How Do People Become Pro-Social Psychopaths?

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In 2006, Dr. James Fallon found out he had the brain imaging pattern and genetic make up of a "full-blown psychopath".

He was surprised, to say the least.

As a happily married family man and a successful neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine, Fallon didn't exactly fit the malevolent stereotype of a psychopath, but there it was on a brain scan: drastically diminished activity in specific areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. So he asked his wife, kids, grandchildren, and colleagues for their thoughts on his apparent diagnosis.

"Big mistake," he later recalled.

"Every one of them said you don't connect to people, you're kind of cold, and you're kind of superficially glib," he recounted at a Moth story session at the 2011 World Science Festival.

Psychopathy is characterized by egosim, boldness, and impaired empathy, among other personality traits.

As further confirmation to his psychopathic inclinations, Fallon found that he really didn't care what his friends or family thought about him. Even though they recognized that Fallon generally lacked empathy and interpersonal warmth, they still enjoyed having him in their lives, and he felt the same.



"I'm what's called a pro-social... psychopath," Fallon said.

"There's a very constant number of these in all sorts of societies," he noted, perhaps because they are desirable. "Do we really want our surgeons to be empathetic when they're doing the surgery or do we want somebody cold and calculated? Do we want our Green Berets to really be empathetic... or do we want them to protect us?"

Artists and creative types also seem predisposed to pro-social psychopathy.

"While acclaimed as revolutionary and pioneering visionaries, the same category of people can come across as unsocialized and discomfiting even to their close associates and admirers," psychologist Adrianne John R. Galang noted in 2010. He went on to test artists for psychopathic traits. The results confirmed his suspicions.

"Many (but not all) highly creative people tend to have personality traits similar to those of psychopaths. Their emotional disinhibition expresses itself in striking works of art," Big Think's Matt Davis wrote of Galang's research.

So how do people become pro-social psychopaths? While genetics and brain structure play a big role in whether or not someone will be a psychopath as they grow up, upbringing and early life experiences can negate hardwired predispositions to psychopathy.

"One most likely reason is that although I have the genetic makeup of a “born” psychopath, some of those very same “risk” genes in someone showered with love (versus abuse or abandonment), from childbirth through the critical first few years of life, appear to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the other “risk” genes," Fallon explained.

While Fallon and other pro-social psychopaths might not necessarily empathize with other people very well, they still understand that it's morally right to treat them with dignity and respect. Pro-social psychopaths prove that you don't have to care about someone to be nice to them.

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