The psychopathic neurobiologist

James Fallon studies the brain. Then he studied his own, and found out that he has the same brain malfunctions as psychopathic serial killers. What happened next is a fascinating story about the brain, the mind, and the dueling influences of nature and nurture.


  1. At the conclusion of the lecture Fallon announced to the audience that they had exactly six seconds before the poison gas would kill them all, then cackled madly as he ascended a grappling line out the skylight.

  2. It’s a fair point that surgeons and such might function better without as much empathy.  I agreed with him up until the point where he said we need psychopathic CEOs and investment bankers.  No.  Nooooooooooo we don’t.  But I can see how a psychopath would think that.

      1. the curious thing there is that by refusing to prosecute those psychopathic executives, our Governments have given them license to act with complete impunity. We now have abject, fearless lunatics in charge of modern civilisation.

        Well done, chaps.

        This is, of course, why the global economy is about to collapse again.

  3. I’d be very interested to know if he’s increased the activity in those parts of his brain simply by “acting the part.”

    And dagfooyo, whether we NEED psychopathic CEOs or not, those very traits that make someone a psychopath also make them really good at climbing the ladder.  So whether we want or need them or not, they’re the “fittest” to get there.

    1. That reminds me, I still need to finish reading about “The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to ‘The Office’ ”

      The principle is stated as such:
      Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

      Okay, maybe I don’t understand the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths.

      1. There isn’t one, really. Scientists tend to use the words interchangably (cf. John Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test.”

  4. You gotta love any science conference that the speakers get played on and off the stage by a pianist.  So, civilized!

  5. I’ve read where serial killers were coldly interested to know how bodies, first animals then people, looked on the inside. The motivation becomes different when redirected into the sciences or medicine, but the interest is similar.

  6. Makes sense. When dealing with ‘externalizes’, if you can think like “Well, that chemical spill which will cause every child born in the next century to be limbless increased my PI by %0.001! YIPPI!” then KUDOS, our system welcomes you to the upper-caste, you super-villain, you.

  7. Larry Niven wrote a novel set in the near future where paranoid schizophrenia could be completely suppressed with medication. The government hired a number of schizophrenics and paid them to go off their meds for one week a month to function as threat detectors and military planners.

    Now imagine periodically unmedicated psychopaths as CEO’s. Lovely picture.

    1. Now imagine periodically unmedicated psychopaths as CEO’s.

      I assume we’re supposed to use our imaginations for the “periodically” part.

    2. No need to imagine it; there are constantly unmedicated psychopaths acting as CEOs today. The fact that they make obscene amounts of money affords them shelter from scrutiny as far as their possible psychopathy is concerned.

    3. I don’t think psychopathy can be medicated.

      As far as I know it’s more or less untreatable and mostly the catch all for “is completely alien in thought and emotion to the norm” for psychology.

      1. Imo it shouldn’t be medicated. It’s an integral part of the human social ecology. Schizophrenia supressing medications have been found to drastically curb creativeness, especially generation of new ideas. So it seems that “schizophrenic mechanism” is an integral part of human mind and schizophrenia is just a malfunction of this crucial mechanism.
        To put it another way… If some people have diarrhea, should we dictate the whole digestive system bad and shut it down artificially with meds?
        The same goes with sociopaths on a social level. As I mentioned above, some cultures have extremely low “psychological sociopathy” incidence rates. Most genetic sociopaths in Thailand, for example, are totally unaware of their “condition” and it doesn’t preclude them at all from being useful and happy members of their society. It’s just a genetic trait that can manifest in various ways but which has gotten waay too much negative publicity due to serial killer craze (a part of the nefarious “triad”) and the fact that socially competetive societies do give some some benefits  to people who can shut down their empathy at will. (aka “The Evil Bankers” – which ARE evil, I don’t question that.)

  8. I find it interesting that we have created a society that values so-called warrior genes, behavior on the autistic scale, and psychopathic behaviors and UNDERVALUES empathy, the ability to see long-term consequences, and all sorts of people-skills and actually very healthy human attributes.  It’s easy to see what we value by simply looking at who gets paid and promoted in our culture.

    It’s like we’re propagating people with certain deficits and trying to eliminate people who balance them out.  :-( 

    1. Autistics are pretty much the definition of empathy and ability to see long term consequences; unfortunately ‘our culture’ sees wisdom only in overt displays of power. From my interactions with nonautistics, I honestly can’t tell the difference between them and less intelligent psychopaths, at least in terms of morality. The society creation part is all perfectly Darwinian of course.

