Friday, October 28, 2011

More on psychopaths and divorce:research update

While most people think about criminals when they see the word "psychopath", psychopaths do appear in family law cases more often than you might expect. Research has established that the incidence of psychopathy in the general population is about 1 in 100, but the rate of psychopathy among corporate executives is nearly 4 times that rate, meaning one of every 25 divorces of corporate executives (at least) has a psychopath as one of the parties.

Several characteristics of psychopaths, well documented through hundreds of research studies are relevant and problematic in family law cases, namely:
  • Superficial charm--these guys are VERY likable and convincing
  • Lack of conscience--they will do virtually anything to get what they want, regardless of court orders or laws; 
  • Lack of empathy--they treat spouses and children like objects, not people, and can be unbelievably cruel and unfeeling
  • Chronic, persistent lying--they will lie about anything, anytime
Because most people are not suspicious or skeptical, psychopaths find it easy to manipulate people, even lawyers, into believing their lies. The really good psychopaths haven't been caught. 

New research though is providing tools for detecting psychopaths. A recent study, reviewed here: highlights some detectable differences in the speech patterns of true psychopaths (they are a subset of the DSM IV Antisocial personality disorder diagnostic group) . They are:
  • a lack of emotion in their story telling
  • speaking in terms of cause-and-effect when describing their actions
  • in their conversation, focusing their attention on basic needs, such as food, drink, and money
  • and , most telling, a higher than normal use of "uh" and "um" in their conversations.
This last feature, which reflects the high level of cognitive effort required to manufacture a lie, is supported by the leading edge research using fMRI scans to detect deception. That brain-focused research has clearly established that areas of the brain that are responsible for deception are identifiable and correspond to those areas of the brain known to be responsible for the generation of ideas, rather than memory retrieval, are activated in response to attempts at deception. (Some leading edge research now underway by Dr. Kent Keihl and his colleagues at MIND at the U of New Mexico promises to lead to an fMRI diagnostic test for psychopathy in the near future.) The psychopaths' efforts to generate lies is reflected in the high levels of "ums" and "uhs" in their speech, as well as in the way they justify their behavior through the use of "because" or "so that" in their conversation.

The lessons to be learned for family law practitioners and their clients are these:
  • Psychopathy is more likely among successful executives than any other group except career criminals
  • Psychopaths, regardless of their success, position, or status, will commit crimes and violate orders without hesitation or remorse during their divorces
  • Psychopaths are detectable by paying close attention to their speech patterns
  • Children of psychopaths are at risk because the psychopath lacks normal empathy that parents have for their children
  • Most mental health professionals are untrained in the recognition of psychopathy, and reluctant to identify it if they see it, sometimes out of fear of retaliation by the psychopath
  • Spouses of psychopaths need protective orders in place; when (not if) the PO is violated, contempt proceedings need to be initiated immediately, and lead to jail time, if possible; if not, the spouse needs protection.


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