What Happens When You Find out You're a Psychopath

January 22nd 2016

Lucy Tiven

When Neuroscientist James Fallon found a brain image that illustrated psychopathic tendencies during an Alzheimer's study, he had no idea that it was a scan of his own brain.

"I said, we've got to check the [source] of that scan," Fallon told Business Insider. "It's probably a psychopath... someone who could be a danger to society."

Upon further investigation, Fallon (not to be confused with the boozy late night television host) also identified a handful of murderers in his family tree including Lizzie Borden, who was famously accused of the axe murders of her mother and stepfather in 1893. Though Borden was acquitted, many people maintain that she only got off on technicalities after the long, sensational trial culminated in Borden fainting dramatically in the courtroom.

Lizzie Borden

Psychopathy is shockingly common. The Independent reports that it effects between .2 and 3 percent of the general population, according to a 2009 UK Study.

While the criminal stigma of psychopathy is widely popularized, there is far less information on non-violent psychopaths and how they can maintain caring relationships and live healthy, normal lives.

Psychopaths don't necessarily lack empathy.

Psychopaths are commonly thought to lack the ability to empathize, which makes them more likely to hurt others. But recent research reveals that psychopaths may not be unable to empathize, the mechanism just requires more deliberate effort than it does compared to non-psychopathic individuals.

"Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathize, but a reduced propensity to empathize, paired with a preserved capacity to empathize when required to do so," reports Science Daily.

A brain imaging study conducted in the Netherlands instructed participants to watch movie clips of two people interacting with one-another. The first time, participants were instructed to watch the clips as they would a favorite film, while on the second viewing, they were instructed to try to empathize with the actors, and the third, they were asked to imitate the actors' physical movements.

Netherlands Brain Imaging Film Study

The study found that psychopaths are capable of empathizing if they consciously switch into "empathy mode," so it is important that individuals with psychopathic tendencies are aware of them and work to produce empathetic experiences. On the other hand, it's possible that criminal psychopaths could use the ability to consciously produce empathy to manipulate potential victims.

What makes a psychopath?

Psychopaths like Fallon exhibit low levels of activity in the orbital cortex, a brain area at the base of the frontal and temporal lobes that regulates emotions and impulses. The orbital cortex is also said to shape aggression and attitudes towards mortality.

Psychopath Brain Illustration

Because of the difficulty administering MRI studies on incarcerated populations, criminal psychopathy is most frequently diagnosed using a checklist developed by Robert Hare in the 1970s. The test, known as the PCL-R, covers the subject's relationships, responses to situations, emotional tendencies, and lifestyle.

These responses are scored and tallied on a scale of 0-40. High scores indicate prototypical psychopaths, and non-criminal non-psychopathic individuals typically score close to a 5.

Because of the patterns Fallon observed in his family tree, he also looked into genetic research on violent behavior patterns. He discovered that a gene called MAO-A, or "the warrior gene" has been linked to breaking down chemical messengers like dopamine, noradrenalin and serotonin that control thoughts and behavior.

Though these studies have been refuted by some medical professionals, Fallon believes that being aware of genetic and neurological predispositions toward violence might help prevent it, particularly when individuals have been raised in hostile or abusive environments that might further encourage violent or uncaring instincts.

Here's what happened.

When Fallon told his wife, friends, and colleagues about his findings, they weren't as shocked as he expected. Some described him as "kind of not there emotionally," while even his own daughter said she had thought of him as a "dark figure" as a child.


Fallon's psychiatrist said he had behaved in ways that might signal a lack of empathy, like skipping a funeral he described as "boring."

"I realized people had been telling me something for years, I just didn't put it together," Fallon said. "I don't get the interpersonal warm and fuzzies."

Psychopaths can fight their urges.

Once he realized that he might be a psychopath, Fallon decided to try and act more conscientiously, even in ways that didn't feel sincere initially.

"Maybe if I just acted the part, even if I don't feel it at an emotional level ... [it] would be a good place to start, just to be a good companion and a good friend," He said on the Moth storytelling show.

Though he described these efforts as tiring, making him less able to think and speak quickly, they suggest that it's possible to be both a psychopath and a good, caring person.