Posted on | January 22, 2014 | 21 Comments
But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.
James Fallon, an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of California-Irvine, accidentally discovered that his brain scan shows traits associated with psychopaths. This led him to examine his own personal history and write a book called The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. In an interview with Judith Ohikuare of The Atlantic Monthly, Professor Fallon made this observation:
The jump from being a “prosocial” psychopath or somebody on the edge who doesn’t act out violently, to someone who really is a real, criminal predator is not clear. For me, I think I was protected because I was brought up in an upper-middle-class, educated environment with very supportive men and women in my family. So there may be a mass convergence of genetics and environment over a long period of time. But what would happen if I lost my family or lost my job; what would I then become? That’s the test.
For people who have the fundamental biology — the genetics, the brain patterns, and that early existence of trauma—first of all, if they’re abused they’re going to be pissed off and have a sense of revenge: I don’t care what happens to the world because I’m getting even. But a real, primary psychopath doesn’t need that. They’re just predators who don’t need to be angry at all; they do these things because of some fundamental lack of connection with the human race, and with individuals, and so on.
Someone who has money, and sex, and rock and roll, and everything they want may still be psychopathic — but they may just manipulate people, or use people, and not kill them. They may hurt others, but not in a violent way. Most people care about violence — that’s the thing. People may say, “Oh, this very bad investment counselor was a psychopath” — but the essential difference in criminality between that and murder is something we all hate and we all fear. It just isn’t known if there is some ultimate trigger.
You should read the whole thing. Nature-vs.-nurture arguments about deviant or criminal behavioral tendencies are, on the one hand, endlessly fascinating and, on the other hand, to a large degree ultimately irrelevant. That is to say, by the point in time when someone commits a crime, their behavioral traits are already well-developed and — while we may wish to understand the “why” of this — developmental issues aren’t germane to law enforcement, the object of which is public safety.
We may wish to do a background investigation of a criminal to determine whether he is an otherwise productive and law-abiding person who strayed off-course, or whether he has the type of deformed antisocial personality that makes him a high risk for recidivism. But the criminal is punished for his criminal acts, not for being a bad person, so there are limits to the utility of such background information.
The use of psychological profiling as an investigative tool is another aspect of this, but “profiling” isn’t really the kind of exciting stuff that crime-thriller movies and TV shows make it out to be.
At any rate, by the time a psychopath’s behavior brings him to the attention of authorities, his personality defects are already sufficiently developed that talk of rehabilitation is absurd. Nor can you say, “Well, it’s not his fault. He’s got a rotten brain.”
If you start trying to absolve criminals of responsibility on such a basis, you’re opening the door to endless efforts by clever crooks (and their lawyers) to game the system. In fact, that’s really what happened in the 1960s in a series of court decisions that had the effect of hindering law enforcement and empowering criminals, so that the legal system’s concern for the “rights” of criminals tended to supercede any concern for the public-safety rights of ordinary citizens. It took two or three decades for courts, legislatures and law enforcement to reverse the 1960s shift toward leniency, which unleashed an unprecedented surge in crime.
It cannot be the case that, in the mid-1960s, there was a sudden increase in the number of psychopaths in the general population. Whatever caused the upsurge of criminal violence and anti-social deviancy was an environmental influence, and social critics then and since have tended to point to permissive parenting and the cultural collapse of authority as the key factors. Christopher Lasch wrote in 1979:
Arnold Rogow argues . . . that American parents, alternately “permissive and evasive” in dealing with the young, “find it easier to achieve conformity by the use of bribery than by facing the emotional turmoil of suppressing the child’s demands.” In this way, they undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline; but since American society no longer values these traits anyway, the abdication of parental authority itself instills in the young the character traits demanded by a corrupt, permissive, hedonistic culture.
Of course, the violent psychopath is more likely to come from a background of abuse than of permissiveness, but our society’s unwillingness to confront anti-social behavior with deterrent force reflects the “permissive, hedonistic culture.” Psychopathic personality types — and Professor Fallon recognizes these traits in himself — are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior if they think they can get away with it, and they’re more likely to think they can get away with it if authorities (parents, teachers, police, judges) aren’t serious about enforcing laws and social norms. Criminals are not so stupid that they can’t respond to cues about risks and incentives.
The difference between a psychopath and a neuroscientist may be less than we think. And the difference between a psychopath and a blogger may in some cases be almost imperceptible.