ONE SCORPIO RISING
Great and Good are seldom the same man.
A scorpion and a frog are sitting on the bank of a river, and both need to get to the other side.
“Hello, Mr. Frog!” calls the scorpion through the reeds. “Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the water? I have important business to conduct on the other side. And I cannot swim in such a strong current.”
The frog immediately becomes suspicious.
“Well, Mr. Scorpion,” he replies, “I appreciate the fact that you have important business to conduct on the other side of the river. But just take a moment to consider your request. You are a scorpion. You have a large stinger at the end of your tail. As soon as I let you onto my back, it is entirely within your nature to sting me.”
The scorpion, who has anticipated the frog’s objections, counters thus:
“My dear Mr. Frog, your reservations are perfectly reasonable. But it is clearly not in my interest to sting you. I really do need to get to the other side of the river. And I give you my word that no harm will come to you.”
The frog agrees, reluctantly, that the scorpion has a point. So he allows the fast-talking arthropod to scramble atop his back and hops, without further ado, into the water.
At first all is well. Everything goes exactly according to plan. But halfway across, the frog suddenly feels a sharp pain in his back—and sees, out of the corner of his eye, the scorpion withdraw his stinger from his hide. A deadening numbness begins to creep into his limbs.
“You fool!” croaks the frog. “You said you needed to get to the other side to conduct your business. Now we are both going to die!”
The scorpion shrugs and does a little jig on the drowning frog’s back.
“Mr. Frog,” he replies casually, “you said it yourself. I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting you.”
With that, the scorpion and the frog both disappear beneath the murky, muddy waters of the swiftly flowing current.
And neither of them is seen again.
During his trial in 1980, John Wayne Gacy declared with a sigh that all he was really guilty of was “running a cemetery without a license.”
It was quite a cemetery. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy had raped and murdered at least thirty-three young men and boys (with an average age of about eighteen) before stuffing them into a crawl space beneath his house. One of his victims, Robert Donnelly, survived Gacy’s attentions, but was tortured so mercilessly by his captor that, at several points during his ordeal, he begged him to “get it over with” and kill him.
Gacy was bemused. “I’m getting around to it,” he replied.
I have cradled John Wayne Gacy’s brain in my hands. Following his execution in 1994 by lethal injection, Dr. Helen Morrison—a witness for the defense at his trial and one of the world’s leading experts on serial killers—had assisted in his autopsy in a Chicago hospital, and then driven back home with his brain jiggling around in a glass jar on the passenger seat of her Buick. She’d wanted to find out whether there was anything about it—lesions, tumors, disease—that made it different from the brains of normal people.
Tests revealed nothing unusual.
Several years later, over coffee in her office in Chicago, I got to chatting with Dr. Morrison about the significance of her findings, the significance of finding … nothing.
“Does this mean,” I asked her, “that we’re basically all psychopaths deep down? That each of us harbors the propensity to rape, kill, and torture? If there’s no difference between my brain and the brain of John Wayne Gacy, then where, precisely, does the difference lie?”
Morrison hesitated for a moment before highlighting one of the most fundamental truths in neuroscience.
“A dead brain is very different from a living one,” she said. “Outwardly, one brain may look very similar to another, but function completely differently. It’s what happens when the lights are on, not off, that tips the balance. Gacy was such an extreme case that I wondered whether there might be something else contributing to his actions—some injury or damage to his brain, or some anatomical anomaly. But there wasn’t. It was normal. Which just goes to show how complex and impenetrable the brain can sometimes be, how reluctant it is to give up its secrets. How differences in upbringing, say, or other random experiences can cause subtle changes in internal wiring and chemistry which then later account for tectonic shifts in behavior.”
Morrison’s talk that day of lights and tectonic shifts reminded me of a rumor I once heard about Robert Hare, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and one of the world’s leading authorities on psychopaths. Back in the 1990s, Hare submitted a research paper to an academic journal that included the EEG responses of both psychopaths and non-psychopaths as they performed what’s known as a lexical decision task. Hare and his team of coauthors showed volunteers a series of letter strings, and then got them to decide as quickly as possible whether or not those strings comprised a word.
What they found was astonishing. Whereas normal participants identified emotionally charged words like “c-a-n-c-e-r” or “r-a-p-e” more quickly than neutral words like “t-r-e-e” or “p-l-a-t-e,” this wasn’t the case with psychopaths. To the psychopaths, emotion was irrelevant. The journal rejected the paper. Not it turned out, for its conclusions, but for something even more extraordinary. Some of the EEG patterns, reviewers alleged, were so abnormal they couldn’t possibly have come from real people. But of course they had.
Intrigued by my talk with Morrison in Chicago about the mysteries and enigmas of the psychopathic mind—indeed, about neural recalcitrance in general—I visited Hare in Vancouver. Was the rumor true? I asked him. Had the paper really been rejected? If so, what was going on?
“There are four different kinds of brain waves,” he told me, “ranging from beta waves during periods of high alertness, through alpha and theta waves, to delta waves, which accompany deep sleep. These waves reflect the fluctuating levels of electrical activity in the brain at various times. In normal members of the population, theta waves are associated with drowsy, meditative, or sleeping states. Yet in psychopaths they occur during normal waking states—even sometimes during states of increased arousal …
“Language, for psychopaths, is only word deep. There’s no emotional contouring behind it. A psychopath may say something like ‘I love you,’ but in reality, it means about as much to him as if he said ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee.’ … This is one of the reasons why psychopaths remain so cool, calm, and collected under conditions of extreme danger, and why they are so reward-driven and take risks. Their brains, quite literally, are less ‘switched on’ than the rest of ours.”
I thought back to Gacy and what I’d learned from Dr. Morrison.
