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Of course it isn’t a surprise that they are gravely disturbed, but who knew it was neuropsychological?  This is an article from researchers at Northwestern University and looks very specifically at similarities and differences in the neuropsychological test scores of those who killed only children and those who killed some adults as well as children.

The researchers start by telling us that the murder of a child is among the “rarest and least understood categories of homicide”. It is a fairly gruesome inquiry that the researchers say is made all the more necessary with media coverage that has mostly focused on women who kill their children (often in an intense post-partum psychosis). The researchers say that the homicide of children occurs in many contexts and not all of those contexts include mental illness. They carefully review the literature on child homicide and even discuss the differences between mothers and fathers who kill their children. We are going to focus here on the neuropsychological differences between those that kill only children and those who kill adults as well as one or more children.

We also note that this is a small sample of 33 people (27 men and 6 women) convicted of 1st degree murder in three states (i.e., Illinois, Missouri, Indiana) who were referred for forensic neuropsychological evaluations to assess fitness to stand trial, criminal responsibility, or sentencing. Of this small group, the average age was 32 years, 48.5% were Black, 36.4% were Caucasian, and 12.1% were Hispanic while 3.0% were described as “other” in terms of race/ethnicity. The researchers said those convicted murderers who had killed adults as well as children were comparable to what is known of other murderers. However, when they looked at those convicted murderers who had killed children only, a different pattern emerged.

Here is what they report on those murderers who killed only children:

The murders are less likely to be premeditated and the murderer is less likely to have traits associated with premeditation (e.g., a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and/or substance abuse).

Child murderers were more likely to kill with their hands—as by drowning or beating.

Child murderers were more likely to score lower on measures of language and verbal memory (which the researchers link to poor conflict mediation skills).

The researchers suggest that, since those who kill children only, seem to have deficits (intellectual and interpersonal)—it may be useful to identify them and offer training in problem solving and communication skills. They suggest it may take more organization than the “child only” murderers have to kill multiple victims who are both adults and children.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the horror related to a murder of this sort makes it difficult for jurors to consider mitigating circumstances. If these researchers are accurate, these are murderers who used their hands to kill innocent children—very personal and inescapably deliberate— and the act will likely be seen as heinous and unforgivable. Those who kill or abuse children are not viewed positively in the prison environment and there is no reason to believe jurors are going to view them more positively either. Jurors will likely be disgusted by the defendant’s behavior but may also respond well to the idea of the defendant receiving rehabilitative services (such as problem-solving and communication training, anger management, and more) so that there is less likelihood of a similar situation arising in the future. This sort of research can potentially explain why something horrible happened and offer jurors information on rehabilitation strategies that will make history less likely to repeat itself.

Azores-Gococo, N., Brook, M., Teralandur, S., & Hanlon, R. (2017). Killing A Child. Criminal Justice and Behavior. DOI: 10.1177/0093854817699437

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In 2015, we wrote a one of our combination (“tidbit”) posts that included a bit of information on how extended eye contact can cause hallucinations. As it turns out, it also makes it hard to think (which seems reasonable if you are having hallucinations). The researchers we are covering today say that maintaining eye contact can (essentially) deplete your mental bandwidth since it uses the same mental resources we call upon to perform complex tasks. Not to mention it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have unbroken eye contact—even with someone we know well.

Apparently, we only maintain eye contact (in Western countries) between 30% and 70% of a conversation (with highly invested people maintaining more eye contact). And, in other cultures, the researchers say, there are very different norms for eye contact during conversations that can vary quite dramatically depending upon who is talking to whom. For this experiment, the researchers asked participants to make “eye contact” with a person’s face on a computer screen. And even with such a “false” representation of eye contact, they found differences.

Specifically, they found that when given a cognitively demanding task, the participants were prone to break their eye contact with the face on the computer screen in order to consider their answer to the task.

The researchers think eye contact somehow takes up our mental energy and so (in order to think) we break eye contact to free up extra brain-power to focus on our answer to a thought-provoking question.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s an interesting study. Witnesses often ask how long they should steadily gaze at jurors during their testimony and we’ve blogged about that before too (based on another research study). Here’s what we found from that 2016 study:

On average, the close to 500 participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted slightly over three seconds. The majority preferred a duration of eye contact between two and five seconds and no one liked eye contact of less than a second or longer than nine seconds. We conclude that less than a second is too furtive, and longer than 9 seconds is intolerably intrusive. One problem with the study was that it used filmed clips rather than actual, live interactions but it is an approximate guide to “normal” eye contact versus “creepy” eye contact.

