The word “psychopath” usually evokes images of movie villains like the Joker, John Doe, and Anton Chigurh. Of course, Hollywood isn’t always accurate in its portrayal of psychos, but there’s one fact it always gets right—psychopaths are scary. They lack empathy, which means they don’t feel guilt, and they’re extremely impulsive. While they generally aren’t as smart as Hannibal Lecter, they are quite cunning, manipulative, and charming. They only comprise 1 percent of the general population, but they continue to fascinate, horrify, and inspire research, leading scientists to discover a slew of crazy new facts. For example:
10Psychopaths Can’t Recognize Fear
Most of us understand the signs of fear in a frightened person’s face—the eyes widen, the eyebrows shoot up, and the mouth opens to gasp or scream. An ordinary person would see such a face and think “This person is afraid,” but a psychopath wouldn’t think anything of it because he can’t understand fear. It’s not that he chooses not to—it’s that he actually can’t.
That’s what Georgetown University researcher Abigail Marsh confirmed when she tested 36 children between the ages of 7–10 years old for their reactions to facial expressions. The children were placed in an MRI scanner and shown images of various faces. Some were neutral, others were angry, and some were flat-out terrified. Most of the kids had no problem differentiating between neutral and scared faces. However, kids who rated high for psychopathic tendencies just couldn’t understand what those fearful expressions meant.
This discrepancy demonstrates a malfunction of the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear response. The outer layer of a psychopath’s amygdala is much thinner than normal and quite smaller than that of a healthy brain. Thanks to this reduction in volume, this area of the brain is less active than it should be, which is why psychopaths are unable to interpret fearful expressions.
Strangely, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to apply to other emotions. Psychopaths understand most emotions other than fear (and, occasionally, sadness). They also have trouble experiencing and displaying fear themselves. Since they have no concept of what it’s like to be afraid, they don’t know how to respond to horror in normal human beings. As one murderous lady said when she was tested by Marsh’s colleague, “I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know it’s what people look like right before I stab them.”
9Psychopaths Crave Dopamine
When infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was asked why he did such horrible things, he admitted “I just liked to kill, I wanted to kill.” What drives people like Bundy to murder? And why are psychopaths so fond of manipulating others? It all has to do with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that activates the reward centers in our brains. It’s the same reason we fall in love, take drugs, or eat chocolate, except on a much larger scale. Psychopaths are dopamine junkies.
According to Joshua Buckholtz of the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, a psychopath’s brain not only produces more dopamine, it actually “overvalues” the neurotransmitter. Buckholtz believes this desire for dopamine is the reason psychopaths are obsessed with getting their own way, even at the expense of others.
Buckholtz studied 30 people with psychopathic traits, giving them amphetamines that latch onto dopamine-producing neurons. These drugs were radioactively marked so the scientists could track how much dopamine was produced in response to the amphetamines. They found that people who showed high antisocial impulsivity—the desire and willingness to control others—generated a lot more dopamine than the other subjects. To double-check his findings, Buckholtz instructed 24 volunteers to play a guessing game. If they answered correctly, they were rewarded a few dollars. The subjects who scored the highest on antisocial impulsivity produced more dopamine when they won than their fellow contestants.
8Psychopaths May Have An Empathy Switch
It’s well known that psychopaths are unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They view other humans as chess pieces, pawns for their own amusement. The reason this happens is up for debate. While some scientists say psychopaths are just wired that way, neuroscientists from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands disagree.
In 2012, these scientists performed a test on psychopathic criminals using MRI technology and some bizarre home movies. In the clips that the criminals watched from inside the MRI scanner, a disembodied hand either lovingly stroked another hand, rejected it, or slapped it with a ruler. As the researchers expected, the psychopaths weren’t impressed.
However, things took an interesting turn when researchers asked the criminals to empathize with the people on-screen. This time, when the victim suffered a beating, the psychopaths actually responded. They were feeling someone else’s pain. The researchers concluded psychopaths have an “off and on” switch in their brains. While it’s usually set to “off,” it can be flipped when needed. That’s why psychopaths sometimes appear friendly and charming. The scientists hope this means psychopathic criminals can be rehabilitated. If they could be taught to leave the switch on, they could overcome their disorder. On the other hand, if they really are simply choosing not to empathize, they’re even scarier than we realized.