“Kiss my ass,” he’d said as he entered the death chamber.
Normal on the outside (Gacy was a pillar of his local community, and on one occasion was even photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter), he camouflaged his inner scorpion with an endearing cloak of charm. But it was entirely in his nature to sting you—as much as it was to convince you that he wouldn’t.
Talking the Walk
Fabrizio Rossi is thirty-five years old, and used to be a window cleaner. But his predilection for murder eventually got the better of him. And now, would you believe, he “does” it for a living.
As we stand next to each other on a balmy spring morning, poking uneasily around John Wayne Gacy’s bedroom, I ask him what the deal is. What is it about psychopaths that we find so irresistible? Why do they fascinate us so much?
It’s definitely not the first time he’s been asked.
“I think the main thing about psychopaths,” says Rossi, “is the fact that on the one hand they’re so normal, so much like the rest of us—but on the other, so different. I mean, Gacy used to dress up as a clown and perform at children’s parties … That’s the thing about psychopaths. On the outside they seem so ordinary. Yet scratch beneath the surface, peek inside the crawl space, as it were, and you never know what you might find.”
We are not, of course, in Gacy’s actual bedroom, But rather, in a mocked-up version of it that comprises an exhibit in what must surely be a candidate for the grisliest museum in the world: the Museum of Serial Killers in Florence. The museum is located on Via Cavour, a ritzy side street within screaming distance of the Duomo.
And Fabrizio Rossi curates it.
The museum is doing well. And why wouldn’t it? They’re all there, if you’re into that kind of thing. Everyone from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, from Charles Manson to Ted Bundy.
Bundy’s an interesting case, I tell Rossi. An eerie portent of the psychopath’s hidden powers. A tantalizing pointer to the possibility that, if you look hard enough, there might be more in the crawl space than just dark
He’s surprised, to say the least.
“But Bundy is one of the most notorious serial killers in history,” he says. “He’s one of the museum’s biggest attractions. Can there really be anything else except dark secrets?”
There can. In 2009, twenty years after his execution at Florida State Prison (at the precise time that Bundy was being led to the electric chair, local radio stations urged listeners to turn off household appliances to maximize the power supply), psychologist Angela Book and her colleagues at Brock University in Canada decided to take the icy serial killer at his word. During an interview, Bundy, who staved in the skulls of thirty-five women during a four-year period in the mid-1970s, had claimed, with that boyish, all-American smile of his, that he could tell a “good” victim simply from the way she walked.
“I’m the coldest son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” Bundy enunciated. And no one can fault him there. But, Book wondered, might he also have been one of the shrewdest?
To find out, she set up a simple experiment. First, she handed out the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale—a questionnaire specifically designed to assess psychopathic traits within the general population, as opposed to within a prison or hospital setting—to forty-seven male undergraduate students. Then, based on the results, she divided them up into high and low scorers. Next, she videotaped the gait of twelve new participants as they walked down a corridor from one room to another, where they completed a standard demographics questionnaire. The questionnaire included two items: (1) Have you ever been victimized in the past (yes or no)? (2) If yes, how many times has such victimization occurred?
Finally, Book presented the twelve videotaped segments to the original forty-seven participants, and issued them a challenge: rate, on a scale of one to ten, how vulnerable to being mugged each of the targets was. The rationale was simple. If Bundy’s assertion held water and he really had been able to sniff out weakness from the way his victims walked, then, Book surmised, those who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale should be better at judging vulnerability than the low scorers.
That, it turned out, was exactly what she found. Moreover, when Book repeated the procedure with clinically diagnosed psychopaths from a maximum-security prison, she found something else. The high-scoring “psychopathic” undergraduates in the first study might’ve been good at identifying weakness, But the clinical
psychopaths went one better. They explicitly stated it was because of the way people walked. They, like Bundy, knew precisely what they were looking for.
The Men Who Stare at Coats
Angela Book’s findings are no flash in the pan. Hers is one of a growing number of studies that have, in recent years, begun to show the psychopath in a new, more complex light: a light somewhat different from the lurid shadows cast by newspaper headlines and Hollywood scriptwriters. The news is difficult to swallow. And it goes down the same way here, in this murderous little corner of Florence, as it does nearly everywhere else: with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Do you mean,” asks Rossi, incredulous, “that there are times when it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be a psychopath?”
“Not only that,” I nod, “but there are times when it’s actually a good thing—when, by being a psychopath, you in fact have an advantage over other people.”
Rossi seems far from convinced, And looking around, it’s easy to understand why. Bundy and Gacy aren’t exactly the best crowd to fall in with. And, let’s face it, when you’ve got several dozen others knocking about in the wings, it’s difficult to see the positives. But the Museum of Serial Killers doesn’t tell the full story. In fact, it’s not the half of it. As Helen Morrison eloquently elucidated, the fate of a psychopath depends on a whole range of factors, including genes, family background, education, intelligence, and opportunity—and on how they interact.
Jim Kouri, vice president of the U.S. National Association of Chiefs of Police, makes a similar point. Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers, Kouri observes—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders: individuals running not from the police, but for office. Such a profile, notes Kouri, allows those who present with it to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral, or legal consequences of their actions.
If you are born under the right star, for example, and have as much power over the human mind as the moon has over the sea, you might order the genocide of 100,000 Kurds and shuffle to the gallows with such arcane recalcitrance as to elicit, from even your harshest detractors, perverse, unspoken deference.
“Do not be afraid, doctor,” said Saddam Hussein on the scaffold, moments before his execution. “This is for men.”
If you are violent and cunning, like real-life “Hannibal Lecter” Robert Maudsley, you might lure a fellow inmate to your cell, smash in his skull with a claw hammer, and sample his brains with a spoon as nonchalantly as if you were downing a soft-boiled egg. (Maudsley, by the way, has been cooped up in solitary confinement for the past thirty years, in a bulletproof cage in the basement of Wakefield Prison in England.)
