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What’s It Like to Discover You’re a Psychopath?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term "psychopath" is commonly used to describe society's most extreme offenders: criminals capable of violence who are characterized by compulsive lying and manipulation, showing a complete lack of empathy or remorse for their actions. However, neuroscientist James H. Fallon's research in 2006 revealed that not all psychopaths fit this stereotype.

While investigating the brains of murderers, psychopaths, and individuals with schizophrenia at the University of California, Irvine, Fallon stumbled upon an unexpected discovery. At the time, Fallon was also conducting a study on Alzheimer's disease and was using his family as control subjects for brain scans, which were kept anonymous. To his astonishment, one of those scans clearly displayed the anatomical features associated with psychopathic tendencies. When he pursued the subject’s identity, he discovered that he had been looking at his own scan. At nearly 60 years old, Fallon learned that his brain exhibited the key biological indicators of psychopathy, with his limbic system, responsible for social and emotional processing, showing minimal activity.

This revelation led Fallon to ask family, friends, and psychiatrists whether they thought he showed psychopathic tendencies. Nearly everyone agreed that he did. Upon closer examination, Fallon discovered that he displayed many of the attributes typically found in psychopathy tests and could be considered a "pro-social" psychopath.

Delving into his family history, Fallon uncovered a lineage that included numerous alleged murderers, prompting him to reflect on his childhood for signs of psychopathy. While he had engaged in risky behaviors such as constructing pipe bombs and driving recklessly, Fallon acknowledges that many individuals partake in such activities without meeting the criteria for psychopathy. In an article for The Guardian in 2014, Fallon reflected that his behavior, which sometimes put others at risk, was a telltale sign. For example, when living in Africa in the 1990s, he took his brother to the Kitum Caves in Kenya’s Mount Elgon National Park, the site where the deadly Marburg virus was believed to originate, without telling him.

Psychopathy describes a set of personality traits, including manipulativeness, impulsivity, narcissism, and a lack of empathy and remorse. Contrary to the stereotypical representation of psychopaths in books, television, and movies, these characteristics do not always lead to violent behaviors, and many pro-social psychopaths can be very successful in their personal and professional lives.

Despite his genetic risk factors and psychopathic tendencies, Fallon was one such success story. He attributed his successful career as a neuroscientist and his fulfilling family life to the love and nurturing he felt during his upbringing. Early childhood experiences play a pivotal role in shaping one's personality and behavior, with individuals who endure abuse or neglect being more prone to criminal and violent behavior, and this is especially true of individuals with psychopathic personality traits.

A “good” psychopath:

  • The incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is believed to be about 4%, which is four times the condition’s incidence in the general population.

  • There is no cure for psychopathy, but it is an active field of research. James Fallon, who died in November 2023 at age 76, spent time in his later years working with a start-up to study the regulation of serotonin in the brain to improve the treatment of anxiety and depression. This could also have positive outcomes for psychopathy.

  • Distinguishing between psychopathy and sociopathy often revolves around the origins of the condition. Psychopathy is typically seen as innate, while sociopathy can develop from childhood abuse and environmental factors.

  • The Hare Psychopathy Checklist, developed by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare in the 1970s, serves as a standardized screening tool to identify psychopathic traits in individuals.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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