7Psychopaths Receive Harsher Criminal Sentences
Curious whether a psychopathy diagnosis helps or hurts defendants, researchers from the University of Utah presented a fictionalized case to a group of 181 state judges. They had created a character called Jonathan Donahue, who was based on a real-life criminal. The judges were told of Donahue’s violent robbery of a fast food restaurant. He showed zero remorse for his crime, the researchers said, even bragging about it while he was on the run. He had been convicted of aggravated battery, for which the judges were asked to sentence him. Every judge was told that Donahue was a psychopath, but only half were given a biological explanation for his disorder.
Before they announced their decisions, the judges were asked how they would normally sentence a criminal convicted of aggravated battery. Most said about nine years. However, they were harsher on the fictional bandit. Judges who were only told that Donahue was a psychopath sentenced the thug to an average of 14 years behind bars. Giving the judges a scientific explanation for the disorder didn’t help Donahue much—he was sentenced to an average of only one fewer year by judges who were given that information.
Interestingly, it didn’t matter if they heard the explanation from the defense’s point of view (“Donahue isn’t responsible for his actions”) or the prosecution’s (“Donahue is a threat to society and will reoffend”). It only mattered that they learned how psychopathy affected the brain. Perhaps they felt sympathy for a guy who was stuck in a situation somewhat beyond his control, but 13 years is still quite a bit longer than nine.
6Businesses Are Filled With Psychopaths
In 2013, Oxford researcher Kevin Dutton compiled a list of professions that attract the most psychopaths. It probably won’t come as a surprise that plenty of psychos become police officers, lawyers, and surgeons. However, the number one vocation chosen by psychopaths was “CEO.”
That confirms a 2010 study conducted by Paul Babiak, who interviewed 203 up-and-coming executives at management training programs using a questionnaire based on Robert Hare’s influential psychopathy checklist. Babiak came to the horrifying conclusion that 1 in 25 of the interviewees were full-blown psychopaths, four times higher than the percentage of psychos in the general population.
This is terrifying news for the business world but not for the reasons you might think. Psychopaths are actually terrible leaders and don’t get along well with others, climbing the corporate ladder on the strength of their charm instead of their merits. If they can’t manipulate their employees, they’ll just use brute force and terror tactics.
5Internet Trolls Are Psychopaths
In a survey conducted by psychologists from several Canadian universities, web users were asked a series of questions like “How much time do you spend online?” and “Do you comment on YouTube?” They were also asked to agree or disagree with options like “I like to troll people in forums or the comments sections of websites,” “I enjoy playing the villain in games and torturing other characters,” and “I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz.” (Yes, those are the actual questions.) The results of the study pointed to a grim conclusion.
Trolls show several characteristics of the eerily named “Dark Tetrad.” The Dark Tetrad is the intersection of four unpleasant personality traits—sadism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. People with these personality traits enjoy hurting others, are incredibly deceitful, and lack remorse for their antics. Researchers have even found a link between these traits and the amount of time spent trolling online, creating a vicious cycle of psychopathy.
4The Prosocial Psychopath
Neuroscientist James Fallon has quite the family tree. He’s related to seven alleged murderers, including the infamous Lizzie Borden. Curious about this uncomfortable family history, Fallon decided to collect PET scans of his relatives’ brains and analyze their orbital cortices, the part of the brain that influences ethical behavior and moral choices. Most of his relatives checked out as normal, but one scan showed a disturbing lack of activity in the orbital cortex—his own.
Positive that there had been a mistake, he ran a few DNA tests. Far from putting his mind at ease, the results confirmed that not only did Fallon have a psychopath’s brain, he had a psychopath’s genetic makeup. The tests revealed he had a particular variant of the MOA-A gene. This gene is also known as the “warrior gene” because it’s responsible for aggressive behavior.
Fallon calls himself a “prosocial psychopath,” meaning that he behaves within society’s accepted norms. In fact, he even does a lot of good. He donates to charities, takes on leadership positions in his community, and enjoys helping his fellow man—sort of. As Fallon put it, “I get a buzz from look-what-I-can-do-for-the-world as opposed to being a real good guy.” He admits that he’s manipulative and overly competitive. He won’t even let his grandchildren win simple games. He also has trouble empathizing with others, claiming that he feels the same way about his granddaughter as he feels about random people on the street.
Thanks to loving parents, Fallon grew up in a safe, stable environment, surrounded by people who cared for him. Fallon thinks these formative years were hugely influential in helping him become a scientist instead of the next Ed Kemper.
