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Photo illustration by David Woodside
Photo illustration by David Woodside

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What makes a psychopath? Add to ...

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<iframe src="http://www.coveritlive.com/index2.php/option=com_altcaster/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=434522675a/height=650/width=460" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="460px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=434522675a" >The psychology of a psychopath</a></iframe>


As Anne McIlroy and Erin Anderssen report in Saturday's Globe, convicted murderer Russell Williams was never officially diagnosed as a psychopath but he appears to fit the profile: The way he toyed with his victims, unable to offer mercy. The singular attention with which he catalogued photos and video of his crimes. The fleeting shows of remorse.

As a high-ranking military official, Mr. Williams displayed another trait of a cunning psychopath: He's often the last guy you'd ever suspect.

Mr. Williams is a curiosity in some respects - for his apparent late start into heinous crime, the quiet worry he expressed for his wife upon realizing he was caught and even his ability to hide himself in an environment that required taking orders without protest. Read what you will into his tearful statement of regret at his court sentencing on Thursday.

There is debate over whether psychopathy counts as a disorder. If it did, a psychopath would then be suffering from a mental illness and this raises the question of whether they should be absolved of criminal culpability.

Stephen Porter, a psychologist at the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia, argues that, in fact, the ability to feel no emotion, makes psychopaths more able to react rationally, and has no impact on their ability to understand right from wrong.

"They are every bit as rational as any human being, if not more so, because they don't have the noise of human emotion," says Dr. Porter.

In his research, he has studied psychopaths in Canadian prisons, analyzing their crimes. He found that while psychopaths committed thefts and assaults without much premeditation, they were far less likely to kill in passion. Their murders were almost always carefully planned and executed.

He describes them as "selective impulsive," that is, they carefully weigh the costs and benefits of their deeds - the likelihood of being caught, the steeper punishment of life in prison for murder if they are careless. He points as well to research that has shown they are more than twice as likely to be granted parole. "They can put on Academy Award-winning performances for the parole board," he says. And for juries.

Dr. Porter will be with us to take your questions on the psychology of psychopathy and its relation to murder.

Dr. Stephen Porter received his Ph.D. in forensic psychology at UBC and currently is a researcher and consultant in the area of psychology and law. After working as a prison psychologist, Dr. Porter spent a decade as a professor at Dalhousie.

In 2009, he transferred to UBC-Okanagan where he assumed a position as a professor of psychology. Dr. Porter has published numerous scholarly articles on psychopathy and violent behaviour, deception detection, and forensic aspects of memory with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

He and his research team published the first large-scale study examining the relation between psychopathy and homicide, including an examination of sexual homicides. As a registered forensic psychologist, Dr. Porter is frequently consulted by Canadian courts and has been qualified as an expert witness in various areas, including "dangerousness and risk for violence" and "memory and the factors involved in credibility assessments".

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