Does No Good to Punish Violent Offenders, Of Course…

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Top Line –

• Psychopathic violent offenders have abnormalities in the parts of the brain related to learning from punishment…
• “When these violent offenders completed neuropsychological tasks, they failed to learn from punishment cues, to change their behaviour in the face of changing contingencies, and made poorer quality decisions despite longer periods of deliberation,”

Psychopathic Violent Offenders’ Brains Can’t Understand Punishment

Psychopathic violent offenders have abnormalities in the parts of the brain related to learning from punishment…

“One in five violent offenders is a psychopath. They have higher rates of recidivism and don’t benefit from rehabilitation programmes. Our research reveals why this is and can hopefully improve childhood interventions to prevent violence and behavioural therapies to reduce recidivism,”

“Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways:
• Regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive
• psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their [aggression] is premeditated,”

“Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age.”

“We have found structural abnormalities in both gray matter and specific white matter fiber tracts among the violent offenders with psychopathy,”:
• Grey matter is mostly involved with processing information and cognition
• White matter coordinates the flow of information between different parts of the brain.

These same regions are involved in learning from rewards and punishment.
“We observed reductions in gray matter volumes…These brain regions are involved in empathy, the processing of pro-social emotions such as guilt and embarrassment, and moral reasoning. “Abnormalities were also found in white matter fiber tracts… associated with the lack of empathy that is typical of psychopathy,”

“…Offenders do not walk in front of buses either, suggesting that they also learn from punishment, nor do they show less sensitivity to punishment than others…In childhood, both psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders alike are repeatedly punished by parents and teachers for breaking rules and for assaulting others, and from adolescence onwards, they are frequently incarcerated. Yet they persist in engaging in violent behaviour towards others. Thus, punishment does not appear to modify their behaviour.”

“When these violent offenders completed neuropsychological tasks, they failed to learn from punishment cues, to change their behaviour in the face of changing contingencies, and made poorer quality decisions despite longer periods of deliberation,”

The researchers also examined activity across the brain during the completion of the task. “We found that the violent offenders with psychopathy, as compared to both the violent offenders without psychopathy and the non-offenders, displayed abnormal responding to punishment…when a previously rewarded response was punished. Our previous research had shown abnormalities in the white matter tract connecting these two regions. In contrast, the violent offenders without psychopathy showed brain functioning similar to that of the non-offenders…These results suggest the violent offenders with psychopathy are characterized by a distinctive organization of the brain network that is used to learn from punishment and from rewards.”

“Offenders with psychopathy may only consider the possible positive consequences and fail to take account of the likely negative consequences. Consequently, their behavior often leads to punishment rather than reward as they had expected…Punishment signals the necessity to change behaviour. Clearly, in certain situations, offenders have difficulty learning from punishment to change their behaviour.”

Conduct problems and the antecedents of psychopathy emerge early in life when learning-based interventions have the potential to alter brain structure and functioning. “Programs that teach parents optimal parenting skills lead to significant reductions in conduct problems among their children, except among those who are callous and insensitive to others. As our studies and those of others show, the abnormalities of brain structure and function associated with persistent violent behavior are subtle and complex…The results of our studies are providing insights into the neural mechanisms characterizing adult violent offenders that may be used, along with other findings, in designing programs to reduce recidivism…”

“Since most violent crimes are committed by men who display conduct problems from a young age, learning-based interventions that target the specific brain mechanisms underlying this behaviour pattern and thereby change the behaviour would significantly reduce violent crime,”

Sarah Gregory, R James Blair, Dominic ffytche, Andrew Simmons, Veena Kumari, Sheilagh Hodgins and Nigel Blackwood published “Punishment and the psychopath: an fMRI investigation of reinforcement learning in violent antisocial personality disordered men” in Lancet Psychiatry on January 28, 2015.

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