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Killer Instinct

22 August 2017

Do you have killer instincts? Empathy that can’t be roused, a bloodlust that can’t be quenched? Some do – but were they born or bred? Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The Making of Ivan Milat

It is said that psychopaths begin young. Perhaps their family begins to notice ‘off’ behaviour from childhood. This can include withdrawal from others, the inability to empathise with friends, or violent practices towards family pets. This seems to indicate that killer genetics may be responsible, but as with most things, it’s never quite that simple. According to neuroscientist Jim Fallon, there are three things that contribute to the making of a psychopath: brain structure, genetics and childhood experiences. Although many are born with the biology, it takes experience to flick the switch from ‘just unusually wired’ to ‘killer’.

Take the case of the Australian Backpacker Killer, Ivan Milat. He’s the man said to be ‘Australia’s worst serial killer’, as depicted in the film Wolf Creek. His father Stephen was an abusive alcoholic with an interest in guns, while his mother, Margaret, physically disciplined their 14 children to the point of breaking their arms and slashing them with knives. These experiences shaped the Milat children. While difficult to distinguish experience from genetics, Ivan’s siblings claim that he stood out from an early age. He was fearless, found serious situations humorous, never confided in people and was obsessively immaculate in his dress. While these traits aren’t specifically linked to psychopathic brain patterns, they may suggest a biological and experience-based explanation to his later crimes.

So if that switch does flick to ‘killer’, can you switch it back?

The Ludovico Technique: Purely Fiction?

According to leading forensic psychiatrist Dr. Nigel Blackwood, psychopaths can be treated – but not cured. Due to their biological nature, they are unlikely to fear punishment and are unfazed by social stigma. This makes it difficult to treat them psychologically. While other types of criminals without personality disorders seem to respond to punishment-type therapy (negative feedback), psychopaths are more responsive to rewards (positive feedback). Studies by Dr. Blackwood’s team used MRI scans to show psychopathic brain activity increases both when punished and rewarded.

However, their decision-making is weighed differently. When considering their next move, psychopaths are overly-optimistic, thinking only about the reward. It has even been reported that once incarcerated, psychopaths seem surprised, as if the possibility of punishment did not exist. Work by psychologist Joseph Newman showed that criminal test subjects in prison systems respond to smaller frequent rewards. These develop into a compulsive need, a dependence on pleasure.

Despite treatment attempts through rewards-based therapies, there is still no cure. Professionals need to intervene at a young age to prevent children from becoming criminals.

Is your best friend a killer?

You’ve shared ice cream, friendship bracelets and a secret handshake, but how well do you know your best friend? I mean…there was that one time when you found that kidney in their fridge, but…it couldn’t be…right?

Only one per cent of the global Australian population are said to be psychopaths – this might seem small but it’s actually around 245, 780 people in Australia. So here’s how to pick them. According to criminal psychologist Robert Hare things you should look out for; a lack of empathy or remorse, pathological lying, being emotionally shallow, having behavioural problems, an inability to accept responsibility for their behaviour and impulsivity. As psychopaths have a predatory nature, they tend to assess which other people are prey, or competition. Publications in LiveScience, as well as Nature report that psychopaths are usually male, sociable and function well in society. Their charm is often used to gain people’s trust.

If you’re very attentive, you might be able to detect a psychopath through their speech patterns. Psychology research at Cornell University shows that the description of behaviour in past tense can show detachment, for example. Also, the tendency to use more ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ when talking is said to reveal a planning out of speech. When a non-psychopath commits a crime they talk in terms of emotion, whereas psychopaths think it out as cause and effect. Another quirk is that they often speak of eating, drinking and money. These things are considered basic needs and so are said to reveal their predatory nature.

You never know, that friend who’s always calling on impulse for last minute drinks? Worth looking into. That one friend who’s always Instagramming their avocado toast? Definitely suspicious.