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

  • Share
  • Read Later

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.

56 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.

hydroxide
hydroxide

That "fool" happens to have neurosciences as a minor in graduate school and as such a wee bit more idea of what he's talking about than a yokel who got his ideas of good vs. evil out of comic books.

Cody Combs
Cody Combs

I believe the Aurora Colorado incident tells us all we need to know about graduate students in neuroscience and psychopathy....

Cody Combs
Cody Combs

In reply to a comment clearly meant as a joke, we have serious comment containing an ad hominen attack and a statement about guns thats sounds like a satire of what Rush Limbaugh says about liberals that could scarcely be considered provoked. I hope you are better at Neuroscience.

hydroxide
hydroxide

And I believe you are in urgent need of a bare minimum of education, since to claim such is not even on a level to pass high school.

Incidentally,  the incident shows much more on how the wide availability of guns is increasing the risk of psychopathy resulting in mass murder. 

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.

Cody Combs
Cody Combs

Offenses must needs come, but woe to whom they come by

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.

hydroxide
hydroxide

your assumption that this is nonreversible however is far from evident.

No gene will indicate "if A then B" but rather it may lead to a defect in processing emotions properly. If he also had no chance to pick up processing emotions as a kid, then it's hardly surprising that this person is emotionally defective as an adult, and e.g. incapable of feeling empathy. That does not necessarily mean he's COMPLETELY unable to pick it up later. There have, for example, been studies training crime-associated empathy to rapists, making them consider and actually play through the situation from the victim's side. Rapists who went through such a program had a significantly lower recidivism rate than others.

There might be some cases who have been screwed up completely, but that is likely to be a small minority.

Douglas4517
Douglas4517

 A lot of "if's" in that analysis but I'll accept your premise. Still, why shorter rather than longer sentences? Longer sentences provide more time for rehabilitation, do they not?

"There might be some cases who have been screwed up completely, but that is likely to be a small minority."The problem is, as I see it, how do we know which are which at time of sentencing?

Douglas4517
Douglas4517

I'll agree that prison is not well suited for rehabilitation (it is more likely he/she will learn how to offend "better" than be rehabilitated) but there is psychological counseling available in them and also processes for placing people in psychiatric care if deemed needed. The problem, as I see it, with sentencing offenders to psychiatric care is the open-ended term involved. Here in Florida we enacted a law some years ago which allows the state to hold a sex offender beyond his sentence for treatment purposes. This law is attacked on a regular basis by the ACLU, among others, as violating the civil rights of these offenders. I think the attacks have some merit on that basis though I still support the law.

It's a fine line judges have to walk when sentencing violent offenders. Since I believe their (the judges') job is to protect society first, I lean toward adding time rather than reducing it based on such factors as the ones described in the article.

hydroxide
hydroxide

You assume that a regular sentence is, at all, fit to achieve rehabilitation for such individuals. Especially with prison life in the US, there is no reason to assume that to be the case. So the much more productive solution is to send them into appropriate psychological and psychiatric care from the get-go. You're not going to teach someone positive emotions by throwing him to the wolves.

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. 

hydroxide
hydroxide

And who, precisely, suggested everyone should go free?

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.

erromy
erromy

No, but maybe if we understand why a person commits such a heinous crime we might find out how to spot one early enough to stop him before he does it.  That would at least prevent the next person from being killed which is the second best thing to bringing back a murdered person.

Wouldn't it be better to put the lust for revenge on hold for a long enough time to study psychopaths, rather than just killing them as quickly as possible?  Maybe if they are treated as insane, we can study the problem, discover a medical solution and actually stop them from developing before they kill.  I think that's a much more sensible approach to solving the problem than pretending they're not part of the human race, executing them and forgetting about them until the next one strikes.

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.

SmallSpeakHouse
SmallSpeakHouse

From what I know, prison is supposed to be for rehabilitation and to serve as a deterrent, not punishment. Sending an insane person to prison would not serve either purpose. IMO, best thing to do would be to provide psychiatric care in a mental institution instead.

msmischief
msmischief

Only evil people think they are entitled to try to make other people over into what they want them to be -- a.k.a. rehabilitation -- or use them purely instrumentally to serve as an example for others without their first having forfeited their right not to suffer these things by commiting an act that merits punishment.  Nor may one rehabiliate people or use them as deterence if either act would exceed a just punishment.

Otherwise, you are arguing for the punishment of the completely innocent, which would serve the purpose of deterrant, or for the prolonged and forcible cure -- which may be very painful -- of even the most minor of faults.

SmallSpeakHouse
SmallSpeakHouse

I'm not arguing for punishment of the completely innocent. It's why I voted to extend psychiatric help to those proven to have committed a heinous crime due to insanity instead of sending them off to prison which would do no one any good. Neither did I say keep them there for a very long period of time or the rest of their life. Unless truly necessary, that can be unjust, cruel, and certainly very far from true rehabilitation.

For me, rehabilitation is not making other people over into what they want them to be. For me, it is giving these ill people the help they need so they can recognize right from wrong and be functioning members of society again.

hydroxide
hydroxide

You can't have it both ways. Serving the sentence and THEN going into a mental hospital is double punishment. It suggests that people who had much more control over their actions actually go free earlier than those who didn't.

msmischief
msmischief

Going into a a mental hospital is not punishment.  Any more than going into a TB hospital to avoid infecting others.    The sentence is for what you could control.  The hospital is for what you could not.

It would be nice if we could let them go free, but we can't.  It is a manifest necessity that those who can't control themselves, or can't control themselves enough, be controlled by people who can control themselves.

hydroxide
hydroxide

You are pulling things out a hat. No one talks about letting them go free. But what you are suggesting makes no sense whatsoever. It's like giving someone a rehab for a torn ligament by breaking every bone in his body first and then sending them to rehab. The only thing you'd achieve would be that it is LESS likely that the treatment succeeds. That is hardly in the interest of society.

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.

MelodysuhWaltcott
MelodysuhWaltcott

like Eddie replied I'm startled that someone can make $4967 in one month on the network. did you see this(Click on menu Home)

Manuelodi
Manuelodi

Catherine responded I cant believe that anyone can profit $9970 in 4 weeks on the network. did you look at this(Click on menu Home)

Ashley
Ashley

 

Age gap dating is gaining popularity and

acceptance at an alarming rate. Many young women are seeking older men, and many

young guys appreciate the maturity of older women. If you are 40 plus amp;

single, I would encourage you to join ====== АgelessМatch_℃om====== to date someone much younger, to feel young again, and to make your

life more adventurous.

CrystalgfrZidan
CrystalgfrZidan

like Nathan answered I'm taken by surprise that a stay at home mom able to profit $4119 in one month on the network. have you look this (Click on menu Home)