Is There A Psychopath Next Door? They’re More Common Than You Think

Neuroscientist
Every day you're likely to meet a psychopath. Dr. James Fallon of UC Irvine explains what a psychopath is, how they work, and what they want from you -- and he ought to know (but you'll have to watch to find out why).
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

James Fallon:  Go to a party with fifty people in it, there’s a psychopath, a full-blown psychopath there. There’s probably five borderline psychopaths there. They’re not going to kill you, rape you, or maybe even take your money, but they’re going to manipulate the situation, make you look bad, or use you in some way. Something bad is going to happen.

And if you sense that… people have a sense that something is wrong with somebody, you walk away,you don’t fight these guys, because they’re masters at manipulation. The psychopath, in its simplest form, is an intraspecies predator, is a predator on other humans. It is hard to look at the actual behavior of a psychopath and say that thing is psychopathic or not, because psychopaths will come to the rescue of people. “Can I help you up, ma’am?” They, they can see the outward behaviors, and they just can mimic it to get along. But fundamentally, they don’t feel it. 

You know, some psychopathic traits and what goes along with it can be very advantageous.  First of all you’re fearless.  You walk into a room, you own everybody, and you look like you own everybody, and they let you own them because you have that aura around you, that charisma, that light.  That’s why elect people president, because they have that light around them. Another thing is you’re not very susceptible to pain.  Pain doesn’t bother me, and also when you’re caught doing something, you have no tells.  You could be caught red handed, you know, having an affair with somebody, and you could say, ‘no that’s not me’, it’s like, are you going to believe me or your lying eyes. And so it’s this ability to lie, without any tells, because in fact it doesn’t cause any anxiety.

Two main areas of the brain of a psychopath that are not regulated correctly: orbital cortex and the amygdala. Orbital cortex is involved in inhibiting your behavior. Now, the amygdala, on the other hand, really causes behavior. And normally they’re in balance. They inhibit each other. Now, in a psychopath, they’re both turned off, so they don’t inhibit each other, and they don’t regulate it. So the normal balance of animal drives and your social interactions, your morality, are not right. It’s never right. I mean, there’s a time for aggression. There’s a time for killing, even. There’s a time for sex. And part of it is how the rest of the brain is able to tell your orbital cortex the social context is correct now. Psychopaths don’t have that.

They’re doing things completely out of context, out of social context, and that’s the problem. Usually the question is, what percent do you think is due to genetics, and what percent is due to environment? And it turns out not to be the great question to ask. Because it looks like the answer is, if you are born with the biological markers for psychopathy, for example, that is the genetics and the altered brain pattern, early on. If you are a susceptible kid, then environment means everything. It means a lot. Maybe eighty percent. Because those kids can be really thrown off track, and they can be helped by a good environment too. Back in the early 90s, some of my colleagues were studying these killers, real bad guys, some serial killers, nasty guys. And they asked me to come in to look at the brains. So I put myself and some other people in as normal.  And I got to the last scan, and I looked at it, and it was like completely pathological. And I told the technician, I said, “You got these mixed up. There’s obviously, you know, a psychopath or one of the killers. We just mixed the pile up. Go check it.” And he went and checked the machine and everything. He came back, he goes, “No, it’s one of these controls.” 

And so when I pulled back the name, the tag covering the name,  of course was my name on it, and we had a good laugh about it. We were so busy, I kind of blew it off. Which seems incredible. You know, most people go, we gotta be kidding! But I said, I know who I am. I’m not a psychopath. There’s something wrong with the data, or, you know, something’s wrong. I mean, within a year and a half, all the other genetics came back, and I had all the genetic markers for violence and, you know, this poor empathy and everything associated with psychopathy. So I had the two main biological markers. I still laughed at it.  Well, it wasn’t till about 2010, I was invited to give a talk in Oslo, Norway. And they talked to me for a few hours.  They had my data, and they said, “Oh, by the way, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.” I went, “What?!” And that’s the first time I took it seriously, because these people didn’t know me.  They were just going from the scientific data from interviewing me.  And when I flew back, that’s when everything changed.  And so, I asked my wife. I said, “Don’t tell me anything, now. I’m not gonna be mad.” And I did that to my close friends and family. They all said the same thing. They said extreme narcissist, you have the extreme, you know, you’re very aggressive, and on and on. You’re cold. I’m very fortunate, you know. I was, grew up in a wonderful family. And, and those genes were never really triggered in a bad direction. Even though I’m, I have those traits, they didn’t go far south, because I should be a really bad guy.