A Neurobiologist on Understanding Psychopaths

Psychopaths make up 1 to 2 percent of the American population. That’s around 6,278,000 psychopaths who live among us and use intimidation and manipulation to lord over others. In any organization of at least 35 people, one will be a psychopath. Before you start making boss jokes, take some relief in the fact that these types of individuals likely don’t want to murder you in your sleep.


James Fallon should know. He himself is a psychopath. As a neurobiologist at UC Irvine, Fallon has made a name for himself decoding the psychopathic brain. The psychiatric definition of a psychopath is someone who is "suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior." Brain scans reveal the orbital cortex--the area of the brain just behind the eyes--which helps moderate impulse control, ethical decision-making, and moral behavior; low activity in this area indicates someone who is likely a psychopath, according to Fallon's discussion of his research and his own psychopathic brain on NPR

Without the help of a brain scan, how can we spot a psychopath? One easy method is to ask: Is the person running for office? Yes, politicians rank high on the psychopathic scale. And we continue to vote for them.

Which U.S. president was the biggest psychopath of them all? Teddy Roosevelt, according to Fallon. FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton also top the list, with George W. Bush falling somewhere in the middle when compared to other American presidents.

Why do we elect psychopaths? Fallon explains: “[We’re] picking and voting for and enjoying the psychopathic traits, because those are the people that you think are the ones who can lead you.” Politicians, of course, are famous for their dishonesty, and so are psychopaths. Fallon calls them “world champ liars—pathological liars.” But we the people are attracted to them, because, as Fallon points out: “They lied for us. They lied to protect us.”

Surprisingly, Hitler does not rank as a psychopath. Fallon says that Hitler and Nazi leaders were simply doing their job, citing Hannah Arendt who famously called it “the banality of evil.”

For more on Fallon’s insights into want psychopaths want, watch a clip from Big Think’s interview:

Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.

A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.

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  • How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
  • To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.

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