For some unknowable reason, last night’s Horizon: What Makes a Psychopath? – an investigation into people who score highly for personality traits such as grandiosity, superficiality, lying, being easily bored, having short attention spans and an inability to empathise with others or feel guilt or remorse – felt timely.
Psychologist Prof Uta Frith was our guide on a tour of what defines and creates such a being and whether he (or presumably she, although there was no mention of a distaff counterpart to the men interviewed or referred to in the programme) can ever be successfully treated.
There are, Frith informed us, an estimated 300-400,000 psychopaths in Britain. Most of us have probably met one, without realising it. If you haven’t – well, you know how the old joke goes.
However, as the professor was at pains to point out, criminality is not the essence of psychopathology – an insufficiency of social emotion is. That does quite often get you into trouble and prison, nevertheless, so it was to the latter we headed for interviews with four inmates: Ryan Klug, who is serving 60 years for murder; Robert Sonneborn Jr, serving 38 years for multiple offences including kidnapping and assaulting an officer so badly that he now functions at the level of a 12-year-old boy; Joshua Wright, serving 100 years for murder, rape and other crimes; and Mark Moye, serving 30 years for child molestation.
They are all being held at Indiana State Prison. “Unfortunately,” said Frith, “regulations in the UK made it impossible to interview prisoners there.” I’m not sure “unfortunately” is the word I would have used. I think I consider those regulations one of the few grace notes we have left, and their absence in the US a sign of the more exploitative and brutish edge its system has, but we can argue about that another time.
The interviews and the inmates’ lack of affect as they discussed their crimes were chilling. “I would do things just to see their outcomes,” said one. “You can’t look at people as people all the time,” said another. “Or you’d never do anything.”
Is it nature that lets them view the world without feeling? To see people as so many obstacles between them and their desires? Or is it nurture? The answer, as usual, seemed to be both. Frith spoke to researchers who have found different neural structures and activity in psychopathic brains, and to the directors of places such as the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin, which take in the adolescent criminals nowhere else can handle. Their charges have almost always been exposed to sights and experiences that would make growing up into a non-violent adult an abnormal result in itself.
Either way, effective treatment seems a long way off. We may have moved on from the infamous Oak Ridge experiment, which combined intensive group therapy with massive doses of LSD and methamphetamine and – thanks to the information they had all exchanged in group, coupled presumably with the greater instability induced by the drugs – substantially increased re-offending rates among the psychopaths who took part, but changing adult personalities is still a tough job. The Mendota Center is having some success intervening during the teenage years with bespoke therapy and reward schemes, but whether it is “curing” nascent psychopaths or simply helping to civilise those who have never been properly cared for before is an unanswered question.
It was a sober and responsible look at a difficult, treacherous and horrible subject that nevertheless struck a couple of false notes; first, the correspondence the programme makers undertook with Moors Murderer Ian Brady before his death added so little insight (he refused to mention his crimes) that it felt like a gimmick. Second, it was revealed at the end that none of the Indiana inmates had been officially diagnosed as a psychopath. It was claimed this showed how difficult it was to identify one, but it felt like a con and perhaps showed only that it is very difficult to find one willing to talk in a prison that will grant you access.
What pathology is it that makes you want to go on Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls? Particularly as it is actually a Celebrity Island very much without Bear Grylls or, it appears, very much instruction from him beforehand. Ten celebrities – or similar – are deposited onshore with three jerrycans of water, some basic tools and no clue. Olympic 400m athlete Iwan Thomas, Corrie actor Ryan Thomas and singer Jordan Stephens declared themselves “alpha males” and proceed to outdo each other in stupidity while the women, by and large, put up with it, which is its own kind of foolishness. I watched them dehydrate to dangerous levels with a detachment that should have had me checking the psychopath trait list. But honestly – talk about people you could live without.