, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 129–140 | Cite as

On the Criminal Culpability of Successful and Unsuccessful Psychopaths

  • Katrina L. SifferdEmail author
  • William Hirstein
Original Paper


The psychological literature now differentiates between two types of psychopath: successful (with little or no criminal record) and unsuccessful (with a criminal record). Recent research indicates that earlier findings of reduced autonomic activity, reduced prefrontal grey matter, and compromised executive activity may only be true of unsuccessful psychopaths. In contrast, successful psychopaths actually show autonomic and executive function that exceeds that of normals, while having no difference in prefrontal volume from normals. We argue that many successful psychopaths are legally responsible for their actions, as they have the executive capacity to choose not to harm (and thus are legally rational). However, many unsuccessful psychopaths have a lack of executive function that should at least partially excuse them from criminal culpability. Although a successful psychopath's increased executive function may occur in conflict with, rather than in consonance with their increased autonomic activity—producing a cognitive style characterized by selfdeception and articulate-sounding, but unsound reasoning—they may be capable of recognizing and correcting their lack of autonomic data, and thus can be held responsible.


Psychopathy Criminal responsibility Executive function Rationality 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Elmhurst CollegeElmhurstUSA

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