Or if you are a brilliant neurosurgeon, ruthlessly cool and focused under pressure, you might, like the man I’ll call Dr. Geraghty, try your luck on a completely different playing field: at the remote outposts of twenty-first-century medicine, where risk blows in on hundred-mile-an-hour winds and the oxygen of deliberation is thin:
“I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,” he told me. “That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you’re cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren’t fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy, and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.”
Geraghty is one of the U.K.’s top neurosurgeons—and though on one level his words send a chill down the spine, on another they make perfect sense. Deep in the ghettos of some of the brain’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the psychopath is glimpsed as a lone and ruthless predator, a solitary species of transient, deadly allure. No sooner is the word out than images of serial killers, rapists, and mad, reclusive bombers come stalking down the sidewalks of our minds.
But what if I was to paint you a different picture? What if I was to tell you that the arsonist who burns your house down might also, in a parallel universe, be the hero most likely to brave the flaming timbers of a crumbling, blazing building to seek out, and drag out, your loved ones? Or that the kid with a knife in the shadows at the back of the movie theater might well, in years to come, be wielding a rather different kind of knife at the back of a rather different kind of theater?
Claims like these are admittedly hard to believe. But they’re true. Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused. Yet contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. And if that sounds good, well, it is. Or rather, it can be. It depends, as we’ve just seen, on what else you’ve got lurking on the shelves of your personality cupboard. Far from its being an open-and-shut case—you’re either a psychopath or you’re not—there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder, a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. As we shall see in chapter 2, there is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place, with only a small minority of A-listers resident in the “inner city.”
One individual, for example, may be ice-cold under pressure, and display about as much empathy as an avalanche (we’ll be meeting some like this on the trading floor later), and yet at the same time act neither violently, nor antisocially, nor without conscience. Scoring high on two psychopathic attributes, such an individual may rightly be considered further along the psychopathic spectrum than someone scoring lower on that dyad of traits, yet still not be anywhere near the Chianti-swilling danger zone of a person scoring high on all of them.
Just as there’s no official dividing line between someone who plays recreational golf on the weekends and, say, Tiger Woods, so the boundary between a world-class, “hole-in-one” superpsychopath and one who merely “psychopathizes” is similarly blurred. Think of psychopathic traits as the dials and sliders on a studio mixing desk. If you push all of them to max, you’ll have a sound track that’s no use to anyone. But if the sound track is graded and some controls are turned up higher than others—such as fearlessness, focus, lack of empathy, and mental toughness, for example—you may well have a surgeon who’s a cut above the rest.
Of course, surgery is just one instance where psychopathic “talent” may prove beneficial. There are others. Take law enforcement, for example. In 2009, shortly after Angela Book published the results of her study, I decided to perform my own take on it. If, as she’d found, psychopaths really were better at decoding vulnerability, then there had to be applications. There had to be ways in which, rather than being a drain on society, this talent conferred some advantage. Enlightenment dawned when I met a friend at the airport. We all get a bit paranoid going through customs, I mused—even when we’re perfectly innocent. But imagine what it would feel like if we did
have something to hide.
Thirty undergraduate students took part in my experiment, half of whom had scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, the other half low. There were also five “associates.” The students’ job was easy. They had to sit in a classroom and observe the associates’ movements as they entered through one door and exited through another, traversing, en route, a small, elevated stage. But there was a catch. The students also had to note who was “guilty”: which of the five was concealing a scarlet handkerchief.
To raise the stakes and give the students something to go on, the “guilty” associate was handed £100. If the jury correctly identified the guilty party—if, when the votes were counted, the person with the handkerchief came out on top—then they had to give the money back. If, on the other hand, they got away with it and the finger of suspicion fell more heavily on one of the others, then the “guilty” associate would stand to be rewarded. They would keep the £100.
The nerves were certainly jangling when the associates made their entrance. But which of the students would make the better “customs officers”? Would the psychopaths’ predatory instincts prove reliable? Or would their nose for vulnerability let them down?
The results were extraordinary. Over 70 percent of those who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale correctly picked out the handkerchief-smuggling associate, compared to just 30 percent of the low scorers. Zeroing in on weakness may well be part of a serial killer’s toolkit. But it may also come in handy at the airport.
In 2003, Reid Meloy, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, conducted an experiment that looked at the flip side of the scarlet-handkerchief equation. Sure, traditional “hole-in-one” psychopaths may well have a reputation for sniffing out vulnerability. But they’re also known for giving us the creeps. Tales from clinical practice and reports from everyday life are replete with utterances from those who’ve encountered these ruthless social predators: mysterious, visceral aphorisms such as “the hair stood up on the back of my neck” or “he made my skin crawl.” But is there really anything to it? Do our instincts stand up to scrutiny? Are we as good at picking up on psychopaths as psychopaths are at picking up on us?
To find out, Meloy asked 450 criminal justice and mental health professionals whether they’d ever experienced such odd physical reactions when interviewing a psychopathic subject: violent criminals with all the dials on the mixing desk cranked right up to max. The results left nothing to the imagination. Over three-quarters of them said that they had, with female respondents reporting a higher incidence of the phenomenon than males (84 percent compared to 71 percent), and master’s/bachelor level clinicians reporting a higher incidence than either those at doctoral level or, on the other side of the professional divide, law enforcement agents (84 percent, 78 percent, and 61 percent, respectively). Examples included “felt like I might be lunch”; “disgust … repulsion … fascination”; and “an evil essence passed through me.”
But what are we picking up on, exactly?
