The part-time psychopath


Thursday, 26 April 2012

tags: culture, emergence, europe

The  late 1980s and 90s were a golden era for psychopaths in culture. Psychopathy had become more widely understood and provided a fantastic popular vehicle for thrills in both fiction and film.

In fact, this portrayal of the psychopath as obsessive and homicidal – in movies like Jagged Edge, The Silence of the Lambs, or Cape Fear – was simplistic. In the last ten years attention has begun to turn to corporate psychopaths who may be behind disasters like Enron and even the latest global economic crash.

Now there is a new twist – psychopathy as a spectrum, and the notion of the ‘semi-psychopath’.  Take an example from Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science documentary series. A recent episode covered good and evil, and one of the case studies was Dr James Fallon, a neuroscientist and world expert on the psychopathic brain. He had identified structural features in the brains of psychopaths that were quite unlike ‘normal’ brains.

After realising that he was distantly related to a serial killer, Lizzie Borden, he decided to scan the brains of all his family members. There was one person whose brain had features consistent with psychopathy – his own. Neither he nor his family were entirely surprised as he had always been aloof, rather cool, and occasionally strangely intimidating. Dr Fallon hypothesised that the reason why he is not dangerous is that he had a wonderful upbringing.

John Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, concludes that you can have ‘semi-psychopaths’ – people who are a definitely a bit psychopathic but not totally unsympathetic. Ronson also suggests that psychopathic traits do overlap with leadership traits – for example not being overcome by your emotions – and that it is crude reductionism to call people with these traits psychopaths. Ronson agrees with Fallon that the difference between a criminal psychopath and a corporate one is simply upbringing.

Dr Fallon pops up again in a viral video clip after scanning the brain of Eli Roth, the director of horror films Cabin Fever and Hostel. Roth also has some ‘complicated’ results – if not unexpected given his profession – he has no emotional reaction to images of extreme violence. In the clip Fallon compares him to ‘Don Corleone’ – all the right instincts towards close friends and family, but a very different attitude to anyone ‘outside the tribe’. ‘Am I psychotic?’ asks Roth, probably rather disingenuously as he surely understands the difference between psychosis and psychopathy. This is when Dr Fallon utters a telling phrase. He tells Roth he is a ‘good psychopath’. His justification for this phrase? That psychopaths are essential to human civilization because they ‘make things happen’.

Roth, clearly having a great deal of fun with the idea, recently tweeted: “Someone called me an hour ago and I had no idea who it was. We talked for ten minutes. #parttimepsychoproblems”.

We are, perhaps, at a remarkable moment where psychopathy is being redefined in a much more nuanced way. It is now a spectrum, or even a matrix, of traits – and it is no longer synonymous with evil.

One of our most prominent pop culture figures, TV talent show supremo Simon Cowell, can thank his prominence to character traits not inconsistent with the more neutral elements of psychopathy. The fact that his company is called Syco suggests he may not only be aware of this but have a sense of humour about it.

This domestication of the psychopath may be part of a passage to a better society in which the nuances and ambiguities of human nature are much better understood. Or it may be playing with fire.

Talk to a forensic scientist and they will not be happy. For the experts dealing with people who have committed the most gut-churning crimes, a psychopath is not someone who merely has certain brain furniture. What actually makes a person a psychopath is the upbringing that has shaped them in addition to that brain furniture. Eli Roth and Dr Fallon might be disappointed to hear it, but according this definition they are not real psychopaths.

The author of this post asked to remain anonymous.

Leave a Comment