How One Neuroscientist Discovered He Was a Psychopath
Plus, what he decided to do about it.
In 2006, James Fallon was a successful neuroscientist, happily married with three children. He was conducting research about how patterns in people’s brains affect psychopathic tendencies. He had also taken part in a separate study on Alzheimer’s, during which he had his own brain scanned. While looking through all of the scans on his desk, he found one that “had the brain imaging pattern and genetic makeup of a full-blown psychopath.” It lacked activity in the sections of the brain responsible for empathy and self-control. But it wasn’t part of the psychopath study. The scan was his.
Fallon wasn’t sure what to make of this news at first. He certainly had never hurt anyone, but he had engaged in risky and manipulative behaviors, especially as a teenager. He’d “borrowed” cars for joyrides and played risky pranks. He remembers sweet-talking his way out of police encounters while his buddies were taken in for questioning. Even his family admitted that the news didn’t come as a major surprise to them.
Fallon took the Hare psychopathy checklist test, which asks 20 questions and then awards points based on how strongly you agree. If you score a 30 or higher, you might be a psychopath. (Go ahead—take the test yourself, if you dare!) Fallon scored pretty high, but he noticed that the behaviors he best exhibited were more “positive”—mostly narcissistic rather than sadistic behaviors. Many CEOs and world leaders exhibit traits like these, including past U.S. presidents like Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. Fallon describes himself as a “pro-social” psychopath: maybe selfish and occasionally manipulative, but certainly not a danger to society.
Fallon believes that it takes more than genetics to make even a psychopath dangerous, and that he is living proof. His childhood was safe and happy, free of abuse and violence, and he believes that that has made a huge difference in his life. “I was loved, and that protected me,” he told Smithsonian Magazine.
Fallon’s life hasn’t changed that much since his discovery—if anything, he’s gained popularity. He has given a TED Talk about his experience, and he’s written a book called The Psychopath Inside. He hopes people will realize that he, a psychopath who is also a successful scientist with a happy family life, can redefine the term.
Today, he admits that he is “obnoxiously competitive,” with a fierce need to win at arguments and games, even against his young grandchildren. But he is taking steps to show more empathy and make less selfish decisions. Not because it’s nice, but to prove to everyone that he is stronger than his genetics. “I want to show myself and everyone else that I can pull it off,” he says. Hey, whatever works, right?
Could someone in your own life—or even yourself—be like Fallon? Look out for these 13 signs you’re dealing with a psychopath.