To answer this question, Meloy goes back in time to prehistory and the shadowy, spectral dictates of human evolution. There are a number of theories about how psychopathy might first have developed, and we’ll be looking at those a little later on. But an overarching question in the grand etiological scheme of things is from which ontological perspective the condition should actually be viewed: from a clinical standpoint, as a disorder of personality? Or from a game theory standpoint, as a legitimate biological gambit—a life history strategy conferring significant reproductive advantages in the primeval ancestral environment?
Kent Bailey, emeritus professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, argues in favor of the latter, and advances the theory that violent competition within and between proximal ancestral groups was the primary evolutionary precursor of psychopathy (or, as he puts it, the mind-set of the “warrior hawk”).
“Some degree of predatory violence,” proposes Bailey, “was required in the seek and kill aspects of hunting large game animals”—and an elite contingent of ruthless “warrior hawks” would presumably have come in handy not only for tracking and killing prey, but also for repelling invasion by similar contingents from other, neighboring groups.
The problem, of course, was how to trust them in peacetime.
Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University, lends support to Bailey’s claims. Going back to the time of the Norsemen, between the ninth and twelfth centuries, Dunbar has cited the berserkers as a case in point: the feted Viking warriors who, as the sagas and poems and historical records attest, appear to have fought in a brutal, trance-like fury. But dig a little deeper into the literature and a more sinister picture emerges: of a dangerous elite who could turn against members of the community they were charged to protect, committing savage acts of violence against their countrymen.
Here, proposes Meloy, lies the solution to the mystery: to the prickle at the back of the neck and the long-range evolutionary thinking behind our indwelling “psychopath radar.” For if, as Kent Bailey argues, such predatory ancestral individuals were indeed psychopathic, it would follow, from what we know of natural selection, that it wouldn’t be a one-way street. More peaceable members of both the immediate and wider communities would, in all probability, themselves evolve a mechanism, the covert neural surveillance technology, to flag and signify danger when entering their cognitive airspace—a clandestine early-warning system that would enable them to beat a retreat.
In the light of Angela Book’s work with attack victims and my own investigations into scarlet-handkerchief smuggling, such a mechanism could quite plausibly explain the gender differences revealed by Meloy’s experiment. Given psychopaths’ enhanced reputation as diabolical emotional sommeliers, their specialized nose for the inscrutable bass notes of weakness, it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that women, by way of a sneaky Darwinian recompense for greater physical vulnerability, exhibit more intense and more frequent reactions in their presence—as, for exactly the same reason, did the lower-status mental health workers. It’s certainly a working hypothesis. The more threatened you feel, the more at risk you are for a break-in, the more important it is to tighten up on security.
Of course, that there existed, in the penumbral days of our ancestors, ruthless, remorseless hunters brutally accomplished in the dark arts of predation is beyond doubt. But that such hunters, with their capacity to second-guess nature, were psychopaths as we know them today is a little more open to question. The stumbling block, diagnostically, is empathy.
In ancestral times, the most prolific and accomplished hunters were not, as one might expect, the most bloodthirsty and indefatigable. They were, in contrast, the most cool and empathetic. They were the ones who were able to assimilate their quarry’s mind-set—to see through the eyes of their prey and thus reliably predict its deft, innate trajectories of evasion, its routes and machinations of escape.
To understand why, one need only observe a toddler learning to walk. The gradual development of upright locomotion, of an increasingly bipedal stance, both heralded and facilitated a brand-new era of early hominid grocery shopping. A vertical stance prefigured streamlined, more efficient mobility, enabling our forebears on the African savannah to forage and hunt for considerably longer periods than quadrupedal locomotion would have allowed.
But “persistence hunting,” as it’s known in anthropology, has problems of its own. Wildebeest and antelopes can easily outsprint a human. They can vanish over the horizon. If you can accurately predict where they might eventually stop—either by looking for clues that they’ve left behind in their flight or by reading their minds, or both—you can marginally increase your chances of survival.
So if predators demonstrate empathy, and in some cases even enhanced empathy, how can they really be psychopaths? If there’s one thing most people agree on, it’s that psychopaths exhibit a marked absence of feeling, a singular lack of understanding of others. How do we square the circle? Help is at hand in the form of cognitive neuroscience, with a bit of an assist from some fiendish moral philosophy.
Joshua Greene, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and philosopher at Harvard University, has observed how psychopaths unscramble moral dilemmas, how their brains respond inside different ethical compression chambers. As I described in my previous book, Split-Second Persuasion
, he’s stumbled upon something interesting. Far from being uniform, empathy is schizophrenic. There are two distinct varieties: hot and cold.
Consider, for example, the following conundrum (case 1), first proposed by the philosopher Philippa Foot:
A railway trolley is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who are trapped on the line and cannot escape. Fortunately, you can flip a switch that will divert the trolley down a fork in the track away from the five people—but at a price. There is another person trapped down that fork, and the trolley will kill them instead. Should you hit the switch?
Most of us experience little difficulty when deciding what to do in this situation. Though the prospect of flipping the switch isn’t exactly a nice one, the utilitarian option—killing just one person instead of five—represents the “least worst choice.” Right?
Now consider the following variation (case 2), proposed by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:
As before, a railway trolley is speeding out of control down a track toward five people. But this time, 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?
Here, you might say we’re faced with a “real” dilemma. Although the score in lives is precisely the same as in the first example (five to one), playing the game makes us a little more circumspect and jittery. But why? Greene believes he has the answer—and that it’s got to do with different climatic regions in the brain.
Case 1, he proposes, is what we might call an impersonal moral dilemma. It involves those areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex (in particular, the anterior paracingulate cortex, the temporal pole, and the superior temporal sulcus), principally implicated in our objective experience of cold empathy: in reasoning and rational thought.
