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I just finished watching a video of Frank Abagnale Jr discuss his life history. Who knows if its true, but it is an amazing story. For those who don't know, Frank Abagnale is one of the most infamous con artists in history according to Wikipedia.

What really strikes me about his story is the following: he seems to have an extraordinary memory and storytelling ability. Couple this with good looks, height, and a face that looks older than he is and you can see how he would have the tools to be con artist. But those are also skills that can be used for many many many other disciplines and could have been put to good uses. He could have been a salesman or any number of things.

Some criminals seem really messed up psychologically. He doesn't come across as that. He seems to have an intact psyche that isn't riddled with some abused past. But he is missing some basic emotions like guilt. For instance, he decided to work in a hospital without even considering the safety of patients around him and, according to Wikipedia nearly killed an infant. Another instance is that he took control of a plane when he didn't know how to fly one, obviously putting all the passengers and his own life at risk. That seems insane! Only until he actually gets in a situation where lives are at stake did he really realize what could happen. Thus, he also seems to have no imagination for the consequences of his actions. He would tell strings of lies basically continuously and never think twice about it, never considering the consequences for businesses of the money they lost.

What part of the brain fails such that a person would act that way? What goes wrong?

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  • $\begingroup$ Read up on psychopathy. Psychopathy is a favorable factor for success in leadership positions. (According to recent studies, psychopaths are overrepresented in higher management with 6% vs 1% in the general population.) Con artists are basically leaders (in the terminology of organisational structure). Then come back and reframe your question. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Feb 13 '15 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ Okay. Thanks will do. $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Feb 13 '15 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what I would do to modify the question itself. I like the question. I suppose it could be more concise. I could cut all the stuff about Abagnale and just state the characteristics of a psychopath and then ask my question but I don't think I would change the question itself. $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Feb 13 '15 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ I recall reading in the book "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion" that people get angry because they can get away with it. Similarly, I think that what happens with Con Artists or Psychopaths is that they find that they can get away with whatever it is that they are doing, because people do not actively intervene. It is nice to have things go one's own way and not have to consider others. Perhaps other people do not notice until the issue gets out of hand, or they do not intervene because they don't know how. So, I don't think it has anything to do with the brain at all. $\endgroup$ – user9634 Mar 26 '15 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think Frank Abagnale Jr. is a psychopath. It's likely that for him, "the thrill of the con" simply outweighed any amount of regret he may have had. Also, as he started from a young age it's possible that while he knew what he was doing was wrong, it was his version of young-person thrill seeking. Nothing else about his life seems anti-social. Just my $0.02. $\endgroup$ – galois Jun 7 '16 at 21:04
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Cognitive science generally does not try to explain individual behavior, but rather the behavior of all people. We can meaningfully speak about what may cause a deficient ability to feel guilt and remorse, or other features that characterize an individual, but we cannot speak directly about the individual's behavior outside an applied or clinical context. Therefore, and I cannot stress this enough: please do not read this answer and then start looking for signs of APD in individuals.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Deficient ability to feel guilt and remorse is a cardinal trait of antisocial personality disorder, or APD (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), which may offer a tentative framework. APD is a complex personality disorder with many different facets and characteristics that, at least at face value, seems to describe a behavioral pattern matching the popular image of a con man, such as Frank Abagnale Jr. surely represents in the popular mind.

Diagnosing APD

Under the DSM-IV-TR definition, satisfying the APD diagnostic criteria requires an individual to A) be over 18 years old, B) exhibit evidence of conduct disorder before age 15, C) not exhibit antisocial behavior exclusively during manic or schizophrenic episodes, and D) exhibit at least three of the following seven symptoms suggesting a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since 15 years old:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self and/or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

It's worth noting that the DSM-IV-TR and DSM-V definitions of APD differ somewhat. Because the DSM-V is still so recent, most empirical research at time of writing has used the DSM-IV-TR definition. How well the new definitions correspond with the old ones is ultimately an empirical question, so I will focus on the DSM-IV-TR literature here to avoid speculating.

