My Brain Made Me Do It: Psychopaths and Free Will

Why judges hand down shorter sentences to convicted psychopaths when their behavior is blamed on the brain

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Should murderous psychopaths be punished less severely if their behavior can be blamed on brain differences or genes? Or, conversely, should their sentence be longer precisely because their biology makes them even more intractable and dangerous than other criminals?

A new study published in Science explored these questions by asking judges to impose a prison term on a hypothetical convict. When the judges were initially told that the offender was a psychopath, they tended to consider it an aggravating factor in sentencing, but when they heard additional expert testimony that biological factors could explain the guilty man’s behavior, they saw that information as mitigating and handed down a shorter sentence.

The impact of such expert testimony depended in part on whether the biological arguments came from the defense or the prosecution — it influenced judges’ reasoning more when it was delivered by the defense. But, overall, judges still levied lengthy sentences for the crime and viewed the convict as morally and legally responsible for his behavior: they reduced prison time only by a year, from 13.93 years on average to 12.83, when considering brain or genetic explanations for the convict’s behavior.

“The judges did not let the defendant off,” said lead author Lisa Aspinwall of the University of Utah in a statement. “They just reduced the sentence and showed major changes in the quality of their reasoning.” The researchers noted that they were surprised the judges reduced their sentencing at all, considering that they were dealing with psychopaths who are in general a highly unsympathetic bunch.

(MORE: Which Kids Join Gangs? A Genetic Explanation)

The hypothetical case used in the new study was loosely based on the 1994 trial of Mobley v. State. In 1991, Stephen Mobley robbed a

Image: Stephen A. Mobley

Georgia Dept. of Corrections via AP

Domino’s pizza shop in Georgia, during the course of which he shot the restaurant’s manager to death; at trial, his attorney attempted to present evidence showing that Mobley had a variant of a gene linked to violent behavior: the MAO-A or so-called warrior gene.

Because the scientific data on MAO-A was so new at the time, however, the judge rejected its use in court and Mobley was executed in 2005. But since then, research has supported the link between the gene and violence, and studies have found that men who have the gene and are abused as children are significantly more likely to display antisocial behavior.

In the new study, researchers tweaked the hypothetical case to eliminate the murder; instead, the defendant was convicted of aggravated battery for savagely beating a fast-food restaurant manager with a gun during a robbery attempt and causing permanent brain damage. By taking murder off the table — and therefore the death penalty or a life sentence — the researchers compelled the judges to consider the future dangerousness of a criminal who could eventually be set free.

Researchers presented one of four versions of the hypothetical case to 181 judges in 19 states. In all versions, judges read scientific evidence that the convicted criminal was a psychopath and what that meant, namely that psychopathy is incurable. Half of the judges also received expert testimony on the genetic and neurobiological causes of the criminal behavior, presented either by the defense as a mitigating factor, or by the prosecution, which argued that it should increase the convict’s sentence. The other judges got no mention of the idea that biological differences in the convict’s brain could have caused his behavior. Researchers controlled for the fact that different states have different sentencing laws.

The judges who were given a biological explanation for the convict’s psychopathy issued shorter sentences, but notably, all judges committed the criminal to significantly more prison time than their average nine years for aggravated battery. And while all judges viewed psychopathy as an aggravating factor in sentencing, the judges who heard evidence about the genetic and neurobiological causes of the condition from the defense reported viewing it as less aggravating. Nearly 9 in 10 judges listed at least one aggravating factor in their reasoning for their sentence, but when they heard the expert testimony from the defense, the percentage of judges who also listed mitigating factors rose from 30% to 66%. And judges who received this evidence were 2.5 times more likely than other judges to report actually having weighed aggravating versus mitigating factors in deciding their sentence.

(MORE: Understanding Psychopathic and Sadistic Minds)

The expert testimony offered in the study described how the MAO-A gene affects the amydgala, a part of the brain involved in emotion and learning. The amygdala is the seat of the so-called violence-inhibition mechanism, which is what triggers anxiety in normal people when they recognize that others are in pain or distress. People with low MAO-A activity, like the convicted psychopath, don’t experience normal brain development, however; that may explain why psychopaths are incapable of responding to the fear and pain of others with normal distress. Ultimately, the testimony argued, because of their genetic and brain-related differences, psychopaths don’t undergo functional moral development and fail to learn right from wrong.

