Psychopathy and instrumental aggression: Evolutionary, neurobiological, and legal perspectives

Int J Law Psychiatry. Jul-Aug 2009;32(4):253-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2009.04.002. Epub 2009 May 5.


In the study of aggression, psychopathy represents a disorder that is of particular interest because it often involves aggression which is premeditated, emotionless, and instrumental in nature; this is especially true for more serious types of offenses. Such instrumental aggression is aimed at achieving a goal (e.g., to obtain resources such as money, or to gain status). Unlike the primarily reactive aggression observed in other disorders, psychopaths appear to engage in aggressive acts for the purpose of benefiting themselves. This is especially interesting in light of arguments that psychopathy may represent an alternative life-history strategy that is evolutionarily adaptive; behaviors such as aggression, risk-taking, manipulation, and promiscuous sexual behavior observed in psychopathy may be means by which psychopaths gain advantage over others. Recent neurobiological research supports the idea that abnormalities in brain regions key to emotion and morality may allow psychopaths to pursue such a strategy-psychopaths may not experience the social emotions such as empathy, guilt, and remorse that typically discourage instrumentally aggressive acts, and may even experience pleasure when committing these acts. Findings from brain imaging studies of psychopaths may have important implications for the law.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Criminal Psychology / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Neurobiology*
  • Psychopathology*