March 14, 2010
Psychopathic Brains Driven To Seek Rewards

A hyper-reactive dopamine system causes psychopaths to commit crimes with little regard for consequences.

The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. The research uncovers the role of the brain's reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals.

"This study underscores the importance of neurological research as it relates to behavior," Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said. "The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior."

The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.

"Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences," Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. "We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse."

If drugs can be found that suppress the dopamine reward system in the brains of psychopaths should they be required to take the drugs?

If a person can get brain scanned to detect psychopathy should a sentencing judge impose a harsher sentence on the theory that psychopaths can not be rehabilitated?

If a child can be identified to be both a psychopath and violent should the child be separated from society or medicated starting at a young age to alter their brain development to make them more ethical?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 14 11:14 PM  Bioethics Brain Reordering

random said at March 15, 2010 12:38 AM:

"If drugs can be found that suppress the dopamine reward system in the brains of psychopaths should they be required to take the drugs?"

Male sex offenders are often given an option of chemical castration in return for a lesser sentence. This situation seems fairly similar.

"If a child can be identified to be both a psychopath and violent should the child be separated from society or medicated starting at a young age to alter their brain development to make them more ethical?"

You're thinking of sociopaths here. Psychopaths generally know right from wrong, but cannot stop themselves from doing the wrong thing if it gives an immediate reward (drugs, stealing, unprotected sex, etc.)

ken in sc said at March 15, 2010 10:42 AM:

When I took Psychiatric Aide training, we were taught that Psychopath and Sociopath were the same thing.

dubya said at March 15, 2010 10:48 AM:

Would this work for politicains as well? I understand the underlying Psychology is very similar to that of a serial killer. It would explain the willingness to pass harmful legislation (such as health care reform)in the face of overwhelming reistance, just to feel like one was doing good.

jgreene said at March 15, 2010 10:57 AM:

A psychopath is a sociopath, but a sociopath may NOT be a psychopath. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist but understand that there is a level of sociopathy amongst all people that doesn't rise to the level of being a psychopath.

Here is a decent explanation of the difference:

Jake said at March 15, 2010 11:24 AM:

Negative. Sociopathy and psychopathy are one in the same. The correct term is antisocial. The Psycho/sociopath has no conscience, no remorse. They do what they do because they can. No conscience or social norm stops them. If it's appealing, if it creates havoc, if rewards the sociopath its fair game. Yes, there are levels of sociopathy but all are dangerous, all are capable of wreckage.

With no conscience, no remorse they are all dangerous. They all will lie, cheat, twist and turn to promote their own self interest. And it does not surprise me one bit that science has discovered they get a "high" from their destruction.

Question for the Docs out there. How are you going to get them to take a pill? They don't think they're abnormal. They think we are. Silly.

Hollywood has unfortunately made people think the Psycho/sociopath is the serial killer. Yes and no. Psycho/sociopaths make up 4% of the population. Docs like like to say, 3% of the Psycho/sociaopaths out there, when they are done with you they slit your throat. The other 97% when they are done with you ... watch you slit your own throat.

So give em a pill but they're still anti-socials. The joke's on us.

RT said at March 15, 2010 11:26 AM:

""If drugs can be found that suppress the dopamine reward system in the brains of psychopaths should they be required to take the drugs?"

Male sex offenders are often given an option of chemical castration in return for a lesser sentence. This situation seems fairly similar. "

And they are still placed on a registry for life, with the attendant restrictions. So it follows that there would be a "Psychopath Registry" for these people with restrictions, such as No Firearms ( which also means no law enforcement and no military service ), can't have children ( because of a chance of passing on the gene that causes the problem ), etc.

This slope is greased very well...

Hucbald said at March 15, 2010 11:34 AM:

"When I took Psychiatric Aide training, we were taught that Psychopath and Sociopath were the same thing."

Great. And I thought it was a plus that lawyer-politicians were, "merely" sociopaths.

RebeccaH said at March 15, 2010 11:34 AM:

Nice theory, but it doesn't explain why a psychopath's dopamine reward system would include systematic murder, or rape, or robbery. Couldn't they just as well get the adrenaline rush from hang gliding, or base jumping, or something similarly dangerous that doesn't involve prison and/or death?