Interestingly, however, even though the judges handed out reduced sentences when presented with this expert testimony, they did not report viewing the convict as having less free will or as being any less responsible, legally or morally, for his crime. “What this tells me is that the effect of neuroscience evidence may operate at a non-conscious level. People think it does not affect their judgment of responsibility, but in fact it does,” says Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore, who has researched this issue, but was not involved in the study.

It is this basic question of responsibility that many psychologists find crucial — and that so many people misunderstand. “There is a lot of interest these days in the implications of neuroscience for justice and the legal system. Some of this interest focuses on the radical notion that neuroscience undermines the very idea of personal responsibility,” says Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, who was also not associated with the new study. “The idea is that, since everything I do results from my brain, and my brain is the product of my genes and my life experiences, then how can you hold me responsible for anything? Isn’t it always true that ‘my brain made me do it?'”

Indeed, earlier studies have shown that when participants are presented with neuroscientific evidence in cases involving people who have caused harm or behaved violently, they see it as far more mitigating than psychological factors like child abuse — even though research now shows that brain differences themselves can actually be caused by such abuse and that child abuse is more strongly linked with violence than most neurobiological factors.

(MORE: Understanding Psychopathic and Sadistic Minds)

Schwartz and a colleague described their findings on such research in a recent New York Times op-ed:

The pattern of results was striking. A brain characteristic that was even weakly associated with violence led people to exonerate the protagonist more than a psychological factor that was strongly associated with violent acts. …

In contrast, while psychologically damaging experiences like childhood abuse often elicited sympathy for the protagonist and sometimes even prompted considerable mitigation of blame, the participants still saw the protagonist’s behavior as intentional. The protagonist himself was twisted by his history of trauma; it wasn’t just his brain.

The problem here, however, is that all of our psychology and behavior has a biological cause, even if we don’t understand exactly how it works. As Schwartz put it, “’Was the cause psychological or biological?’ is the wrong question when assigning responsibility for an action. All psychological states are also biological ones.”

Schwartz called the new study “terrific,” noting in particular that hearing evidence of biological causes of behavior had a larger impact on how mitigating the judges considered the convict’s psychopathy than on the actual sentences they handed down. Among the mitigating factors that judges cited after hearing the neurobiological evidence was the idea that mental illness made the perpetrator less responsible for his behavior.

As one judge in the study explained: “The evidence that psychopaths do not have the necessary neural connections to feel empathy is significant. It makes possible an argument that psychopaths are, in a sense, morally disabled, just as other people are physically disabled.”

(MORE: Study: 1 in 25 Business Leaders May Be Psychopaths)

Consequently, as Schwartz says, “If you sentence to punish, it will reduce sentencing. But if you sentence to protect society, it may well increase sentencing, by implying that the perpetrator is incorrigible.”

“This is not the grand, metaphysical, ‘We are all helpless to override the inevitable workings of our brains’ idea that neuroscience is incompatible with moral or legal responsibility,” says Farah. “It is a more subtle, but still important, finding that judges are influenced by neurobiological evidence.”

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

65 comments
KevinKindSongs
KevinKindSongs

The demonization of people suffering from psychopathy is a silly myth.  In fact, it appears very few psychopaths are violent.  Most violence comes from close family members and young men who are drunk.  Alcoholism is, by far, the cause of most violence.

Most people suffering from psychopathy leads very minimal, sad lives.  One of the best sources on this is Psychiatric Times where they have empathic and science-based discussions.  These are humans with brain birth defects -- not monsters.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