  9. Who says these are “defects” or “deficits”? A “socioopath” is really only a person with those traits who has failed – one whose manipulations have failed, and whose deceptions have been revealed. Those who harbor the same traits, but tread more carefully, succeed in manipulating their fellow humans into giving them more resources – whether it’s the manipulative basement dweller who badgers his family into supporting him while he plays games all day, the cultist who convinces the weak-minded to sell everything they have and live for his glory, the warrior-lord who kills his enemies and rapes their women, leaving multiple copies of his genes for posterity, or the CEO who takes home millions of dollars in return for sending thousands of employees to the poorhouse. “Sociopathy” is an adaptive trait, and a very successful one at that.

    1. I wonder though, like in the thread on banning religion, if these sociopathic traits aren’t ‘a bad  idea’ we had best find a way of ‘leaving behind’?   A successful sociopath or a group of them with enough power, create alot of havoc as easily now as the touch of a keyboard…just for the fun of it.  To win.  Can a global society afford them ?

  10. This is an old story, isn’t it? I thought this was the guy they based Lawrence Fishburne’s character on in CSI. He was based on someone real anyway.

  11. IMO so called “sociopaths” are an intrinsic part of human social ecology. some of the worst people in history weren’t sociopaths but some of the best ones were. it’s a matter of “temperament” i’d say.

  12. By definition a “sociopath” is a person who has no direct empathy. In some professions and roles this is an active advantage. Gandhi and Einstein were schoolbook examples of sociopaths…They wouldn’t be able to do all the good deeds they did if they weren’t able to distance themselves from direct suffering (and emotions in general) of their fellow men. It is up to the society and its value system to channel sociopaths into their roles. For example, it is well known that buddhist cultures appear to have drastically lower level of psychologically detectable sociopaths (those who exhibit callous behavior) while the genetic spread of “sociopathic genes” in such societies conforms to the global norm.

      1. A sociopath is a person who isn’t able to directly perceive another person’s emotional state on a “gut” level. Or to be precise, he/she isn’t able to empathise in direct contact with another human being. It is not an ethical but rather a neurobiological question, most probably genetic. A sociopath is not inherently “bad”, he/she simply operates on a different emotional level. Gandhi and Einstein both qualify as sociopaths in their direct relationships with other human beings, especially women. Hitler, on the other hand, while being a total monster and crazy was NOT a sociopath as is evident by his cowardly shying away from actual execution of his policies. (For example, he left the execution of the “final plan” entirely to Heydrich, a schoolbook sociopath (a very flamboyant guy, a ladykiller adored for being “emotional and sensitive” – sociopath does not equal “unemotional”, quite the opposite in most cases)… because Hitler was an emphatic, although insane and utterly screwed up individual)
        What I’m saying, based on my own historical research, is pretty much conforming to Fallon’s situation. He IS a socipath. But a well adjusted one whose “sociopathishness” is actually used to benefit humanity. Sometimes being free from the distractions of empathy enables you to pursue a greater good for humanity. Socipath does not have to equal “bad robot killer”… which is, I believe, the point of Fallon’s “coming out” speech.
        IMO the main problem is with pejorative terminology. “Sociopath” or “Psychopath” automatically evoke “pathology” and Hannibal Lecter. Some other less pejorative term should be devised for the 10% of population who are genetically unable to emphatise directly. (Tho it sometimes frees them to better empathise with “greater causes” whatever they are.)

        1. I haven’t read yet anyone writing about sociopathy, deny that there is a strong nurture factor in a sociopath’s outcome.  Eastern cultures are ‘we’ oriented, while western cultures is more ‘me’ oriented, and so we nurture and teach sociopaths the game is whatever will benefit themselves.

          Nor have I read that anyone denied the usefulness of sociopaths in some professions.  It’s just become a lot easier for one individual, with a genetically malfunctioning brain, to wipeout the lives and livelihoods of millions.  They may acquire the resources, through weapons or position  of power, to act like one person tsunamis. 

          James Fallon may be benign and even beneficial to society, but we here in western culture are creating monsters we can’t afford to tolerate.  However –  the answers I’ve read suggested to address this problem in the future…leads us back to Hitler and eugenics.

        2. Gandhi and Einstein both qualify as sociopaths in their direct relationships with other human beings, especially women. Hitler, on the other hand, while being a total monster and crazy was NOT a sociopath as is evident by his cowardly shying away from actual execution of his policies.

          Is that your personal take or have any prominent mental health experts voiced similar opinions?

