Findings: Psychopaths' itchy feet

May 16, 2003

Psychopaths pack up and move from city to city more often than the average criminal offender, according to a new study, writes Philip Fine.

Researcher Sarah Hunter of Simon Fraser University, Canada, discovered that offenders with higher psychopathic tendencies, a 20 to 30 per cent subset of the criminal population, were nearly twice as mobile as criminals in the general population.

Among a sample of 311 offenders who had been incarcerated in a federal prison near Vancouver in the mid-1980s, those scoring the highest on a psychopathic standards test ended up being charged with crimes in 8.3 different cities and 2.6 different provinces, compared with 4.7 different cities and 1.5 provinces for non-psychopaths.

The study, conducted for the former undergraduate student's honours thesis, was inspired by a newspaper article Ms Hunter read, which detailed how a serial murderer and psychopath had lived in every single Canadian province and several US states.

"I wondered if it was a common trait to move all over the place like that.

Intuitively, it makes sense, since psychopaths tend to be impulsive, prone to boredom and have short-term relationships." She was granted access to all the follow-up charges and convictions of the sample up to 2001 along with the dates of the charges and the jurisdictions where they were arrested. Then, with the help of the internet direction finder MapQuest, she tracked distances between city centres of the sample's offenders and former offenders who were still alive. Through a now-standard test developed by University of British Columbia professor emeritus Robert Hare, she was able to separate psychopathic tendencies among the sample.

"The study showed that, in general, psychopaths show more geographic movement than non-psychopaths," said Ms Hunter, who hopes results such as these will point to the importance of police communication between the many jurisdictions in a country as vast as Canada.

Her study was recently presented at a criminology conference and is being prepared for submission to an academic journal.

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