Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom - Robert Hare, Psychopathy and the Risk for Recidivism and Violence (2002)
When the term “psychopath” is uttered, the stereotypical image of a serial killer – think Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs – typically comes to mind. Psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder marked by a lack of empathy and remorse, aggression, impulsivity and callousness. To measure psychopathy, psychologists use Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, which is the most widely validated and used measure of this antisocial personality disorder . Although psychopaths may account for 20% of the prison population, they also account for 1% of the normal population . So yes, there are psychopaths that live among us. However, fret not - if the above quote is any indication, the psychopaths we are likely to deal with will not kill or cannibalize us, but are likely lead or manipulate us in subtler ways – at work, for instance, or in our personal relationships.
Indeed, the aforementioned psychopathic traits could actually be advantageous in a corporate or political setting. Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that psychopathy is most commonly observed among CEOs, lawyers and politicians – who are likely to score high on Hare’s checklist. Consider a dynamic boss, or a famous politician. They probably have qualities positively associated with psychopathy like charisma, good communication skills and strategic thinking . Research has indicated that while psychopaths’ brains do differ in that areas dealing with emotions and inhibition are less responsive and regulated , they are still capable of distinguishing between what is morally right and wrong. The twist in the tale? They just don’t care . For example, although we may not feel sorry for a colleague whose partner has passed away, we have been taught, and perhaps even socialized, to understand that extending condolences is the right thing to do. Think of emotions in this regard, as a moral compass – it makes it easier to find your way. If it is broken (as with a psychopath), finding your way might take a bit more effort, but it is still doable if you choose to do so.
This fact is a critical one, as psychopathic individuals (like a cheating ex or a criminal) often absolve themselves of any accountability by saying things like “My brain made me do it.” Unsurprisingly, pathological lying, superficial charm and a failure to accept responsibility ranks highly in psychopathy as well . It is therefore important to interpret neuroscientific findings in the proper context, given the tendency for these findings to be misconstrued. Consider also the classic nature-nurture case of James Fallon, who, upon deciding to study his own brain, found that he possessed the brain of a psychopath. But Fallon was no serial killer - he turned out to be a successful neuroscientist, and attributed his loving upbringing as the deterrent to the pathological manifestation of psychopathy. Fallon’s case raises the possibility that we are not simply our brains. Still, how can this be possible if our brains are directly responsible for our behavior?
Put simply, we are not slaves to our brains. Fallon’s case, as with many others, invalidate the claim that an abnormal brain pardons any wrongdoing, although it continues to be reinstated whenever an opportunity presents itself. Despite what people like to think, the truth matters less than who says it, or what people choose to believe. Those who believe need not know, just as those who know need not believe.