Psychopathic criminals are very intelligent

"Intelligent psychopaths usually have successful careers"

They are ruthless and emotionally cold and cannot empathize with other people: psychopaths. Not all of them become criminals; most of them are very successful at work. In an interview, psychologist and neuroscientist Niels Birbaumer explains what is different in the brains of psychopaths, whether they can be recognized in everyday life and why such people do not feel remorse. What is a psychopath?

Niels Birbaumer: The umbrella term for this is anti-social personality. This includes people who have no anticipatory fear - i.e. no fear of expectation. The consequence of this is that they cannot put themselves in the shoes of others when they feel fear. If they are not intelligent enough or have a bad upbringing, the psychopaths become criminals because they cannot foresee the consequences of their behavior. And of course they don't respect the law either, because they're not afraid of the consequences. The less intelligent or those who have not learned to fear become criminals. And the intelligent people usually have successful careers.

They say that psychopaths are, in a sense, the mirror image of anxiety patients. Why?

In anxious patients, the regions of the brain that are inactive in psychopaths function excessively well. Above all, these are the areas that have to do with fear.

Are there any other areas in the brain that psychopaths do not react or react differently than the fear areas?

These are the most important, but they are connected to all areas that have to do with self-control. If you want to foresee a consequence of your behavior or if you have to direct your actions towards negative consequences, it does not work.

Recently it was the 20th anniversary of the day on which the gruesome acts of Josef Fritzl were exposed. How can it be that psychopaths like him have lived quietly in society for so long?

It depends on the intelligence and education of the person. Someone who is a little more intelligent and has a good education as well as a certain amount of self-control can adapt to society better on the outside. And of course it also depends on the environment, on many factors. Most psychopaths don't get noticed at all.

When do they become noticeable?

Psychopaths look for situations with a certain "kick" because they are bored because their level of activation in the brain is lower than that of other people. For example, if it is a time of war or a crisis, then they become noticeable. Many of the mass murderers during the National Socialist era were probably psychopaths as well, but these only became noticeable because the conditions were warlike.

So does it also need an external stimulus for this to happen?

Yes exactly. Most of the time it is.

Niels Birbaumer, Born in 1945, is a psychologist and neuroscientist. He heads the Institute for Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. In his research, the Austrian dealt, among other things, with psychopaths who had become criminal. He trained them to feel empathy and fear again by activating certain areas of the brain.

How many of the psychopaths become suspicious?

You can't say for sure. But it is estimated that around three to five percent of the population are "unsuccessful" psychopaths and three to five percent are "successful" (ie those who make a career; editor's note). Both women and men. The men are particularly noticeable. And if they are not intelligent or have not had a good education, they become criminals. In serious crime prisons, an estimated 40 to 70 percent of inmates are psychopaths.

When do psychopaths first become suspicious in their life?

They usually become noticeable for the first time before puberty.

Even decades after his deeds, Josef Fritzl shows no remorse. How can that be explained?

Repentance requires fear of negative consequences and activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. In psychopaths, fear and the frontal cortex stand still, are underactive.

Are the fear areas in the brain of psychopaths not functional from birth or do certain experiences lead to this?

As well ... as. There is a list of risk factors. This includes, for example, the following: inconsistent upbringing, genetic factors, drug and alcohol abuse in the family, sexual and physical abuse, hyperactivity.

How can you recognize psychopaths in everyday life?

Not at all. You would have to do a brain scan or conduct the interview developed by the criminal psychologist Robert Hare with the respective person. This takes an hour - after which you can tell with some certainty if someone is psychopathic.

You have experimented with psychopaths in the past. Is a Psychopath Curable?

Naturally. All brain areas that are responsible for psychopathic behavior are ultimately capable of learning. It's just a question of how stable, intense and lasting the learning process is. So far, most educational measures have not been particularly effective, and neither are psychotherapeutic measures. And measures in which people learn to regulate their brains have not yet been as effective. For these to work, people would have to train 24 hours a day at home and also in the environment in which they are conspicuous. That's why we're now also designing patient measures where people can do just that. I hope that will get better then.

What would such a measure be? What can I imagine?

The affected person receives feedback from the part of the brain that controls fear when it is not active. Then she has to try to increase it herself and is rewarded for it. And on her cell phone she can then see how strong the activity is in that part of the brain. But for that I first have to implant electrodes in the brain part. Of course, this is currently not legally possible and it is also difficult to do financially. And since I can't make these parts of the brain visible, it's very difficult to do something like that at the moment.

And that's how you can learn empathy?

Yes, exactly, you can.

How did it feel to work with psychopaths, some of whom were killers?

That wasn't pleasant. I gave up on that too. After 20 years it was enough for me.

In your opinion, is there a difference between male and female psychopaths?

It is being investigated that women do not become criminals. That is the crucial difference. They are then noticeable differently and unpleasant and unadapted. But crime is essentially absent - with the few women who end up in jail being mostly psychopathic too. In terms of their brains and problems, however, they are just like male psychopaths.

Does that mean psychopathic women are smarter to hide this?

No. This is more likely to be related to the male sex hormones. Androgen levels are higher in men and androgens make them more aggressive. They increase the muscular and also the physical aggressiveness.

Thank you for the interview, Mr. Birbaumer.

Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist
The checklist serves as an instrument for diagnosing psychopathy; it distinguishes two dimensions of psychopathy:

Dimension 1: utilitarian
- eloquent blender, superficial charm
- excessive self-esteem
- morbid lying
- cunning, deceitful, manipulative
- lack of remorse, lack of sense of guilt
- superficial feelings
- lack of empathy
- Lack of willingness and ability to take responsibility for one's own actions

Dimension 2: impulsive
- Need for stimulation (hunger for adventure), tendency to be bored
- parasitic lifestyle
- inadequate behavioral control
- promiscuous sexual behavior
- previous behavioral problems
- Lack of realistic, long-term goals
- impulsiveness
- irresponsibility
- juvenile delinquency
- Violation of probation conditions on parole
- many short-term relationships
- multiple forms of crime

Important NOTE: The information is in no way a substitute for professional advice or treatment by trained and recognized doctors. The contents of t-online cannot and must not be used to independently make diagnoses or start treatments.