The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy.

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.




21 Responses to “You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy.”

  1. RS
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    Of course, the other conclusion is that there is no such thing as a “psychopath.” Rather, all humans are flawed and capable of heinous acts. See Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil.”

    Of course, someone will show up and accuse me of peddling Christianist, Original Sin Morality,” in 3 . . .2 . . .1 . . .

  2. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

    This supports the English Common Law (and that of American jurisprudence) of hanging all most all serious felons. Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, highway men, pirates, serial theives, horse theives, etc almost always got the noose. Scalia even metioned this in response to nonsense from Kennedy about cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.

    That old common law was also mitigated by juries who often treated criminals they did not deem worthy of death with lesser crimes. And is branding really “cruel and unusual” when many people do it for fun? ; )

    I am not for mass executions of all felons in American prisons. But there is definitely an argument to be had that executions (or at least life in prison without possibility of parole) is justified for serious violent felonies that result in the death or serious injury of innocents.

    And we can deal with lesser crimes through hard labor and work crews.

  3. Abner Normal
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    The name is Normal. Abbie Normal.

    (I still crack up at that scene from Young Frankenstein, even though I have seen it about a million times.)

  4. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

    I liked the picture of Kirby McCain there (and yes, it is the funniest scene in that movie).

  5. Mm
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Then there are cases of people who grow up in affluent families, say, the child of a successful lawyer, who decides to be a murdering psychopath and whose family keeps covering for him or her. That nasty mom in
    Kindergarten Cop comes to mind.

  6. darthlevin
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    …Frau Blucher…

  7. richard mcenroe
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    Do you mean to tell me…that I just put an abnormal brain…into a six and a half foot tall, fifty-four inch wide…gorilla? IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME…?!

  8. Zohydro
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    Well… At least we can all sleep soundly tonight knowing that I’m not crazy!

  9. Zohydro
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Must one be a Christian to know that all men are inherently deeply flawed?

  10. tlk244182
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    “I suggest you put on a tie!”

  11. tlk244182
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    Other way around: one must know that all men are inherently deeply flawed to be a Christian. FTFY

  12. tlk244182
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    Other way around: one must know that all men are inherently deeply flawed to be a Christian. FTFY

  13. tlk244182
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    “[A convicted murderer] is at least as likely to make good three months from now in the executioner’s shed, as he is forty years from now in the prison infirmary.” CS Lewis

  14. Zohydro
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:48 pm


  15. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    Works for me.

  16. DaveO
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 8:11 pm

    How would such a psychopath vote? What candidates and/or cultural movements would a psychopath support? John Wayne Gacy was a Dem (liberal, prpgressive) campaigner, and Ted Bundy was a Rockefeller (liberal, progressive) delegate at the 1968 GOP National Convention.

    When we look at Team BK, we see a network of psychopaths and enablers – how much influence can a small, organized cadre of psychopathsover local elections?

  17. Paula
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    Haha! Good analogy and the song is a nice touch.
    😀 Like I always say…….you may think I crazy but, I’m nuts.

  18. You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy. : The Other McCain | Dead Citizen's Rights Society
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 7:37 am

    […] You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy. : The Other McCain […]

  19. sarah wells
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 9:24 am


  20. sarah wells
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 9:26 am

  21. Happy Barack Does Not Close Gitmo Day | Regular Right Guy
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    […] You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy. […]