At times I wonder if any

leader of today looks at the Middle East or is it the gone case. The reason I

state is simple All the religions that are now in the world

except Hinduism came from here and I see there is no peace only kill

kill order and threats of  and to Iran . How far are we going to achieve

any monetary peace if there is no leader who comes up and tells us , LOOK WE

NEED PEACE can we have this? Or are all chickens? I thank you Firozali A.Mulla

DBA 

gmarmot
gmarmot

As a retired Federal law enforcement officer, and a frequent reader of biology writings, I feel that for the safety of the rest of society, psychopaths need to be kept away from others forever, regardless of them completing any prison term. The problem with modern society is that we will allow ANYONE to breed (ie: produce children), regardless of the likelyhood that these offspring will be severely handicapped (mentally or physically). We all seem to forget that we are merely very intelligent primates. Any other animal society would quickly kill a defective offspring, not through reasoning, but by instinctively knowing that this defect may show up again in that individual's babies. I'm not advocating killing all offspring with some defect, but since we DO NOT have enough dollars to take car of every person's medical needs, we certainly should not waste money by allowing everyone to reproduce. If you think I am incorrect, look at the law yourself, and you will see that nearly any genetically deviant nutcase has the right to reproduce

Annette Rose Giesbrecht
Annette Rose Giesbrecht

A psychopath could choose not to beat a person to death because he does not want others to think bad of him or he does not want to be executed or thrown in prison for life.   Therefore even if he ha no concept of right or wrong, he could choose not to do the action because if he did, it would bring dire consequence to him.

Kushan joshi
Kushan joshi

Now we should say,  start executing the convict brain . 

Chinga_Tu_Madre
Chinga_Tu_Madre

How come we don't have the death penalty for insider trading, financial fraud, and political corruption?

Phoenix31756
Phoenix31756

People should be very well aware that this notion has a Far-Reaching affect on the years too come.

When you view criminal activities on a steady rise and use this as their defense, What do you purpose to do about it ? 

Maybe, the court system should be called Dr.Jeckels and Mr.Hide's Court.  

Phoenix31756
Phoenix31756

Now, aren't we glad that Zimmerman hasn't used this in his defense but it may well come to that because he's now asking the Judge to have the Public pay for his legal defense, he's out of money !

The REAL GOAL in court is that your STUPIDITY as an individual is on trial ! 

eetom
eetom

I did not want to post any comment but my brain made me do it.  Help!

roddalitz
roddalitz

I don't care what the reason is, if someone commits a crime and is a danger to the public, they need to be kept out of circulation for a while. That is really the only reason for a prison sentence, apart from being without funds and unable to be punicshed any other way.

erromy
erromy

This article demonstrates the insanity of pure logic, which is what the justice system thrives on.   The question is not whether they should have longer or shorter prison sentences, the question is how to deal with them in an asylum for the criminally insane where they should be locked away because they will hurt people!  If the brain made them do it then it must be a form of insanity.  Moral disability may be a "normal" disability, but it can't be compared to physical disability in terms of public safety.  Whether they are guilty in a legal sense or not, you can't just let them out into the street!

EdTwidley
EdTwidley

meh... our brains made us execute them.  Problem solved, nobody has free will.  STFU and hang 'em.

blahblah76543
blahblah76543

Look at that "hydroxide" fool scurrying to exonerate psychopaths. He sure seems to have something invested in molding people with his evil opinions.

NicthGott
NicthGott

Free will doesn't exist, everything is causal.   However, environment is a major causal factor as well as biology.  Biology is a like a colored lens through which some environmental light attenuates and some passes entirely.  My own opinion is that the judicial system needs to identify first and foremost what its goals are: to protect the larger population, to reform criminals, or both.   Given that certain disorders like psychopathy have no known cure, and no reliable treatment method, the entirely utilitarian response would be to execute the criminal or drug him indefinitely.   Not all criminals, however, are so affected.   Those that can be reformed ought to be - and by all means, I think.  Biology is the basis of behavior, and thus psychosurgery, and drugs shouldn't be taken off the table as a treatment for anti-social behavior.  If reform isn't a goal of the judicial system, then there is no point in ever releasing convicted criminals, so why waste money locking them up?

Of course, if the goal of the prison system is punishment, then it already suffices.  However, as I firmly believe that the universe is nearly causally deterministic and that free-will doesn't exist, I find guilt and punishment absurd.

