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Understanding psychopathy from a historical context

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UEL academic questions modern society’s understanding of criminal insanity

A new book is set to challenge commonly held views on the causes and nature of people labelled ‘psychopaths’. 

‘Disordered Personalities and Crime: An analysis of the history of moral insanity’, by University of East London (UEL) academic Dr David W. Jones, argues we can only understand such people and their behaviours in the psychological, social, physical and cultural realms or we risk “dangerously limiting our understanding”. 

Describing his experience of writing about the topic from a historical perspective, Dr Jones said, “At times the story has been quite an uplifting one as people have been genuinely curious to reach a better understanding of ourselves and human weakness.

“At other times this has been a quite dismal tale of what happens when cruelty and evil are seen as existing only in ‘other’ kinds of people”.

Asked about his motivation for writing the book, Dr Jones said, “I have been interested in the borderline between issues of mental health and criminality for some time, so the concept of ‘psychopathy’ seemed obviously important.

“I was very struck by the paradox that these ideas have been consistently subject to such great criticism from within the medical and legal professions – who have often argued that these are not real disorders at all – and yet the diagnoses have survived.”

‘Psychopath’ is a label that has been variously applied to serial killers, ISIS members and even rogue City traders.

Dr Jones argues that Victorian judges and psychiatrists paved the way in our understanding of ‘insanity’, and that understanding developed within the fields of crime, biology, eugenics, sexual behaviour and our idea of what constitutes ‘evil’. 

“I am concerned we are seeing growing efforts to locate evil in the brains and dispositions of individuals, rather than as more complex problems that mean we need to understand not only the individual but the society and culture that surrounds them”, explained Dr Jones.  

The book has been described as “closely argued” and “highly readable and thought-provoking” by leading consultant forensic psychiatrist Professor Gwen Adshead, formerly of Broadmoor High Security Hospital.

The book, published by Routledge, is now available for purchase online.