        3. Quite unconvincing arguments for Gandhi and Einstein being sociopaths. It’s true they both had some shabby relationships with women but that doesn’t qualify them as sociopaths, or you will have to include many hundreds of millions of men in that category. The term has something to do with lack of conscience and remorse, and both Ghandi and Einstein had highly developed senses of social conscience, and endless empathy. But you wouldn’t want to be married to either of them apparently.

        4. Marko, the problem with psychopaths, whatever their useful traits, is that I’ve never met one who didn’t desperately need to be in control of everyone around them. That raises an inevitable problem around uncontrollable, or what I like to call ‘sane’, people. The insane jealousy and possessiveness get triggered and ruin things with a probability of 1. I’m autistic and my method for getting girls is basically targetting psychopaths and triggering their craziness. Their limitations always overcome their good points. They are, fundamentally, completely insane.

          1.  ‘I’m autistic and my method for getting girls is basically targetting psychopaths and triggering their craziness.  Their limitations always overcome their good points.  They are, fundamentally, completely insane.’

            I’m interested in your dating/getting laid strategy.  Could you expand on this please, for those less experienced in psychopath trolling?

          2. “I’m interested in your dating/getting laid strategy.  Could you expand on this please, for those less experienced in psychopath trolling?”

            Well, if you’re autistic then psychopaths are some of the only people you’ll feel comfortable around in the first place, so the opportunities should arise naturally. The rest is an anti-strategy; just be yourself and stay honest. Psychos need exclusive control of whoever they’re targetting, so if there’s a girl worth knowing (not an easily manipulated girl) the psychopath will naturally push her towards you. A psychopath faced with a sane girl (or any girl, ‘cept it actually works on crazies) will try to exert more and more control, she’ll instinctively play you against each other and take the path of least resistance, which is you. It’s psychodynamic inevitability. If you aren’t autistic and need strategies then you probably have a subconscious you’re afraid of, and in that case you would lose to a psycho with the same inevitability. The game between any two people, in its most abstract, is a test of who is more willing to make the leap from the game world to the real world. If you’re holding on to fear/lies you can’t make that leap. Psychopaths are terrified of losing control, so unblock yourself and allow them to express that fear.

            It’s not a dating strategy, it’s a strategy for loving beautiful people. I’ve always mucked up the end part where you have a girl and need to believe you deserve her, not just that you’re good at meta-games.

          3. Thank you, fraac, for you reply.  You’ve made my perception of the world and the people in a bit more interesting. 

          4. “Thank you, fraac, for you reply.  You’ve made my perception of the world and the people in a bit more interesting.”

            I totally do that.

  13. Ha ha. Was finding this guy kind of hot until about half way through when I started to spot resonances of my ex!!! To think I was married to a psychopath all those years – all makes sense now. Autistic dating strategy: target the psychopath’s exes. We are way nicer and yet seemingly still easy targets. can’t believe I nearly fell for it again!

    1. Psychopaths’ exes are damaged goods, but a girl who can have fun with a psychopath without getting emotionally involved is someone I want to know. If it makes you feel better, this would probably be a high-functioning borderline, psychopath or autistic – the very people Simon Baron-Cohen, in his recent book, says have no empathy.

      1. Can you be a bit of both?… and have empathy? This feels like a self-help group. Perhaps I should leave. I’ll check out the book.

  14. What this talk tells me is that psychopath/sociopath are terms that need not only have pejorative associations. That is, if we want businesses to change the way they do business, we have to be careful of the type of psychopath that we put in charge. That is, it may very well be that becoming a CEO requires a special blend of characteristics, one of which is exhibiting psychopathic traits, but can we find Empathic psychopaths?

    1. No. The solution in business is appointing the right people in the first place. Management should never be seen as a promotion, but just a particular job requiring skills. Psychopaths will always fuck things up so don’t put them in positions of responsibility.

  15. You know, self-diagnosis is bad.  But watching this got me reading, since I’ve been self-aware of something very similar to what this gentleman describes since I was about 12.

    Being self-aware of your lack of empathy, and the emotional expectations everyone seems to have of you drives you out of your mind.  My experience was probably closest to what this describes:

    (And yes, I work in IT, lol)

    I am just surprised he is so OK with it, honestly.  I’ve spent my life just trying to fake it and live up to people’s view of who I am, which results is no small amount of self-destructive behavior.  In his shoes, I would never have had kids; I can definitely tell this is a trait that runs on my Dad’s side of the family.

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