Would You Vote for a Psychopath?
James Fallon teaches neuroscience at the University of California Irvine, and through research explores the way genetic and in-utero environmental factors affect the way the brain gets built -- and then how individuals' experience further shapes its development. He lectures and writes on creativity, connsciousness and culture, and has made key contributions to our understanding of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Only lately has Fallon turned his research toward the subject of psychopaths -- particularly those who kill. With PET scans and EEGs, he's beginning to uncover the deep, underlying traits that make people violent and murderous.
James Fallon: This team of researchers asked the biographers – the really top biographers – for all the presidents from the beginning all the way through almost up to the present. And said, rate them on this psychopathic scale. And they did and right at the top was Teddy Roosevelt. Then FDR, then JFK. Bill Clinton was right up there. People really low on the – way low in psychopathy like Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George Bush Sr., very low psychopathy. George Bush’s son is kind of in the middle.
So anyway there’s this group that are very high, group low. The thing is is that if you look at what people consider leadership – who am I gonna follow – they pick the people at the top. They’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. And, in fact, these are – you know, psychopaths are known for really being world champ liars – pathological liars. Even for the hell of it, right. And so if you look at people at the top of the presidential list they did, in fact, lie. But the thing is they lied for us. They lied to protect us. And people for some reason don’t seem to mind psychopathic behavior when it’s done on their behalf. It’s like the person who wants to get the best deal. They want the money manager that’s gonna – if they’re gonna cheat, cheat for me. Make me money. If you’re gonna lie, lie and save me, save us.
And so a lot of the behavior of leaders like that who have these are such that people will say they don’t like it but they vote for it over and over and over again. So it must be something very essential in us. They’re not thinking I want to vote for a psychopath but they like those traits and those traits are strongly associated with psychopathy.
You would also think people would say well Hitler and all those Nazi leaders must have been psychopaths. And yet the analysis by many, many psychiatrists over the years – Hitler does not come up as a psychopath and none of those Nazis do at all. They’re all family men. They’re all very smart and they thought they were doing their job.
And that’s why Hannah Arendt when she talked about this she didn’t call it psychopathy but she – the way she analyzed it is that people will get into a position and they’re just little pieces of a bigger organization. That organization is evil, right. It’s the banality of evil is what she called it. But each individual’s role is sort of hidden. And so people with those tendencies can be not fully psychopathic, but they will do things that within an organization will get them what they want. So they helped the launch and it’s a fulcrum for general psychopathy, let’s say, in a culture country. So that’s a little bit different. But the individual ones – there’s a study that just came out on Mafia in Sicily. So they took imprisoned Mafia – now these were not the very top guys but kind of the middle management of the Mafia. And all of them tested lower in psychopathy than the average person. No psychopathy. But you would think that Nazis, Mafia is psychopathy. It’s not.
See there’s kind of a misunderstanding of what it is. And there are really very few psychopathic killers. And there’s very few of the ones you would see in a film or TV. Extremely rare people. But they are working with you and they, you know, in any organization that has more than about 35 people there’s gonna be somebody in there that’s really a psychopath but they put themselves there and they’re usually in a spot where they can lord it over people just below them and get what they want and use a manipulation and some intimidation. And they can use it to get sex. They can use it to get money, to manipulate and steal whatever it is or just to create a world that they own. And that would be another part of this. There are – there’s a kind of psychopathy that they’re not getting anything for. There’s no sex, drugs, money or anything like that. But they are creating a world that they bring you into. And they control you. But most of them don’t do any of these really fully criminal nasty violent things at all because they don’t want to go to jail. They don’t want to get caught. They like their life. They really like their life.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Neurobiologist James Fallon on the psychopathic brain.
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