It’s a rare person who goes out of their way to spend time with psychopaths, and a rarer one still who repeatedly calls a prison to do so. But after more than a year of meetings and negotiation, Arielle Baskin-Sommers from Yale University finally persuaded a maximum-security prison in Connecticut to let her work with their inmates, and to study those with psychopathic tendencies.
Psychopaths, by definition, have problems understanding the emotions of other people, which partly explains why they are so selfish, why they so callously disregard the welfare of others, and why they commit violent crimes at up to three times the rate of other people.
But curiously, they seem to have no difficulty in understanding what other people think, want, or believe—the skill variously known as perspective-taking, mentalizing, or theory of mind. “Their behavior seems to suggest that they don’t consider the thoughts of others,” says Baskin-Sommers, but their performance on experiments suggests otherwise. When they hear a story and are asked to explicitly say what a character is thinking, they can.
On the face of it, this makes sense: Here are people who can understand what their victims are thinking but just don’t care. Hence their actions. But Baskin-Sommers found that there’s more to their minds than it seems.
Most of us mentalize automatically. From infancy, other minds involuntarily seep into our own. The same thing, apparently, happens less strongly in psychopaths. By studying the Connecticut inmates, Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues, Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, showed that these people can deliberately take another person’s perspective, but on average, they don’t automatically do so to the extent that most other people do. “This is the first time we’re seeing evidence that psychopaths don’t have this automatic ability that most of us have,” Baskin-Sommers says.
She started studying psychopaths around ten years ago, “before the time when ‘psychopath’ was a term used in every TV show,” she says. “I’ve become fascinated with how complex their minds are. They rarely show a complete deficit in things. There’s interesting nuance. Sometimes, they seem to show good cognition, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they show theory of mind, and sometimes they don’t. That’s an interesting puzzle.”
The U.S. prison system doesn’t assess psychopathy at intake, so Baskin-Sommers administered a standard test herself to 106 male inmates from the Connecticut prison. Of them, 22 proved to be psychopaths, 28 were not, and the rest fell in a gray zone. Baskin-Sommers did all the interviews in a makeshift psychology lab within the prison itself—a simple room with a desk, computer station, and no barriers.
“There’s security, but it’s outside because what we do is confidential,” she says. “We do a lot of training and we’re always sitting closer to the door. But we’ve never had an incident, or come close. For many of the inmates, it’s the first time anyone even asked them to talk about their lives.” The psychopaths proved to be “glib, narcissistic, and conniving,” she adds. “They can be aggressive, and they like to tell us gruesome details of murders, I think to shock us. But it’s not like that all the time. They do a lot of impression management.”