While you may want to take in the recommendations above for comfortable eye contact, this study also seems to give permission to break eye contact when thinking about your response to a question and maintaining your credibility. It’s a good strategy to teach in witness preparation for cross-examination. Just remember to re-initiate eye contact once you have retrieved or formulated your response!

Kajimura, S., & Nomura, M. (2016). When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation Cognition, 157, 352-357 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.10.002

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danger will robinsonWhile those of you who have worked with (or lived with) functional psychopaths before may want to scream “Danger, Will Robinson!” — an international group of researchers (studying German research participants) have identified a “good psychopath” and a “bad psychopath” (when it comes to employment) and they even suggest a scale measuring sub-clinical forms of psychopathy (and earnestly tell the reader this will get around that pesky US ADA restriction against measuring psychopathy on “clinical” scales in an employment setting). They take issue with even the label psychopathy as it loosely means “disease of the soul”. We can quibble about terminology, but their results highlight factors to consider when hiring anyone.

Here’s a brief look at how they came to their conclusions and recommendations for hiring people, some of whom are likely to fall on the troubling end of a psychopathology continuum. First, they explain the differences between primary and secondary psychopathy.

Primary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “fearless dominance” (which they describe as wanting to get your own way no matter what the consequences of your actions). Their traits, say the researchers, include “an egotistical personal style characterized by self-promotion and prioritization of one’s own needs before those of others”. Yet, primary psychopaths, they say, are often described by coworkers as helpful, cooperative and pleasant if and only if, the psychopath also had good social skills that were present in the workplace (and those social skills helped them keep their arrogance , egocentrism, and prioritization of own needs and wants over those of others at bay). Or, we imagine, as long as their views are supported by others.

Secondary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “self-centered impulsivity”. These psychopaths, according to the researchers, lack an inner braking system and thus have no self-control—they also have no consideration for others. Their traits, say the researchers, include “behavioral impulsivity characterized by disregard for rules and responsibilities”, thrill-seeking, and blaming others for their misfortunes. Consistent with this trait description of secondary psychopaths, coworkers often characterize the secondary psychopath as destructive, not helpful to others, and weak in terms of work performance when it comes to self-disciplined behaviors such as working hard, following workplace rules, taking initiative, being considerate and cooperative, or helping others with their tasks.

By definitions embraced elsewhere, Primary psychopathy might be considered more narcissistic, while the lack of control and the heartlessness of Secondary psychopathy is more aligned with the traditional view of psychopathy.

The researchers think our tendency is to assume that all psychopaths have “the malevolent, exploitive, agentic, and callous personality traits” characterizing heinous criminal offenders. However, they say, that description is only relevant for the “clinical psychopaths” which comprise only about 1% of the entire population of psychopaths. Psychopathy, like other human traits, lies on a continuum and the researchers believe that about 10% of individuals with psychopathic traits have “subclinical” levels of psychopathy. (They do not indicate what this means about the remaining 90% of people in the pool of psychopaths—although they do conclude they do not consider “cold-heartedness” in their model since it was not statistically related to what they we’re trying to measure.)

The issue with employment, the researchers say, is not whether you have multiple (sub-clinical) psychopathic tendencies—but rather, how well your particular form of psychopathy fits with your job description (as well as, naturally, your level of social skill). They opine in their 30+ page paper that primary psychopaths can “be selfless heroes in everyday life, such as life-savers, emergency physicians, or fire-fighters” and think we should differentiate more carefully in the large class of psychopaths—both primary and secondary types.

Again, the paper has to be read with a willingness to accept their use of the term “Primary Psychopath”, which by its definition is a milder form.

The researchers used a measure of psychopathy that is able to “detect relatively mild levels of psychopathy traits in non forensic samples (the Psychopathic Personality Inventory—Revised, we’ll blog about this scale in our next post) and they mention the scale is useful for workplace settings since it measures subclinical psychopathy. (We should perhaps mention the scale has 150+ questions on it and some of them are quite odd—but more on that in our next post.)

