Forensic psychiatrists use Hollywood characters to shed light on psychopaths | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 28.02.2014
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Forensic psychiatrists use Hollywood characters to shed light on psychopaths

A Belgian forensic psychiatrist and his team have analyzed film psychopaths who mirror their real life counterparts. DW examines their findings to look at what we know about psychopaths.

Anthony Hopkins portraying serial killer Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins portraying serial killer Hannibal Lecter

Film is a particularly suitable medium for depicting psychopathy, says Samuel Leistedt, a forensic psychiatrist at the Marronniers hospital in Tournai, Belgium. Many films featuring psychopaths have also become Hollywood classics and blockbusters: "Psycho," "Silence of the Lambs" and "There Will Be Blood," to name a few.

Leistedt and his team compiled a database of 400 films, although less than a third were selected for analysis based on the realism of the characters. Their study, which was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, found that psychopaths in the movies have become more clinically accurate over time.

"I identify the really well-constructed characters, which were so realistic that you could meet them in your practice," says Leistedt, who co-authored the study with colleague Paul Linkowski.

Infografik Selection of Clinical Psychopaths in the movies

One classic, idiopathic prototype, which closely resembles a clinical case, is the psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh. He is portrayed by Spanish actor Javiar Bardem in "No Country for Old Men."

"A guy I met in my practice was exactly like that. He was a hitman in Belgium, working for a criminal organization. He was very cold and very scary," Leistedt says.

Non-violent psychopaths

Not all psychopaths are serial killers, rapists or mafia hitmen though. Some are neither violent nor criminal. Manipulative corporate raiders such as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's film, "Wall Street," can still destroy other human beings, yet manage to sleep soundly at night.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in Wall Street

Not all psychopaths are serial killers, rapists and mafia hit men: Some could be corporate raiders

"Gordon Gekko is probably the best example of this kind of successful, manipulative psychopath. They will not kill you, but they are very charming. They lie, they like power," says Leistedt.

Interestingly, the few psychopathic women in the film study are mainly the manipulative type. Actress Sharon Stone's character in "Basic Instinct" uses her sexuality to entrap victims and kills them with an ice pick, even though physical aggression is rare among women.

"Female psychopaths are more manipulative than male ones. The motivation for murder is different, like the black widow who marries a wealthy old man and puts poison in his drink," he explains.

The counterpart to the clever manipulator is the "macho male," who possesses more brawn than brains.

"The most beautiful example of macho is the famous gangster in Chicago, Al Capone. He's aggressive, but not very smart," Leistedt adds.

Absence of empathy a key personality trait

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men" is the "perfect villain with a bad haircut"

The defining personality trait of all psychopathic types, in film as well as life, is lack of empathy, says Dietmar Kanthak, a film critic at the Bonn-based daily Der General-Anzeiger. He describes Javiar Bardem's portrayal of Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men" as "the perfect villain with a bad haircut."

"He kills like Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Terminator' - like a machine. He's got this intelligence, this will to get a job done. He has no empathy at all," he adds.

Other psychopathic traits include lack of remorse and guilt.

"They can mimic emotions. Intellectually they are able to explain what sadness is, but they are not able to feel sadness or anxiety," explains Leistedt.

Psychopathic brains are different

Diagram of amygdalae in the brain

The amygdalae, deep in emotional brain, remain dormant in psychopaths

The inability to feel emotion could have a biological basis. When psychopathic subjects are shown powerful images of pain, terror or suffering, their brain activity hardly registers on an MRI scan.

The amygdalae - two small almond-shaped structures at the heart of what is called the emotional brain - remain cold.

"It's like the brain is paralyzed or asleep. These are very important structures in terms of emotions and fear. When you see a snake, for example, your amygdala will normally activate a lot," Leistedt says.

The MRI scans show how psychopathic and non-psychopathic brains differ, but do not explain the reasons for the difference. It's not known to what extent a relatively inactive amygdala may be inborn or genetic, since social deprivation, childhood traumas or head injuries can also leave a neurological imprint on the brain.

Psychopaths versus sociopaths

Many of the film psychopaths in the study are actually sociopaths. They commit the same brutal crimes as true psychopaths who have no feelings. The difference is that sociopaths may still be capable of feeling human emotion and remorse. One classic case is the real-life Louisiana death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. He is portrayed by Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking."

"He has access to emotions - to sadness, to guilt. He is anti-social, a drug addict, but not a psychopath," says Leistedt.

Sean Penn (left) as sociopath Matthew Poncelet, and Susan Sarandon, in Dead Man Walking

Sociopath Matthew Poncelet (left) in "Dead Man Walking" is able to access his emotions

Cinematically, Matthew Poncelet is one of the most realistic characters in the study.

"We don't know if he's guilty or not, and then afterwards you see the evidence of his killing two teenagers. You get the whole complexity of this character," says film critic Kanthak, who believes that films can enable moviegoers to understand the psychology of psychopaths.

"The best films try to explain these characters. They try to present them in all their complexity - all their faults, all their wickedness: but they're still human beings, aren't they?" he adds.

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