Case 2, on the other hand, is what we might call a personal moral dilemma. It hammers on the door of the brain’s emotion center, known as the amygdala—the circuit of hot empathy.
Just like most normal members of the population, psychopaths make pretty short work of the dilemma presented in case 1. They flip the switch, and the train branches accordingly, killing just the one person instead of five. However—and this is where the plot thickens—quite unlike normal people, they also make pretty short work of case 2. Psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the side, if that’s how the cookie crumbles.
To compound matters further, this difference in behavior is mirrored, rather distinctly, in the brain. The pattern of neural activation in both psychopaths and normal people is pretty well matched on the presentation of impersonal moral dilemmas—but dramatically diverges when things start to get a bit more personal.
Imagine that I was to pop you into an fMRI machine* and then present you with the two dilemmas. What would I observe as you went about negotiating their mischievous moral minefields? Well, around the time that the nature of the dilemma crossed the border from impersonal to personal, I would see your amygdala and related brain circuits—your medial orbitofrontal cortex, for example—light up like a pinball machine. I would witness the moment, in other words, when emotion puts its money in the slot.
But in a psychopath, I would see only darkness. The cavernous neural casino would be boarded up and derelict. And the crossing from impersonal to personal would pass without any incident.
This distinction between hot and cold empathy, the kind of empathy that we “feel” when observing others, and the steely emotional calculus that allows us to gauge, coolly and dispassionately, what another person might be thinking, should be music to the ears of theorists such as Reid Meloy and Kent Bailey. Sure, psychopaths may well be deficient in the former variety, the touchy-feely type. But when it comes to the latter commodity, the kind that codes for “understanding” rather than “feeling”; the kind that enables abstract, nerveless prediction, as opposed to personal identification; the kind that relies on symbolic processing instead of affective symbiosis—the cognitive skill set possessed by expert hunters and cold readers, not just in the natural environment, but in the human arena, too—then psychopaths are in a league of their own. They fly even better on one empathy engine than on two—which is, of course, just one of the reasons why they make such good persuaders. If you know where the buttons are and don’t feel the heat when you push them, then chances are you’re going to hit the jackpot.
The empathy divide is certainly music to the ears of Robin Dunbar, who, when he’s not reading up on berserkers, can sometimes be found in the Magdalen College Senior Common Room. One afternoon, over tea and cakes in an oak-paneled alcove overlooking the cloisters, I tell him about the railway trolleys and the difference they reveal between psychopathic and normal brain function. He’s not in the least bit surprised.
“The Vikings had a pretty good run of things back in their day,” he points out. “And the berserkers certainly didn’t do anything to dispel their reputation as a people not to be messed with. But that was their job. Their role was to be more ruthless, more cold-blooded, more savage than the average Viking soldier, because … that was exactly who they were! They were
more ruthless, more cold-blooded, more savage than the average Viking soldier. If you’d wired up a berserker to a brain scanner and presented him with the trolley dilemma, I’m fairly certain I know what you’d have got. Exactly what you get with psychopaths. Nothing. And the fat bloke would’ve been history!”
I butter myself a scone.
“I think every society needs particular individuals to do its dirty work for it,” he continues. “Someone who isn’t afraid to make tough decisions. Ask uncomfortable questions. Put themselves on the line. And a lot of the time those individuals, by the very nature of the work that they’re tasked to do, aren’t necessarily going to be the kind of people who you’d want to sit down and have afternoon tea with. Cucumber sandwich?”
Daniel Bartels at Columbia University and David Pizarro at Cornell couldn’t agree more—and they’ve got documentary evidence to prove it. Studies have shown that approximately 90 percent of people would refuse to push the stranger off the bridge, even though they know that if they could just overcome their natural moral squeamishness, the body count would be one-fifth as high. That, of course, leaves 10 percent unaccounted for: a less morally hygienic minority who, when push quite literally comes to shove, have little or no compunction about holding another person’s life in the balance. But who is this unscrupulous minority? Who is this 10 percent?
To find out, Bartels and Pizarro presented the trolley problem to more than two hundred students, and got them to indicate on a four-point scale how much they were in favor of shoving the fat guy over the side—how “utilitarian” they were. Then, alongside the trolleyological question, the students also responded to a series of personality items specifically designed to measure resting psychopathy levels. These included statements such as “I like to see fistfights” and “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear” (agree/disagree on a scale of one to ten).
Could the two constructs—psychopathy and utilitarianism—possibly be linked? Bartels and Pizarro wondered. The answer was a resounding yes. Their analysis revealed a significant correlation between a utilitarian approach to the trolley problem (push the fat guy off the bridge) and a predominantly psychopathic personality style. Which, as far as Robin Dunbar’s prediction goes, is pretty much on the money. But which, as far as the traditional take on utilitarianism goes, is somewhat problematic. In the grand scheme of things, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the two nineteenth-century British philosophers credited with formalizing the theory of utilitarianism, are generally thought of as good guys.
“The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation,” Bentham once famously articulated.
Yet dig a little deeper and a trickier, quirkier, murkier picture emerges—one of ruthless selectivity and treacherous moral riptides. Crafting that legislation, for example, excavating those morals, will inevitably necessitate riding roughshod over someone else’s interests. Some group or cause, through the simple lottery of numbers, has to bite the bullet for the sake of the “greater good.” But who has got the balls to pull the trigger? Bartels and Pizarro may well have found a pattern in the lab. But what about in everyday life? Is this where the psychopath really comes into his own?
Dark Side of the Moon Landing
The question of what it takes to succeed in a given profession, to deliver the goods and get the job done, is not all that difficult when it comes down to it. Alongside the dedicated skill set necessary to perform one’s specific duties, there exists, in law, in business, in whatever field of endeavor you care to mention, a selection of traits that code for high achievement.
