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How to Understand the Mind of a Psychopath

Kailey Lawson ’17 studies a disorder most people shy away from—psychopathy.

With Kailey Lawson ’17
Double Major: Philosophy and Cognitive Science

Kailey Lawson ’17

FOR THE PUBLIC, the term “psychopath” is almost interchangeable with “serial killer,” but Kailey Lawson ’17 believes most people with the personality disorder get a bad rap, and she wants to devote much of her future work in the field of cognitive science to understanding why they think and act the way they do.

“When I tell people that I study psychopaths, they say, ‘Oh my gosh! Why? Those are terrible people!’” she says. “But I think as we understand personality more, we understand that there’s a continuum. You’re not a good person or a bad person—there are all of these things that play together. And psychopathic traits are the same way—there’s a continuum and, you know, everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum.”

In fact, she notes, the traits that mark psychopathy are often present in prominent members of society. “There’s lots of research that high-powered individuals, like CEOs or surgeons, have many psychopathic personality traits. Do you want your surgeon to feel bad when they’re cutting into you? No, you don’t. You want them to be somewhat detached and have a steady hand and not be thinking ‘Oh no, I’m going to hurt him.’”

High-functioning individuals with psychopathic traits haven’t been studied very much, Lawson says, because of the stigma attached to the term. So, in her senior thesis in cognitive science, she tested people from across the spectrum. “I was looking at inhibition, because a core facet of psychopathic traits is disinhibition, a lack of stopping yourself or controlling yourself, even when you might know you should act otherwise.”

What she found was that people who scored higher on the index of psychopathic traits also demonstrated a real deficit in inhibition. “And so I think that illustrates that people with higher levels of psychopathic tendencies don’t have the same abilities that people with lower levels of them do, and they should be treated differently in the legal system, the same way that we would treat people with other cognitive deficits differently.”

And that starts, she believes, with trying to understand them instead of demonizing them.

1

From an early age, spurn fiction for nonfiction. Fall in love with true-crime books because of your interest in human motives. Aspire to be a criminal profiler until you learn that your image of a profiler is a TV fiction, not a real job.

 

 

2In high school, follow your mother’s example and get involved in community service, volunteering at a food bank and local homeless shelter. Fall in love with the work partially because you find it fulfilling and have a deep interest in understanding the problems of the people you’re helping.

 

 

3Know that you don’t want to follow in your brother Nick’s footsteps at Pomona College, but end up deciding it’s the best place for you anyway. And though you’ve always thought philosophy was abstract and boring, take a first-year seminar with Professor Julie Tannenbaum in medical ethics and discover that the field deals with intriguing real-world challenges.

 

 

4Love your class in forensic psychology with Claremont McKenna College Professor Daniel Krauss so much that you end up as his research assistant. Major in both philosophy and cognitive science because you see them as two ways of understanding human behavior; then spend a summer with Harvard’s Mind/ Brain/Behavior program in Trento, Italy.

 

 

5Inspired by a lecture by author/activist Bryan Stevenson on mass incarceration, follow his advice about getting “proximate” to the problem. Spend a summer working behind barbed wire at Patton State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the California correctional system. While there, take an interest in psychopathy, which you come to believe is misunderstood.

 

 

6As a senior, write two theses on the subject of psychopathy—an examination of the ethical theory of the blameworthiness of psychopaths for your philosophy major, and a study of inhibition deficits in high-functioning psychopaths for your “cog-sci” major.

 

 

7Conclude that psychopathic traits should be treated as a mitigating factor in both moral and legal domains, and decide you want to study the subject further to be able to influence public policy. Gain admission to a top Ph.D. psychology program at UC Davis with a professor whose research offers opportunities to pursue your chosen work into the future.