Change Region...

Discovery Press Web United States

Investigation Discovery

Choose Network...
  • Print

Dr. Michelle Ward

Michelle Ward holds a B.A. from the University of Colorado and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Southern California (USC) with a dual emphasis in clinical neuroscience and behavioral genetics. Her interest and focus was the study of predatory criminals, and her current career actively puts her face-to-face with these unusual individuals.

Predatory criminals differ from other violent criminals because of the unique way they stalk and/or use calculated attacks on their victims. Dr. Ward helped spearhead research designed to understand the environmental, biological, and genetic underpinnings of predatory crime, while using this information to identify potential future predatory individuals.

Early in her career, Dr. Ward worked on studies that used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) on murderers and non-murderers to identify structural differences in the brains of these groups of people. These studies were part of a larger body of research that further separated the criminals into two groups: impulsive-type and predatory-type. Research indicates that while all of these criminals have increased activity in the sub-cortical region of the brain, (an area responsible for aggression), the impulsive-type criminals also have reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex, (an area responsible for executive functioning, or reasoning). This pre-frontal cortex serves as the "brakes" of bad behavior, and it works normally in predatory criminals. As such, the predatory criminal may feel increased aggression, but he/she is able to regulate and channel aggression because his/her prefrontal cortex is fully functioning. This could explain why stalkers are so successful in their pursuit of their victims; their executive functioning is intact so they are more calculating and less likely to make impulsive-type errors and be caught.

To further understand the complicated and dangerous predatory individual, Dr. Ward assisted her colleagues at USC in launching The Southern California Twin Project. Among other things, this research project set out to identify biological characteristics and environmental underpinnings of psychopathic behavior in people before adulthood. Specifically, in addition to differences in the structure and activity in the brain as previously described, research suggests that psychopathic individuals also may have reduced autonomic arousal in resting and/or anticipatory states. In other words, these people can have both lower heart rates while at rest, and/or lack the increased heart rate and skin conductance that create the fight or flight response. The effect of this is two-fold: it suggests that the predatory individual, such as a stalker, doesn't experience the biological consequence of his/her behavior (rapid heart-rate, sweating), and therefore can easily behave in ways that would be too frightening for a normal person, or these individual are "sensation seekers" and engage in such behavior in order to increase their heart rates to a normal level. Dr. Ward and her colleagues were some of the first to investigate this phenomenon in children in order to understand if these biological abnormalities exist in future predatory individuals.

Dr. Ward and her colleagues studied the genetic effects at play. To do this, they measured the differences between twins in regard to these psychopathic characteristics and their biological correlates. Using structural equation statistical modeling, 600 sets of identical and fraternal twins were compared and the results revealed a dominant genetic effect regarding psychopathic characteristics - many of which are often seen in stalkers. Put simply, it appears that people are born with a predisposition toward these traits. Using this information about biological and environmental influences on stalking behaviors, research can now be directed at early recognition and behavior modification for at-risk individuals.

Dr. Ward has published numerous articles related to psychology and complex human behavior and has used her extensive background in psychology, genetics, and biology to become one of the first scientists to identify potential future predatory behaviors in a population of children. Today, she is widely sought after to assist in the criminal trials of some of the nation's most notorious offenders.