In 2005, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon of the University of Surrey conducted a survey to find out precisely what it was that made business leaders tick. What, they wanted to know, were the key facets of personality that separated those who turn left when boarding an airplane from those who turn right?
Board and Fritzon took three groups—business managers, psychiatric patients, and hospitalized criminals (both those who were psychopathic and those suffering from other psychiatric illnesses)—and compared how they fared on a psychological profiling test.
Their analysis revealed that a number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals—attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus— and that the main difference between the groups was in the more “antisocial” aspects of the syndrome: the criminals’ lawbreaking, physical aggression, and impulsivity dials (to return to our analogy of earlier) were cranked up higher.
Other studies seem to confirm the “mixing desk” picture: the borderline between functional and dysfunctional psychopathy depends not on the presence of psychopathic attributes per se, but rather on their levels and the way they’re combined. Mehmet Mahmut and his colleagues at Macquarie University have recently shown that patterns of brain dysfunction (specifically, in relation to the orbital frontal cortex, the area of the brain that regulates the input of the emotions in decision making) observed in both criminal and noncriminal psychopaths exhibit dimensional rather than discrete differences. This, he suggests, means that the two groups should not be viewed as qualitatively distinct populations, but rather as occupying different positions on the same neuropsychological continuum.
In a similar (if less high-tech) vein, I asked a class of first-year undergraduates to imagine they were managers in a job placement company. “Ruthless, fearless, charming, amoral, and focused,” I told them. “Suppose you had a client with that kind of profile. To which line of work do you think they might be suited?”
Their answers, as we shall see a little later on in the book, couldn’t have been more insightful. CEO, spy, surgeon, politician, the military … they all popped up in the mix. Along with serial killer, assassin, and bank robber.
“Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second,” one successful CEO told me. “Remember, they don’t call it a greasy pole for nothing. The road to the top is hard. But it’s easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others. Easier still if they think something’s in it for them.”
Jon Moulton, one of London’s most successful venture capitalists, agrees. In a recent interview with The Financial Times
, he lists determination, curiosity, and insensitivity as his three most valuable character traits.
No prizes for guessing the first two. But insensitivity? “The great thing about insensitivity,” explains Moulton, “is that it lets you sleep when others can’t.”
If the idea of psychopathic traits lending a hand in business doesn’t come as too great a surprise, then how about in space? Blasting psychopaths off deep into the cosmos does not, I am sure, given their terrestrial reputation, particularly inspire confidence—and psychopathic qualities, you’d think, might not exactly be foremost among NASA’s prohibitively exclusive selection criteria for astronauts. But there’s a story I once heard that provides a graphic illustration of how the refrigerated neurology that showed up on Robert Hare’s brain scans can, in certain situations, confer real benefits; how the reptilian focus and crystalline detachment of neurosurgeon James Geraghty can sometimes code for greatness not just in the boardroom, the courtroom, and the operating theater. But in another world entirely.
The story goes like this. On July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and his partner Buzz Aldrin zipped across the lunar landscape looking for a place to set their module down, they came within seconds of crash-landing. The problem was geology. There was just too much of it. And fuel: too little. Rocks and boulders lay scattered all over the place, making a safe approach impossible. Aldrin mopped his brow. With one eye on the gas gauge and the other on the terrain, he issued Armstrong a stark ultimatum: Get this thing down—and fast!
Armstrong, however, was decidedly more phlegmatic. Maybe—who knows?—he’d never had time for twitchy backseat drivers. But with the clock running down, the fuel running out, and the prospect of death by gravity an ever-increasing possibility, he coolly came up with a game plan. Aldrin, he instructed, was to convert into seconds the amount of fuel they had left, and to start counting down. Out loud.
Aldrin did as he was asked.
Seventy … sixty … fifty …
As he counted, Armstrong scrutinized the moon’s unyielding topography.
Forty … thirty … twenty …
Still the landscape refused to give an inch.
Then, with just ten seconds remaining, Armstrong spotted his chance: a silver oasis of nothingness just below the horizon. Suddenly, imperceptibly, like a predator closing in on its prey, his brain narrowed its focus. As if he were on a practice run, he maneuvered the craft deftly toward the drop zone and performed, in the only clearing for miles, the perfect textbook touchdown. One giant leap for mankind. But almost, very nearly, one giant cosmological screw-up.
Bomb-Disposal Experts—What Makes Them Tick?
This extraordinary account of incredible interplanetary insouciance epitomizes life on the horizons of possibility, where triumph and disaster share a fraught and fragile frontier and cross-border traffic flows freely. This time, however, the road to disaster was closed. And Neil Armstrong’s coolness under fire rescued from cosmological calamity one of the greatest feats ever in the history of human achievement. But there’s more. His heart rate, reports revealed later, barely broke a sweat. He might as well have been landing a job in a gas station as a spaceship on the moon. Some freakish strain of cardiovascular genius? The science suggests not.
Back in the 1980s, Harvard researcher Stanley Rachman found something similar with bomb-disposal operatives. What, Rachman wanted to know, separated the men from the boys in this high-risk, high-wire profession? All bomb-disposal operatives are good. Otherwise they’d be dead. But what did the stars have that the lesser luminaries didn’t?
To find out, he took a bunch of experienced bomb-disposal operatives—those with ten years or more in the business—and split them into two groups: those who’d been decorated for their work, and those who hadn’t. Then he compared their heart rates in the field on jobs that demanded particularly high levels of concentration.
What he turned up was astonishing. Whereas the heart rates of all the operatives remained stable, something quite incredible happened with the ones who’d been decorated. Their heart rates actually went down. As soon as they entered the danger zone (or the “launch pad,” as one guy I spoke with put it), they assumed a state of cold, meditative focus: a mezzanine level of consciousness in which they became one with the device they were working on.
