Book Review: Psychopathy VSI Essi Viding

10 October 2019

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Book review of Psychopathy: a very short introduction (Essi Viding; Oxford University Press, Oct 2019)

An excellent concise overview of a chilling condition with questions for the future

The sinister psychological thriller Silence of The Lambs was one of the highest grossing movies of its day despite the unpleasant nature of the main character  Hannibal Lecter, a cold-blooded psychopath played Anthony Hopkins,  Lionel Shriver’s 2003 powerful Orange prize winning, novel sold millions of copies We need to talk about Kevin despite the protagonist being an irritable baby, an disengaged toddler and a  violent and unempathetic child with whom animals and his sister are not safe, who goes on to enact a fictional school massacre. Are some people innately evil? And why are the rest of us so intrigued by these chilling characters?

‘I was fascinated by what makes some people ‘evil’ and psychopathic. It was puzzling to me that a person could be capable of premeditated extreme violence or would not feel sorry for a fellow human being who was frightened or hurt,’ explains author Essi Viding.

Psychopathy is not antisocial behaviour and violence; it is disorder characterised primarily by a lack of concern for others. Individuals with psychopathy lack a normal response to other people’s distress and so their behaviour is often chilling because of the complete absence of the basic human qualities of empathy and guilt, paired with ruthless manipulation of others and a tendency to lie pathologically. Psychopaths are unmoved by the social rewards of good relationships with others. Why is this the case? And worryingly, according to this book just under 1% of the population might have measurable psychopathic traits.

Starting with case studies, Viding surveys not only what we know, but also what we still need to find out about this fascinating yet disturbing condition which affects a subset of those with antisocial personality disorders. The wider group have problems regulating their emotions and reactions yet feel remorse: psychopaths don’t feel this remorse.

Psychopathology: a Very Short Introduction has a strong focus on the experimental studies of the psychopathic mind as she considers the development and identification of psychopathic traits, pulling together what we know of patterns of brain function unique to individuals with psychopathy. She explains the kinds of tasks that researchers use when they try to understand why adult psychopaths or children at risk of developing psychopathy lack empathy: their findings show how the ‘psychopathic outlook’ differs from that of the typical participant, report differences in the structure of the brain areas associated with emotion processing and empathy, including the amygdala, and measured differing neural activity and connections.

With a complex interplay between a moderate element of heritability and environmental adversity, perhaps instability or conflict, influencing the progression of the brain’s development, therapies often seem to make little difference. This book considers questions from whether resources should perhaps be focused on interventions in children with psychopathic tendencies to the ethics of sentencing these individuals. Whilst considerable progress has been made in the field over the last twenty years, it is clear that there is much more research to be done, and this short and thoughtful overview highlights what the next useful steps in the field could be.


Esther Lafferty, Communications Officer, IF Oxford 

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