3 MIN READ | Clinical Psychology

Treating the Untreatable: The Fairy Tale of Psychopathy in Judicature

Nina van Santvoort

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Nina van Santvoort, (2021, March 20). Treating the Untreatable: The Fairy Tale of Psychopathy in Judicature. Psychreg on Clinical Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/psychopathy-judicature/
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Psychopaths are born, not made’ is one of the common misunderstandings of psychopathy. Psychopathy is a clinically established term encompassing a disorder with both antisocial-impulsive and affective-interpersonal characteristics. It is marked by strong genetic components precipitating their effects on functional neural networks along a developmental trajectory.

While psychopaths make up for only 1% of the world population, it is believed that they account for 25% of (male) offenders in correctional settings, and with that psychopaths take up an extraordinary portion of criminal justice resources. The consensus is present regarding the problematic nature, given that their likeliness to re-offend is four-eight times greater than non-psychopathic criminals.

However, emerged as a parallel response to the intense focus of neurocriminological research on the genetic and biological components of the disorder, psychopathy is often regarded as a ‘born this way’ malady, fraught by the fatalistic adage that psychopaths cannot be treated. The infamous reputation of psychopaths’ resistance to treatment has resulted in a rigid deterministic truism, subsequently impeding research, clinical care, and legal processes greatly.

Legal biases

Within legal situations, the belief in psychopathy’s fixed and immutable nature appears to influence judges’ perception of treatment expectations. It was shown that youngsters with a history of antisocial behaviour and psychopathic personality traits were regarded as less responsive to treatment.

It is not intelligible that, coming from this defeatist perspective, treatment may be considered useless for psychopathic offenders. In the eyes of jurors and judges, evidence-based treatment could be regarded as a misuse of valuable resources under the assumption that treatment will render ineffective anyway.

Schemas of psychopathy, either faulty or valid, influence the perceptions of legal decision-makers, affecting the decisions made about young people’s lives. If these beliefs, built on faulty assumptions, are perpetuated, their influence on decisions about youngsters displaying psychopathic-like traits could create stigma in terms of risk assessment and treatment amenability implicating the rest of their lives greatly.

Plastic or set in plaster?

Yet, biology is not destiny, evidence suggests. Neurobiologically-based treatment for a, seemingly, change-resistant group of criminal psychopaths indicated that such a bleak outlook may be unsubstantiated. Contemporary neuro bio-and psychological research has been exploring alternative treatment strategies which incorporate the knowledge of psychopaths’ neurobiology into neurofeedback paradigms.

Although in its infancy, findings indicate plasticity of the psychopathic brain that could, by using neurofeedback-induced adaptive re-organisation of functional brain networks, result in more adaptive social adjustment.

On top of that, in the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC), where an intensive decompression treatment program is offered, much progress has been booked in the treatment of juveniles with psychopathic features. Psychopathic-like juvenile offenders receiving MJTC treatment were less likely to recidivate compared to the juveniles receiving traditional therapy. It thus seems that psychopaths are incorrectly perceived as inalterably dangerous.

Bridging the gap between forensic psychology and criminal law

If we are aware that particular areas of the brain predispose psychopaths to violence, and we know that we can intervene, then we should. But in order to do so, criminal psychopaths and youths exhibiting psychopathic traits must have access to such interventions. So how do we bring this message across to the legal decision-makers?

To facilitate the translation of evidence-based research to clinical and legal interventions, the defeatist attitude should be recognised and deterministic fairy tales about psychopathy must be erased. Hence, starting now and continuing in the future, it is highly advised to unmask erroneous views of psychopathy in any area of relevance.

Forensic psychology is an indispensable part of criminal justice procedures; yet, it appears that scientific research may be poorly comprehended by legal decision-makers. A failure to communicate between scientists and lawmakers could have dangerous implications as, essentially, miscommunication and misunderstanding of valid science could still result in miscarriages of justice ánd impair treatment advances that could have rendered successful.

To promote scientist-lawmaker efficacy, it is science’s duty to provide the legal field with logistical and political models that are elegantly understandable and scalable, with only the necessary amount of convoluted jargon.


Nina van Santvoort finished her undergraduate degree in Psychology & Neuroscience at Maastricht University and doing an MSc in Criminology and Forensic Psychology.  


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