Follow-up analysis probed deeper, and revealed the cause of the disparity: confidence. The operatives who’d been decorated scored higher on tests of core self-belief than their non-decorated colleagues.
It was conviction that made them tick.
Stanley Rachman knows all about the fearless arctic neurology of the psychopath. And his findings were certainly explosive. So much so that he raised the question himself: Should we be keeping a closer eye on our bomb-disposal operatives? His conclusion seems pretty clear: “The operators who received awards for courageous/fearless behavior,” he reports, “were free of psychological abnormalities or antisocial behavior.” In contrast, he points out, “most descriptions of psychopathy include adjectives such as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘impulsive’”—adjectives that, in his experience, did not befit any of his case studies.
In the light of Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon’s 2005 survey, however—which, if you will recall, demonstrated that a number of psychopathic traits were more prevalent among business leaders than among diagnosed criminal psychopaths—Rachman’s comments beg the question of what, precisely, we mean when we use the word “psychopath.” Not all psychopaths are as wholly undomesticated, as socially feral, as he might have us believe. In fact, the standout implication of Board and Fritzon’s study is the suggestion that it is precisely this “antisocial” wing of the disorder, comprising the elements of impulsivity and irresponsibility, that either “makes or breaks” psychopaths—that codes them, depending on how high these particular personality dials are turned up, for dysfunction or success.
To throw another methodological monkey wrench in the works, it turns out that bomb-disposal operatives aren’t the only ones who experience a drop in heart rate when they get down to business. Relationship experts Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, authors of the popular book When Men Batter Women
, have observed identical cardiovascular profiles in certain types of abusers, who, research has shown, actually become more relaxed when beating up their partners than when they’re lounging in an armchair with their eyes closed.
In their widely cited typology of abusers, Jacobson and Gottman refer to individuals with this type of profile as “Cobras.” Cobras, unlike their opposite numbers, the “Pit Bulls,” attack swiftly and ferociously, and remain in control. They possess a grandiose sense of entitlement to whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like it. In addition, as their name suggests, they become calm and focused prior to launching an offensive. Pit Bulls, on the other hand, are emotionally more volatile, more prone to let things fester—and then fly off the handle. Further comparisons between these two groups make interesting reading:
Devastating fearlessness may well be descended from courage, as Rachman proposes in bomb disposal. It may well habituate through repeated exposure to danger. But there are some individuals who claim it as their birthright, and whose basic biology is so fundamentally different from the rest of ours as to remain, both consciously and unconsciously, completely impermeable to even the minutest trace of anxiety antigens. I know, because I’ve tested them.
The Scent of Fear
If you’ve ever been spooked by inflight turbulence, or become slightly uneasy when a train has stopped in a tunnel, or simply experienced that indefinable feeling of dread that “something just isn’t quite right,” you may have been responding to the fears of those around you just as much as to anything else. In 2009, Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stony Brook University in New York, collected sweat from the armpits of first-time skydivers as they hurtled toward the ground at terminal velocity. Back in the lab, she then transferred the sweat—from absorbent pads secured under volunteers’ arms—as well as samples of normal “fear-lite” treadmill sweat to a specially calibrated nebulizer box, and waved it under the noses of a second bunch of volunteers as they sat in an fMRI scanner.
Guess what? Even though none of the volunteers had any idea what they were inhaling, those who were exposed to the fear sweat showed considerably more activity in their brains’ fear-processing zip codes (their amygdalae and hypothalami) than those who’d breathed the exercise sweat. In addition, on an emotion recognition task, volunteers who had inhaled the fear sweat were 43 percent more accurate at judging whether a face bore a threatening or neutral expression than those who’d gotten the workout sweat.
All of which raises a rather interesting question: Can we “catch” fear in the same way we catch a cold? Mujica-Parodi and her team certainly seem to think so. In the light of their findings, they allude to the possibility that “there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, ‘contagious.’”
Which raises, of course, an even more interesting question: What about immunity? Are some of us more likely to come down with the fear bug than others? Do some of us have more of a “nose” for it?
To find out, I ran a variation on Mujica-Parodi’s study. First, I showed one group of volunteers a scary movie (Candyman
) and got a second group on a treadmill. Next, I collected their sweat. Third, I bottled it (so to speak). Finally, I squirted it up the noses of a second group of volunteers as they played a simulated gambling game.
The game in question was the Cambridge Gamble Task, a computerized test of decision making under risk. The test comprises a sequence of trials in which participants are presented with an array of ten boxes (either red or blue in color) and must guess, on each trial, which of those boxes conceals a yellow token. The proportion of colored boxes varies from trial to trial (e.g., 6 red and 4 blue; 1 blue and 9 red), and participants start off with a total of 100 points—a fixed proportion of which (5, 25, 50, 75, or 95 percent) they must bet on the outcome of the first trial. What happens then is contingent on the result. Depending on whether they win or lose, the amount wagered is either added to or subtracted from their initial tally, and the protocol is repeated, with a rolling total, on all subsequent trials. Higher bets are associated with higher risk.
If Mujica-Parodi’s theory held any water, then the prediction was pretty straightforward. Volunteers who inhaled the Candyman
sweat would exercise greater caution and gamble more conservatively than those who inhaled the treadmill sweat.
But there was a catch. Half the volunteers were psychopaths. Would the psychopaths, noted for their coolness under pressure, be immune to others’ stress? Like expert hunters and trackers, might they be hypervigilant for visual cues of vulnerability—as Angela Book discovered—yet chemically impervious to olfactory ones?