3Psychopaths Have A Poor Sense Of Smell
In September 2013, professors Jason Castro and Chakra Chennubholta decided to categorize every odor known to man. They determined that humans could detect 10 types of smells, such as “fruity,” “chemical,” “popcorn,” and “decayed.” While most people don’t have any trouble making out the “pungent” aroma of blue cheese or the “woody” scent of freshly cut grass, it’s a different story when it comes to psychopaths.
As previously mentioned, psychopaths have lower levels of functioning in their orbital cortices. This affects not only their ability to make long-term plans and keep their impulses in check but also their ability to detect smells. This was confirmed by researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, who brought in 79 non-criminal psychopaths for a smell test. The participants were asked to identify the scents of 16 “Sniffin’ Sticks,” which are devices that look like pens and are scented with various odors like coffee, orange, and leather.
Just as the scientists hypothesized, the psychopaths had trouble identifying what they were smelling. In fact, the higher the subjects scored on a standard psychopath test, the worse they were at identifying various aromas. In addition to providing a fascinating insight into the mysteries of the brain, this conclusion might play an interesting role in diagnostics. Psychopaths are notoriously cunning and can easily escape detection by intentionally giving inaccurate answers on psychiatric evaluations, but it’s much harder to pass a smell test.
2Presidents And Psychopaths Have A Lot In Common
Psychologists from Emory University decided to look at every US president, from Washington to Bush, and determine who was the most psychopathic. (Obama was excluded because he hadn’t yet finished his second term.) Using a book called Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House, they analyzed each president’s personality. They paid special attention to how these men handled crises, got along with Congress, and worked with foreign leaders. They also scrutinized D.C.’s darker side, such as abuse of power and extramarital affairs.
While none of the presidents perfectly fit the mold of a psychopath, quite a few displayed a prominent psychopathic trait called Fearless Dominance (FD), especially when compared to the general population. Fearless Dominance is the lack of fear and unwillingness to back down from a dangerous situation. It also includes the ability to charm people, a pretty important political tool.
At the end of the study, the scientists determined that the president with the highest score of Fearless Dominance was Teddy Roosevelt. The man who walked softly but carried a big stick had a psychopathic disregard for danger. Rounding out the top three were John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, while the top 10 included Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. (The researchers noted that Prime Minister Winston Churchill also scored high for Fearless Dominance.)
It may be alarming to think that presidents have anything in common with psychopaths, but Fearless Dominance can be a positive trait in a leader. Presidents who possessed FD experienced less anxiety, maintained level heads in heated situations, and remained confident in times of trouble. As Emory University researcher Scot Lilienfeld put it, perhaps psychopaths and heroes are “twigs off the same branch.”
1Psychopaths Have Recognizable Speech Patterns
While psychopaths may seem clever and witty, researchers from Cornell University discovered that psychos often slip up when they open their mouths. Led by Jeffrey Hancock, the researchers interviewed 52 murderers, 14 of whom were psychopaths. They asked the crooks to talk about their crimes and used a computer program to evaluate their word choices.
After analyzing the conversations, researchers noted a few idiosyncrasies in psychopathic speech. For example, because the psychos were so detached from their crimes, they described their actions in the past tense much more frequently than their non-psychopathic counterparts did. Hoping to appear normal, they used words like “uh” and “um” more frequently than average thugs. Most of their sentences were phrased as cause-and-effect statements and included many subordinating conjunctions like “because” and “so that.” Perhaps most tellingly, while most prisoners spoke about their families and religious beliefs, the psychos were more concerned with basic needs like food, drink, and cash.
In 2012, scientists from the Online Privacy Foundation and Florida Atlantic University took the Cornell study into the world of social media. By offering a free iPad to participants, researchers convinced 2,927 Twitter users to let them analyze all of their tweets and retweets. The scientists read over three million messages, looking for evidence of the Dark Triad, which are the characteristics of the aforementioned Dark Tetrad minus sadism. In addition to analyzing tweets, researchers asked test subjects to take a quiz of “agree or disagree” statements like “Payback needs to be quick and nasty,” “I like to pick on losers,” and “Most people are suckers.” This study, too, found that a psychopath could be identified by the things they say. The next time you read a creepy tweet, remember that you might be following a 21st-century Jeffrey Dahmer.
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