Cognitive neuroscience of APD

A number of neurocognitive deficits have been identified in patients with DSM-IV-TR antisocial personality disorder. As with most mental disorders and cognitive functions, it's difficult to pin down any one region or set of regions and say "here is where X is." However, Blair and Frith (2000) reviewed three common trends, reporting support for the latter two:

... [1] an impairment in executive functioning implicating prefrontal cortex, [2] an impairment in executive emotion's processing implicating orbito-frontal cortex, and [3] an impairment in emotion processing implicating the amygdala ...

Amygdala

amygdala

CG illustration of the amygdala's location

One of the main regions commonly associated with APD and antisocial behavior, and in particular with its remorselessness criterion, are the amygdala (Blair and Frith, 2000). However, while the amygdala's heavy involvement in emotional processing is well established (Kandel, 2013), and a veritable sea of studies support an emotional processing deficits and abnormalities in the amygdala for general antisocial behavior (e.g., Coccaro et al., 2006; Narayan et al., 2007; Veit et al., 2002) over different antisocial disorders, I couldn't find any direct investigations of amygdaloid activity in APD patients.

Orbitofrontal Cortex

orbitofrontal gyrus orbitofrontal cortex

Model and sagittal MRI of the orbitofrontal cortex

The other region commonly implicated in association with APD and antisocial behavior is the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) (Blair and Frith, 2000). For example, Völlm et al. (2004) reported fMRI evidence for a go-no-go task suggesting that APD patients exhibited reduced OFC activity for response inhibition as compared with controls. Dinn and Harris (2000) reported that "APD subjects showed greater neuropsychological deficits on measures sensitive to orbitofrontal dysfunction in comparison to control participants." The OFC seems to be associated with increased impulsivity and risk-taking via deficient response inhibition.

Did Frank Abagnale Jr. have APD?

At this point, one may be tempted to answer, "Clearly, he did!" and start looking for APD in oneself, or others. This would be a mistake. Identifying APD in a person requires a considerable amount of well-structured information about that person. Nothing could illustrate that we lack such information here better than Abagnale's own words:

In 2002, Abagnale himself addressed the issue of his story's truthfulness with a statement posted on his company's website which said in part: "I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography."

With respect to Abagnale himself, therefore, cognitive science does not have anything to say about his story, because we don't have any way to independently verify most of it. We can probably surmise that some of it is accurate, some of it is not, but we can't empirically say which is which. People don't necessarily need to be pathological in order to be jerks.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Blair, J., & Frith, U. (2000). Neurocognitive explanations of the antisocial personality disorders. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health.
  • Coccaro, E. F., McCloskey, M. S., Fitzgerald, D. A., & Phan, K. L. (2007). Amygdala and orbitofrontal reactivity to social threat in individuals with impulsive aggression. Biological psychiatry, 62(2), 168-178.
  • Dinn, W. M., & Harris, C. L. (2000). Neurocognitive function in antisocial personality disorder. Psychiatry research, 97(2), 173-190.
  • Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., & Jessell, T. M., Siegelbaum, S. A., Hudspeth, A. J. (Eds.). (2013). Principles of neural science (Vol. 5). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Narayan, V. M., Narr, K. L., Kumari, V., Woods, R. P., Thompson, P. M., Toga, A. W., & Sharma, T. (2007). Regional cortical thinning in subjects with violent antisocial personality disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Veit, R., Flor, H., Erb, M., Hermann, C., Lotze, M., Grodd, W., & Birbaumer, N. (2002). Brain circuits involved in emotional learning in antisocial behavior and social phobia in humans. Neuroscience letters, 328(3), 233-236.
  • Völlm, B., Richardson, P., Stirling, J., Elliott, R., Dolan, M., Chaudhry, I., ... & Deakin, B. (2004). Neurobiological substrates of antisocial and borderline personality disorder: preliminary results of a functional fMRI study. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 14(1), 39-54.
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  • $\begingroup$ This got away from me a bit and ended up being more APD-centric than I wanted it to be, but I hope it's still illustrative of the brain regions and what cognitive deficits are involved in people who exhibit antisocial behavior. $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr May 2 '15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer! Thanks for taking the time! :D $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike May 2 '15 at 16:40

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