The results of the experiment couldn’t have been any clearer. Exactly as predicted by Mujica-Parodi’s findings, the non-psychopathic volunteers played their cards pretty close to their chests when exposed to the fear sweat, staking lower percentages on outcomes. But the psychopaths remained unfazed. Not only were they more daring to start with, they were also more daring to finish with, continuing to take risks even when pumped full of “fear.” Their neurological immune systems seemed to immediately crack down on the “virus,” adopting a zero tolerance policy on anxiety, while the rest of us just allow it to spread.
Glimpsed in passing through a shop window, or more likely, these days, on Amazon, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” may seem rather an odd conglomeration of words to appear on the front cover of a book. Eye-catching, maybe. But odd, most certainly. The jarring juxtaposition of those two existential monoliths, “wisdom” and “psychopaths,” precipitates, one would have thought, little semantic compromise, little in the way of constructive, meaningful dialogue around the logic-scored scientific negotiating table.
And yet the core, underlying thesis that psychopaths are in possession of wisdom is a serious one. Not, perhaps, wisdom in the traditional sense of that word: as an emergent property of advancing years and cumulative life experience. But as an innate, ineffable function of their being.
Consider, for example, the following analogy from someone we’ll be meeting later.
Within, I should add, the rarefied, cloistral confines of a maximum-security personality disorder unit:
“A powerful top-of-the-range sports car is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in and of itself, but depends on the person who’s sitting behind the wheel. It may, for instance, permit a skilled and experienced motorist to get his wife to the hospital in time to give birth to their child. Or, in a parallel universe, run an eighteen-year-old and his girlfriend off a cliff.
“In essence, it’s all in the handling. Quite simply, the skill of the driver…”
He’s right. Perhaps the one stand-alone feature of the psychopath, the ultimate “killer” difference that distinguishes the psychopathic personality from the personalities of most “normal” members of the population, is that psychopaths don’t give a damn what their fellow citizens think of them. They simply couldn’t care less how society, as a whole, might contemplate their actions. In a world in which image and branding and personal reputation are more sacrosanct than ever—what are we up to now: 500 million on Facebook? 200 million videos on YouTube? One closed-circuit TV camera for every 20 people in the U.K.?—this constitutes, no doubt, one of the fundamental reasons why they run into so much trouble.
And, of course, why we find them so beguiling.
Yet it may also predispose to heroism and mental toughness, to estimable qualities such as courage, integrity, and virtue: the ability, for instance, to dart into blazing buildings to save the lives of those inside. Or to push fat guys off bridges and stop runaway trains in their tracks.
Psychopathy really is like a high performance sports car. It’s a double-edged sword that inevitably cuts both ways.
In the following chapters, I’ll chronicle, in scientific, sociological, and philosophical detail, the story of this double-edged sword and the unique psychological profile of the individuals that wield it. We begin by looking at who, precisely, the psychopath really is (if not the monster we usually think of). We travel through both the inner and outer zones of the psychopathic metropolis, cruising the ultraviolent downtown ghettos and the lighter, leafier, more visitor-friendly suburbs.
As on any scale or spectrum, both ends have their poster-boy Hall of Famers. At one end we have the Dahmers and Lecters and Bundys—the Rippers and Slashers and Stranglers. At the other extreme we have the antipsychopaths: elite spiritual athletes like Tibetan Buddhist monks, who, through years of black-belt meditation in remote Himalayan monasteries, feel nothing but compassion. In fact, the latest research from the field of cognitive neuroscience suggests that the spectrum might be circular … that across the neural dateline of sanity and madness, the psychopaths and antipsychopaths sit within touching distance of each other. So near and yet so far.
From secluded neural datelines, we’ll shift our focus to cognitive archaeology, and having sketched out the coordinates of modern-day psychopathy, we’ll go in search of its origins. Using the instruments of game theory and cutting-edge evolutionary psychology, we will reconstruct the conditions, deep in our ancestral past, under which psychopaths might have evolved. And we’ll explore the possibility—as profound as it is disturbing—that in twenty-first-century society they’re continuing to evolve, and that the disorder is becoming adaptive.
We’ll consider, in depth, the advantages of being a psychopath—or rather, in some situations at least, having those dials turned up a little higher than normal. We’ll look at the fearlessness. The ruthlessness. The “presence” (psychopaths tend to blink just a little bit less than the rest of us, a physiological aberration that often helps give them their unnerving, hypnotic air).* Devastating, dazzling, and super-confident are the epithets that one often hears about them. Not, as one might expect, from themselves. But from their victims! The irony is plain as day. Psychopaths appear, through some Darwinian practical joke, to possess the very personality characteristics that many of us would die for. Indeed, that many have
died for—the reason, of course, why our old friend Fabrizio Rossi had trouble believing that anything good could possibly come out of the crawl space.
We’ll go behind the scenes of one of the most feted psychopath units in the world and get a psychopath’s take on the problems, dilemmas, and challenges that each of us faces during the course of everyday life. We’ll catch up with the neuroscientist and psychopath hunter Kent Kiehl as he trawls an eighteen-wheel truck, housing a custom-built fMRI scanner, around America’s state penitentiaries.
And in a groundbreaking, one-off experiment, I finally undergo a “psychopath makeover” myself as a world-renowned expert in transcranial magnetic stimulation simulates, with the aid of some remote, noninvasive neurosurgery, a psychopathic brain state inside my own head (it’s worn off).
As The Wisdom of Psychopaths
unfolds, the truth, like a remorseless predator itself, slowly begins to close in. Sure, these guys might sting us. But they might also save our lives. Either way, they certainly have something to teach us.
Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Dutton
Dr. Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist at the Calleva Research Centre for Evolution and Human Science, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. Dutton is the author of Split-Second Persuasion. His writing and research have been featured in Scientific American Mind, New Scientist, The Guardian, Psychology Today, and USA Today. He lives in Oxford, England.