they are far more deserving of prison than men whose only crime is downloading child pornography.

As a class, psychopaths commit an enormous number of crimes and almost always go back to a life of crime when released from prison. However much prison space society allocates at present to their incarceration, I think it is money well spent (as long as effective treatment is unavailable). Using psychopaths as a comparison group, I am more convinced than ever that the sentences given to most sex offenders are too harsh.

I recommend "The Psychopath Whisperer", if you are willing to absorb what it says without worrying about whether it could have been a better book.

1 comment:

  1. It occurs to me now, 3 years after the initial post, that studies of psychopaths could suffer from the same bias as studies of pedophiles -- the ones who commit no crimes stay hidden from researchers. So if some young person says, "gosh, I'm a psychopath, what should I do?" perhaps there is an online group where they could learn to live a law-abiding life. But to the extent the research findings of criminal psychopaths apply to all of them, that would be very unlikely to happen. Psychopaths who commit crimes are in any event a population of great interest to society.