Douglas4517
Douglas4517

It would seem, to me, that the judges handed out sentences non-logically.  If a person is "wired" (genetically) for violence then no punishment will change him nor will any efforts to rehabilitate work. Therefore, longer sentences should be returned rather than lighter ones. What this study really exposed is that "mitigating circumstances" are  often misconstrued. Childhood abuse may, indeed, have led the person to commit an entirely unrelated crime in adulthood but if it is part of a pattern of behavior that survived to adulthood then the most humane thing we could do is put the person out of his misery (as we do vicious animals). Alternatively, the person should never be allowed back into society.  If it (childhood abuse and/or genetic trait) is causal, that is. Sounds a bit hopeless to me.

eetom
eetom

I do not understand.  "My brain made me do it"!  Isn't your brain you?  If your brain is a separate entity then who is this brainless "you"?

ravenrdr
ravenrdr

Let; give up the pretension that absolute free will exists.  Free will can  exist only in the context of our heredity and our environment.  Otherwise, why would parents try to give "advantages" to their kids?  Why the best schools?  Why museums?  Why music lessons?  

As Hobbes famously said, "nature is red in tooth and claw" and we are nature.  We struggle for the advantage and woe to the weakest--in capitalism, weak=poor.  Let's all admit this is the case.  Ayn Rand faced it, entitling book of essays, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS; if Rand can face it, why can't we? 

JakeReyes
JakeReyes

The more such convicts should be in prison longer or for the rest of their life. Is their brain separate from their whole personality? Keep them away from mainstream society and in a strictly controlled environment.

TogosTurn
TogosTurn

The psychopaths that commit crimes and are convicted will get punished one way or another, by life imprisonment or execution. I am more concerned about the functional psychopaths who operate under the radar and abuse people ruthlessly without getting caught. The ones who are adept at convincing outside people they are right -- even convincing their own victims they are wrong via a damaging psychological technique called gaslighting.

david_wr
david_wr

Cut the prison sentence but declare the person a mentally dangerous individual.  This way when his reduced sentence is up if he's not been treated enough to no longer  be dangerous, he'll be transferred to a mental health ward, possibly for the rest of his life.

Basically, this would be the same as if the police detained a mentally ill person before he committed a crime and he was found my a mental health court to be a danger to the public, and the illness was one that was not treatable enough with current medical techniques to allow him to be released.  The only difference is the guy who commits a crime would serve a prison sentence "up front" instead of spending decades or his whole life "just" in a mental health facility.

Brah
Brah

i don't know, there may be extenuating circumstances to any crime---just because we have the technology to detect potential deterministic triggers to a persons actions doesn't condone that action---after all if we were to hypothetically, find all the triggers possible (and perhaps even invalidate free will)--then what? let EVERYONE go free? 

i mean, the justice system is innocent until proven guilty, and that means innocence as far as the crime in question, the triggers and motivators that went into it are a secondary line of inquiry. for utilitarian reasons you can't have everyone go free because of some deterministic trigger which we only barely understand at this point in time. the justice system should be one based n the presumption of innocence but not innocence based on potential barely understood triggers in the environment, but innocence as far as the crime in question. 

Web Design Vizag
Web Design Vizag

the most interesting thing here is that various judges presented with the same evidence can hand out sentences of 

Kimsbenn
Kimsbenn

Why should we be so concerned as to why a person commits a heinous crime? They should receive the punishment that fits the crime. A person being abused as a child does not bring back the person they murdered as an adult.

msmischief
msmischief

If they can't help it because of their brains -- why, that's what we have mental institutions for.  To hold those who can't go free because they can't control themselves and are a danger.

If psychological info is presented as a mitigating factor, it should be treated as a plea of insanity -- after the sentence is served, he goes into the mental hospital for as long as it takes to cure, if ever.

Jason Dowd
Jason Dowd

My attitude is that if a murderer had an unhappy childhood, the least we can do is make absolutely certain they don't have an unhappy old age. By executing them.

Talendria
Talendria

I'm a "sentence to protect society" advocate.  No matter how much I sympathize with an adult who was abused as a child, I will always sympathize more with his victims.

therantguy
therantguy

Shouldn't they get harsher sentences? i.e. I'd much rather have somebody back on the street who made a horrible mistake than somebody who made a horrible mistake and can't control themselves!