Do psychopaths make the world go round?

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED June 8, 2011
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If you’re like a lot of people, you probably hear the word “psychopath” and picture corpse-stuffed crawlspaces and maniacal dictators. Maybe you even think of our fictional friend here Hannibal Lecter, but you know what? Maybe Dr. Lecter was a really effective psychiatrist most of the time. Maybe — a few ethical discretions aside — he did the world a lot of good.

The evidence seems to indicate that while, yes, psychopaths sometimes create far more trouble than they’re worth, most of them are just out there doing their job — and maybe doing it better than the next guy.

But let’s refresh on just what a psychopath is. According to Scientific American, they’re typically charming and make great first impression, but once you get to know them, you discover they’re

  • self-centered
  • dishonest
  • undependable
  • impulsive
  • prone to irresponsible behavior for no reason
  • largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love
  • prone to casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships
  • quick to make excuses for their actions, blaming others
  • unfazed by mistakes or negative feedback,

See, there’s nothing on there about hockey masks or crazy podium speeches. In fact, I bet you can think of at least one person in your life who qualifies.

Psychopaths are everywhere. Psychologist Dr. Robert Hare predicted that Canada alone was home to 300,000 psychopaths and that, overall, 1 percent of the North American continent might just fit the bill. But where Hare recommends that corporations screen their employees to avoid the elevation of psychopath bosses, neurobiologist James Fallon suggest that just might be part of what’s working, as opposed to a flaw in the system.

I heard Fallon speak at last week’s World Science Festival in New York City. The good doctor performed as part of The Moth‘s “Dark Night: Stories of Stars Aligned.” He was one of five story-telling scientists, and he shared with us a tale of self discovery and psychopathy.

As he relates in the following TED Talk from 2009, Fallon’s neurological research led him into the brain scan and genetic analysis of known psychopaths. But then, in analyzing his own brain scan, he saw made a rather shocking discovery: he might just be a psychopath as well. When he looked into his family history and talked to close friends, he only confirmed the matter.

But in his Moth presentation, Fallon made the argument that psychopathy might just be the thing that makes the world go round. Maybe we need soldiers and doctors who don’t let emotional attachment get in the way of a job. Maybe spies, lawyers and bosses need a dash of the unhinged if they’re to betray, scrutinize and fire those around them. Sure, they make sucky friends and sucky spouses, but the rest of the time they’re making the trains run on time.

So there you have it! Julie and I both will share much more of our adventures at the 2001 World Science Festival in the days and weeks ahead. You can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed. And don’t forget the free HowStuffWorks App!

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