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Cognitive models of psychopathy

Children within family systems that increase risk of antisocial behaviour do not have clear limits set to their behaviour. As a result, they frequently fail to internalize the controls on their behaviour that other children adopt. These types of environment may also foster beliefs about the individual and the world that support antisocial behaviour. Lopez and Emmer, for example, found that adolescents who engaged in crime believed aggression to be an effective and appropriate response to threat. Liau et al. and Sukhodolsky and Ruchkin found that specifi c beliefs led to specifi c behaviours: beliefs concerning overt antisocial behaviour (‘People need to be roughed up once in a while’) were associated with overt but not covert antisocial behaviour. Conversely, beliefs related to covert behaviour (‘If someone is careless enough to lose a wallet, they deserve to have it stolen’) led to covert but not overt antisocial behaviour. Sukhodolsky and Ruchkin found that aggressive acts were signifi cantly associated with high levels of anger and beliefs that physical aggression is an appropriate course of action in confl icts. Non-aggressive antisocial behavior was associated with approval of deviancy, but not with anger or beliefs legitimizing aggression. Similar scripts may underpin adult behaviour of psychopaths. Beck et al., for example, identifi ed their core beliefs as ‘people are there to be taken’, and the strategy derived from this to be one of attack. Other core beliefs included:

Force or cunning is the best way to get things done. We live in a jungle and the strong person is the one who survives. People will get at me if I don’t get them fi rst.

I have been unfairly treated and am entitled to get my fair share by whatever means I can. If people can’t take care of themselves, that’s their problem.

As well as these belief structures, there may be more fundamental differences in cognitive processing between psychopaths and average individuals. The previous section considered how psychopaths process emotional information. However, Sadeh and Verona found other cognitive differences between psychopaths and average individuals. In an experimental study, they found that participants who scored highly on traits indicating primary psychopathy (low anxiety, dominance, callousness) were more focused and less distracted by task-irrelevant stimuli than those without these characteristics. This suggests that such individuals had reduced attentional capacity, and had to focus more on tasks and less on peripheral issues. They also found that some characteristics of what they termed secondary psychopathy (social alienation, cynicism) were associated with poor working memory. Overall, they took this to indicate that psychopaths have a number of cognitive impairments, and that different aspects of psychopathy are associated with different aspects of cognitive function.

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