Neuropsychology is the branch of psychology that examines behavior in specific situations to learn about the functioning of the brain. Dr. Robert Schug, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Forensic Psychology at California State University, Long Beach, spoke with Dr. David Kosson and Aftermath Foundation members about some of his research on neuropsychological functioning in individuals with psychopathic traits. Dr. Schug, in collaboration with Dr. Adrian Raine, Professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, examined neurocognitive behavioral abilities in individuals with psychopathic traits who are relatively successful versus in individuals with these traits who are less successful.
Because many of the antisocial behaviors associated with psychopathy appear to reflect a lack of self-control, the study was especially focused on executive functions, which include the ability to plan goal-directed behavior, monitor performance, and modify behavior to achieve a goal. Dr. Schug points out that prior studies of executive functioning in psychopathy have yielded mixed results. Some studies suggest that psychopathic offenders demonstrate difficulties in this area while others suggest that they do not. Therefore, neuropsychological research and specifically executive functioning continue to be important topics for those committed to understanding the behaviors of psychopathic individuals.
This study was unique because the research sample was recruited from community-dwelling individuals as opposed to the kind of prison, university, or mental health population, which is more typically included in studies of psychopathy. Studies of community samples are important because findings on prisoners and hospital patients do not always generalize to the community, and studies of college students do not usually contain very many individuals with clinical personality disorders.
This study included 158 males and 20 females, recruited from temporary employment agencies in the Los Angeles, California area. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 61 years old. Results showed that participants without psychopathic traits (that is, non-psychopathic or healthy control subjects) did better than the psychopathic group as a whole on almost every test of attention and executive function. But when Dr. Schug subdivided the psychopathic participants based on how successful they had been, the unsuccessful psychopaths showed deficits in most areas compared to the non-psychopathic (healthy) control participants. However, results suggest that the group of successful psychopaths was able to perform about as well on executive function tasks as the non-psychopathic (healthy) control group. Moreover, in a few cases, successful psychopaths had better executive functioning than even the non-psychopathic (healthy) control subjects.
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