Seems a bit too simplistic to me.

Punditarian said at March 15, 2010 11:39 AM:

These data will not be used to create "treatments" for psychopathy. They will be used to argue that psychopaths are not responsible for their actions, and should not be sanctioned by the legal system at all.

Jim O'Sullivan said at March 15, 2010 11:41 AM:

Not the same thing.

Ted Bundy = psychopath
Bill Clinton = sociopath

Got it?

kyle said at March 15, 2010 11:50 AM:

And i thought lawyer/politicians tended to be narcissistic, related to the inability to gain the attention of one or both parents. Passed down through the family tree, but not hereditary. I can only imagine "them" making workaholics take a pill. "You need to stop working 60 hours a week and establish a boundary between work and home." *ties person to a beach chair, turns off cell phone, pours corona down their throat, and forces them to watch the tide come in at the beach* Somebody has to bring home the bacon, you lazy worthless good for nothing ne'er-do-well!

Assistant Village Idiot said at March 15, 2010 11:51 AM:

Officially, neither term is anything at present. They are a bit vague for diagnostic use and treatment design and so have become less common. They are still in informal use in mental health. Psychopathy and sociopathy are similar, but not identical.

looking closely said at March 15, 2010 1:15 PM:

I think there may be less here than meets the eye.

*MOST* pleasurable activities work by stimulating the brain's dopamine reward system.

The drug cocaine works that way.

Correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation.

Even assuming such a medicine existed (and so far as I know it does not), it seems highly improbable to me that psychopaths are not going to be voluntarily compliant taking any pill that shuts down this internal reward system.

Trey said at March 15, 2010 1:25 PM:

Sounds plausible, but I bet they have an underdeveloped preorbital frontal cortex that makes it impossible for them to attach to or care about others.


Lummox JR said at March 15, 2010 2:49 PM:

Correlation vs. causation is a very interesting question. If the dopamine system is not skewed, merely activating rewards for what a different (malformed) part of the brain perceives as valid, you're targeting the symptom and not the disease. No one would take a pill that induces anhedonia, because it literally disincentivizes itself. If they merely are unable to care about others though, the solution would be to force more development in the parts of the brain responsible for that. This is of course an ethical can of worms. Corrective brain development would cure many diseases, not just big ones like schizophrenia but lesser-known ones like face blindness. But if it's possible at all, we have to ask in which cases the need to correct a problem trumps the value of preserving an individual's natural personality. I'm not particularly in favor of any Orwellian measures, myself, but neither do I want to have bad little Billy torture animals and to graduate into serial killing as an adult.

Jay Manifold said at March 15, 2010 3:35 PM:

What occurred to me instantly upon reading the words "seeking a reward at any cost" was all the ways in which acceptable reward-seeking in American society may be driven by this behavior. How many high-performing individuals in legitimate fields of endeavor are clinical psychopaths who have found relatively constructive outlets? Reading the comments above, I think "RebeccaH" and "looking closely" are having similar thoughts.

William O. B'Livion said at March 15, 2010 6:06 PM:

So you want someone to take a pill that makes them less happy.

Good luck with that.

Dowlan Smith said at March 15, 2010 8:53 PM:

It seems like the psychopath is a combination of a sociopath and a thrill seeker.

antisocial personality disorder = sociopath
hyper-reactive dopamine system = thrill seeker

antisocial personality disorder + hyper-reactive dopamine system = psychopath

My hypothesis is that a study of the dopamine system of thrill seekers would be as hyper active as that of a psychopath.

Froggy said at March 15, 2010 11:38 PM:

Anti-Social Personality Disorder is an Axis II psychiatric condition meaning that as the title suggests, it is essentially a character flaw rather than an organic brain illness like schizophrenia or major depression which are Axis I. Personality Disorders are generally not thought to be able to be treated with psychotropic medication. It has been considered unclear whether Axis II PDs result from structural/architectural anomalies in the brain or if they are the result of and in response to early childhood errors in learning viable coping mechanisms and/or neglect and abuse. In any case, if Anti-Social PD could be definitively determined to be resulting from aberrant brain chemistry that was treatable with meds, it could be a very significant advancement in psychiatric care and an enormous benefit to society.