Overall, say the researchers, the primary psychopath with good interpersonal skills is a good bet for the workplace but if they do not have good interpersonal skills, they will likely be as destructive as the secondary psychopath for workplace productivity and morale.

From a law office management perspective, we really would not recommend this sort of strategy. What they seem to intimate is that you want to find the 10% of the psychopathic population who have moderate psychopathic tendencies and then, divide them into primary and secondary psychopaths and then, figure out which of the primary psychopaths have really good social skills so their behaviors will not wreak havoc in your workplace.

Putting on our duly licensed Psychologist hats for a moment, the distinction seems to be a very slippery slope. Secondary psychopaths are trouble from the beginning. Primary psychopaths have better social skills so they can manage the day to day more successfully, but under stress they are going to create havoc, too. And we have never seen a trial team that isn’t under terrific stress. It is the nature of litigation, and stress tolerances need to be higher than average, not a potential area of weakness.

The authors put a troubling amount of faith in a psychological trait scale, when you can assess the same things by looking at work history, length of relationships, and having your own warning signs on high alert during the interview process. Use your intuition about whether someone will be a good fit. It is also risky to assume you can “get around” the Americans with Disabilities Act by using the PPI-R scale with job applicants when what you are measuring is psychopathy and resulting goodness of fit in your workplace.

And a high-functioning psychopathic attorney is just the kind of person to drag you through a lawsuit by claiming that you rejected him or her based on an ADA protected factor.

Schutte, N., Blickle, G., Frieder, R., Wihler, A., Schnitzler, F., Heupel, J., & Zettler, I. (2015). The Role of Interpersonal Influence in Counterbalancing Psychopathic Personality Trait Facets at Work Journal of Management DOI: 10.1177/0149206315607967

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Odds and EndsWe often do these combination posts when we do not want to devote an entire post to a single article but think the information is worth sharing (or simply too odd not to share). So read on and be a scintillating (or perhaps simply odd) conversationalist.

Smartphone alerts increase both inattention and hyperactivity

This is one of those titles that makes us think, “They had to do research to figure that one out?” Well, yes. Perhaps they weren’t sure about it, or perhaps they didn’t have a lock on tenure quite yet. You can read a summary over at ScienceDaily but the gist of it is that students were asked to put their phones on either silent, vibrate or ring for two weeks and to also report their symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. As you may have guessed (hey, you too could have tenure!) those who had their phones on vibrate or ring (as opposed to silent) had more symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. We all know what it feels like to be waiting for the phone to ring. Well, most of us anyhow.

On nasal diversity, or, Why your nose is shaped like that

You may have always thought you inherited your nose shape from your parents but that is very short-sighted thinking on your part. And while you also may have thought there was likely a gene that chooses the shape of your nose—new research shows us that as many as four genes interact to determine the ultimate shape (what these researchers describe as the “overall width and pointiness”) of your nose. There is a brief writeup on this new study looking closely at more than 6,000 noses over at NatureWorld News. If this seems like useless information, you have been reading carefully. Extra credit for anyone who can report a way to work this information into a social conversation without offending anyone!

Talk about climate change so people will listen

We’ve written about climate change before but here’s another strategy to consider. Instead of appealing to the individual—appeal to the collective (or ‘royal’) “we”. A new study in the journal Climatic Change tells us that people are willing “to donate up to 50% more cash to the cause when thinking about the problem in collective terms”. For comparison, thinking about climate change from an individual perspective produced “little to no change in behavior”. And, for reasons the researchers cannot explain, the effect seems to persist.

This actually has relevance for litigators, since it involves motivating people to action. The ‘golden rule’ bar on argument obliges attorneys not to make it relate to the lives of jurors personally, but this research suggests that you will be more successful if you argue on a broader basis (the benefit of society, et cetera) anyway.  If you cannot access the journal article itself, you can read an accurate translation over at ScienceDaily.

Sexist behavior: Can neuroscience tell us why it happens?

