Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.

Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.

What's the Big Idea?


The famous "trolley problem" was a psychological experiment developed by Philippa Foot that involved a railway trolley headed toward five people who can't get out of the way. These people will die unless you, the subject of this experiment, decide to divert the trolley onto another track. That decision comes with a cost. There is another person stuck on that track as well, and that person will die. What do you do?

Well, most people have little difficulty making the "utilitarian" choice of choosing to kill one person instead of five. However, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson proposed a variation to the trolley problem, and the results of this test are quite different.

Thomson's variation is this: "You are standing behind a very large stranger on a footbridge above the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to heave the stranger over. He will fall to a certain death. But his considerable girth will block the trolley, saving five lives. Should you push him?"

This question was taken up by the Cambridge psychologist Dr. Kevin Dutton in recent book on psychopaths called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. So how do people with psychopathic tendencies differ from normal people when taking this test and what does it mean? The results may surprise you. 

Dutton administers the test in the video here:

What's the Significance?

According to Dutton (citing the Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene, who observed psychopaths and normal people dealing with this dilemma), the variation of the trolley problem involves a "personal moral dilemma" that "hammers on the door of the brain's emotion center, known as the amygdala." While this dilemma makes normal people "circumspect and jittery," and 90 percent refuse to push the stranger off the bridge, Dutton writes that psychopaths, "without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the side, if that's how the cookie crumbles."

In other words, if you, assuming you are a "normal" reader, are hooked up to an fMRI machine, your amygdala would "light up like a pinball machine" when presented with the "personal" version of the trolley dilemma. However, if Dutton performed the same test on a psychopath, he writes, "I would see only darkness." The same would be the case if you showed a psychopath images of famine victims: their brains "merely pull down the emotional window blinds and implement a neural curfew."

Dutton says there is a benefit to this lack of emotion expressed in psychopaths if they are -- as crazy as this might seem -- in positions of leadership. Here's one example, the facts of which have been disputed by historians, but which nonetheless serves as an illustration of the trolley problem on a grand scale. 

In his book The Ultra SecretF. W. Winterbotham argued Winston Churchill knew that the Germans would be bombing Coventry in 1940, but decided not to alert air defenses because it would have compromised Ultra, the British intelligence system that would later be credited with making D-Day a success. 

While historians have disputed that Churchill knew the actual target of the raid was Coventry, this "what-if" history certainly makes for an interesting psychopath test: 

Would you let 568 civilians perish in the raid on Coventry if that meant many more British soldiers and civilians would ultimately be saved? What would your brain scan look like when the German bombers flew to their targets unmolested? That's the kind of question that isn't asked in presidential debates, but maybe it should. 

Daniel Honan contributed to this post. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Keep reading Show less

As we approach death, our dreams offer comfort and reconciliation

As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.

Credit: Amisha Nakhwa on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.

Keep reading Show less

Surprising new feature of human evolution discovered

Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.

Human evolution.

Credit: Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
  • Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
  • The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Skepticism: Why critical thinking makes you smarter

Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.

Quantcast