That said, unlike normal medical conditions which patients are highly motivated to treat and cure, psychiatric disorders and especially ones like this would tend to suffer from a distinct lack of patient compliance. Getting people like this to take their meds is completely antithetical to the manifestation of their condition. This is often the case with schizophrenia as well and the development of long acting injectable meds has led to some success. Then again, who gets to haul in a psychopath to administer an involuntary shot? Not me.

Lou Pagnucco said at March 16, 2010 9:00 AM:

Given the disproportionately high representation of these individuals in (political, financial, corporate) positions where they can do the public great harm, I wonder whether some clinic could be set up to certify candidates are not psycho/sociopathic. No need for compulsion. I wonder whether voters, for example, would be more inclined to select someone who voluntarily undergoes the exam.

Jack said at March 16, 2010 7:55 PM:

Hopefully we can pinpoint the genetic factors in psychopaths and prevent them from being born. Unfortunately the West is still too squeamish about the necessity of eugenics.

Lono said at March 17, 2010 9:01 AM:


That's not a bad idea - however since the same phenotypes currently control most major media - such issues would at best just be buried on page 20 - or at worst they would be actively "demonized" as racist/invasive/unreliable etc...

We need to realize that back in the tribal days having a strong leadership was more important - often - than the character of that leadership - from a pure survival perspective.

However - as we become more and more civilized - it becomes clear that sociopaths in position of authority tend to lower the overall progress and standard of living for the rest of Humanity.

All it will take is for benevolent intellectuals to get into real power once - and a second renaissance will follow.

The challenge is - of course - obtaining power in a civilized and moral way when your political opponent has no such restrictions on their tactics and actions.

(that's why Karl Rove proved so effective, and why Cheney authorized assassinations both inside and outside of the US)

Eventually I believe it can be done - the problem is the number of ideal candidates for a transistional "philosopher king" are limited - and protecting them after they have begun to acquire power is problematic.

Cloning more of the ideal phenotypes in the future may help overcome this problem - as may a paradigm changing technology - if it were to fall into the right hands...

I am cautiously optimistic.

Eventually the parasitical sociopath and the uncontrolable psychopath will have to be delt with appropriately if we are to progress as a sentient species.

Lou Pagnucco said at March 17, 2010 1:41 PM:


According to the recent essay -

"Americans' Mistrust of Government: Rational and Warranted, But Also Dangerous"

- government is losing its popular mandate. What can replace trust but intimidation and fear?

I would think that investors burned by Enron, Madoff, Mortgage Brokers, etc., would be much more apt to invest in ventures headed by honest executives.

It would make an interesting short story theme.

Lono said at March 17, 2010 2:14 PM:


Agreed - I was thinking it would make an interesting story as well!

However - being someone who participated a bit in the recent Ron Paul campaign - I am pessimistic on the possibility of a grass roots independent gaining much traction - when the main stream media is consolidated in such few hands.

There is a great BBC Documentary called "The Century of the Self" which really shows how scientifically perfected media manipulation has really become.

The sad fact is - the average citizen of any country has little capacity to think independently and change their behavior rationally - the Human brain just doesn't reward such behavior except when faced with a fight or flight scenario (which itself is initiated by a hard wired instinctual response).

However - fortunately enough for us - the genetic and thus pheotypic variability in our species is substantial - and those of us - who exhibit a mixture of altrusism and high intelligence - as well as a healthy bit of narcissism - can potentially use grass root organization to make favorable political change over the long haul.

At least until a paradigmn changing technology (or event) comes about allowing for accelerated social evolution.

Lou Pagnucco said at March 17, 2010 7:40 PM:


Someone needs to write the script.

Anyway, I agree there are strong Darwinian selection pressures that favor conformists and major political party apparatchiks, so maybe the wait will be a long one.

In the meantime, a sardonic sense of humor may be helpful.

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