Christian Jarret (known to us from his long-time reign over at BPS Research Digest) is a consistently clear and accurate translator of even dense and confusing material. His recent translation of the article titled Amygdala and cingulate structure is associated with stereotype on sex-role is a good example of his ability to take incomprehensible research and make it understandable and even interesting. [Yes, we knew you were waiting on tenterhooks for this one.]

The original article is in Scientific Reports and currently is open-access but we think you’ll save a lot of time and frustration by reading Christian’s summary over at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog! Basically he concludes that no—neuroscience isn’t able to explain sexism since there is no specific brain anatomy that points to sexist beliefs. But those who express sexist attitudes appear to be psychologically vulnerable individuals who are both fearful and competitive. [Score: Neuroscience 0, Psychology 1.]

Obradovich, N., & Guenther, S. (2016). Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors. Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/s10584-016-1670-9

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normal brain criminal brainWe’ve written about neurolaw fairly routinely here and recently Science Magazine took a look at what they call “the growing use of neurobiological evidence in criminal trials”. In our own experiences with pretrial research, mock jurors are not often accepting of “my brain made me do it” defenses and will roll their eyes and sometimes openly mock the defense claims. This exemplifies the uphill battle that neurobiological defenses face, but they can succeed. There are increasing numbers of cases with such defenses presented in court. A recent article in the Journal of Law and Biosciences reported that in 2012 more than 250 cases involving “my brain made me do it” defenses were brought to trial and this was more than double the number of similar claims made in 2007. Science Magazine offers this case summary to illustrate:

In 2008, in El Cajon, California, 30-year-old John Nicholas Gunther bludgeoned his mother to death with a metal pipe, and then stole $1378 in cash, her credit cards, a DVD/VCR player, and some prescription painkillers. At trial, Gunther admitted to the killing, but argued that his conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder because he had not acted with premeditation. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist testified that two previous head traumas—one the result of an assault, the other from a drug overdose—had damaged his brain’s frontal lobes, potentially reducing Gunther’s ability to plan the murder, and causing him to act impulsively. The jury didn’t buy Gunther’s defense, however; based on other evidence (such as the fact that Gunther had previously talked about killing his mother with friends) the court concluded that he was guilty of first-degree murder, and gave him a 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

This is precisely the sort of reaction we have come to anticipate from mock jurors. You cannot “see” the impact of mental illness or head injury, so mock jurors look for evidence to support guilt despite allegations of brain injury or mental illness. Yet, as pointed out in the Farahany article in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the increasing use of “my brain made me do it” defenses means the defense is likely here to stay and neuroscientists need to enter the picture to help us all make sense of the defenses and to know whether the defense is legitimate or if the science cannot yet support the defense claims.

Neuroscientists should be at the forefront of this conversation—as experts in criminal courtrooms, in public presentations, through accessible writing for public audiences, or by filing amicus briefs in legal cases where neurobiological evidence is at issue. Neurobiological evidence has profound implications for some of the most significant decisions we make in law and policy. It’s time we better understand how it’s being used and start to address how it may be better used in our criminal justice system.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we think this makes a lot of sense. When we have had cases involving illegal or grossly inappropriate behavior following a head injury, it has been very helpful for our jurors to understand the science of what areas of the brain control behavior and were damaged by some sort of trauma. Even when they do understand basic brain function though, the evidence is seen as something for which to have empathy but our mock jurors want to fall back on individual responsibility and believe the defendant should be responsible for behavior.

The implications of the tragedy (both the brain injury of the accused and the victims of their aggression) is too distressing for many people to really accept. If jurors want certainty in life, then the prospect that there are people walking the streets looking mostly normal, who are yet subject to intense, violent outbursts is too upsetting. There is a fear that if we excuse behavior based on genes or brain injuries, we can never feel safe again.

For the time being, the challenge will be to find jurors who can tolerate the uncertainty of life, and the potential that head injuries and biochemistry can turn Dr. Jekyl into Mr. Hyde. Until the defense can come up with a way to help jurors hearing “my brain made me do it” defenses feel safe excusing a defendant, the neurobiological defenses will likely continue to be largely ineffective.

Farahany, N. (2016). Neuroscience and behavioral genetics in US criminal law: an empirical analysis Journal of Law and the Biosciences DOI: 10.1093/jlb/lsv059

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