Jun 10 2011 4:30pm

Do Psychopaths Make the World Go Round?

If you’re like a lot of people, you probably hear the word “psychopath” and picture corpse-stuffed crawlspaces and maniacal dictators. Maybe you even think of our fictional friend here Hannibal Lecter, but you know what? Maybe Dr. Lecter was a really effective psychiatrist most of the time. Maybe—a few ethical discretions aside—he did the world a lot of good.

The evidence seems to indicate that while, yes, psychopaths sometimes create far more trouble than they’re worth, most of them are just out there doing their job—and maybe doing it better than the next guy.

But let’s refresh on just what a psychopath is. According to Scientific American, they’re typically charming and make great first impression, but once you get to know them, you discover they’re

  • self-centered
  • dishonest
  • undependable
  • impulsive
  • prone to irresponsible behavior for no reason
  • largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love
  • prone to casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships
  • quick to make excuses for their actions, blaming others
  • unfazed by mistakes or negative feedback,

See, there’s nothing on there about hockey masks or crazy podium speeches. In fact, I bet you can think of at least one person in your life who qualifies.

Psychopaths are everywhere. Psychologist Dr. Robert Hare predicted that Canada alone was home to 300,000 psychopaths and that, overall, 1 percent of the North American continent might just fit the bill. But where Hare recommends that corporations screen their employees to avoid the elevation of psychopath bosses, neurobiologist James Fallon suggest that just might be part of what’s working, as opposed to a flaw in the system.

I heard Fallon speak at last week’s World Science Festival in New York City. The good doctor performed as part of The Moth’s “Dark Night: Stories of Stars Aligned.” He was one of five story-telling scientists, and he shared with us a tale of self discovery and psychopathy.

As he relates in the following TED Talk from 2009, Fallon’s neurological research led him into the brain scan and genetic analysis of known psychopaths. But then, in analyzing his own brain scan, he saw made a rather shocking discovery: he might just be a psychopath as well. When he looked into his family history and talked to close friends, he only confirmed the matter.

But in his Moth presentation, Fallon made the argument that psychopathy might just be the thing that makes the world go round. Maybe we need soldiers and doctors who don’t let emotional attachment get in the way of a job. Maybe spies, lawyers and bosses need a dash of the unhinged if they’re to betray, scrutinize, and fire those around them. Sure, they make sucky friends and sucky spouses, but the rest of the time they’re making the trains run on time.

So there you have it! Julie and I both will share much more of our adventures at the 2001 World Science Festival in the days and weeks ahead. You can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed. And don’t forget the free HowStuffWorks App!

Image: Duncan Laws/Creative Commons

Original Published at HSW: Do psychopaths make the world go round?

Robert Lamb is a senior staff writer at and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter @blowthemind.

Scot Taylor
1. flapdragon
If you're a psychopath, of course you're going to say you make the world go around. Doesn't mean you don't need a stiff dose of Haldol every now and again. Duh.
Patricia Mathews
2. Patricia Mathews
Ahem... Ayn Rand heroes...cough, cough....
Patricia Mathews
3. heelbiter
Does ableism make the world go round? How about your ignoring the fact that the vast majority of violence is committed by people who do not, in fact, have a mental illness? Not to mention the fact that persons with a mental illness, even a severe mental illness, are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. Then again, the Tor blog has really been fueling itself on basic common-decency fail these days, presumably because it assumes, as part of its corporate marketing strategy, that persons in marginalized populations do not have the money to buy books. Surprise! Many such persons actually have jobs and money to spend--just not on books from companies whose marketing strategies rely heavily on sexism and ableism.
Jer Brown
4. designguybrown
I agree with the gist of the article - almost all movers & shakers are likely pyschopathic in nature - they just haven't been convicted of a crime. Its the nature of a ruthlessly competitive and selfish society. There's nothing wrong with that. If you happen to commit a crime AND are a psychopath, well there's the rub - extra time, extra attention, extra blame. It would be interesting to determine whether people can have a genetic pre-disposition to some of the symptoms. Just like many other things that shall go un-named - you can't live with'em, you can't live without'em.
Patricia Mathews
5. Dax
This fits in nicely with the journalist extraordinaire (and of The Men Who Stare at Goats fame) Jon Ronson's new book The Psychopathy Test, in which he claims something similar, meanwhile also pointing out that many people we and psychologists classify as psychopaths are in fact just crazies. Scarier is that, according to some psychiatrists interviewed by Jon, CEOs tend to be more likely to be psychopaths. People who run companies lack empathy. We knew it, but still often deny it. For all these conspiracy nuts who think the world is run by alien lizard illuminaty: the truth is that the world is run by human beings, but a lot of them lack empathy... and that is way more scary than any conspiracy theory out there.
Charlie Stross
6. cstross
Funny how this comes up just as I've got a novel coming out in a few weeks in which the question of where psycho-/sociopathic behaviour arises and how to prevent it is the major theme. Maybe it's just sociopath time in the zeitgeist?

Meanwhile, if you're interested in another perspective on the subject, here's a blog run by a sociopath, for and about sociopaths:
Del C
7. del
Where's the evidence of psychopaths in caring or productive professions? Yes, we've seen the evidence of psychopaths in wealthy professions, such as lawyer, CEO, or politician, but that's not what I mean. Those are professions that will attract psychopaths because of the opportunities for money and power for the psychopath; where's the evidence that psychopaths help others?

Another commenter pointed out the evidence of psychopaths being more strongly represented among "movers and shakers". But what's so good about moving and shaking?
Patricia Mathews
8. 300baud
I can't tell if the author is posting linkbait, or if he's just an asshole. He never says, "Hey, I really want to work for a psychopath who has no regard for my wellbeing." Is he imagining that shitty lives are just for other people? Or is he just assuming that he'll be one of the people on top, inflicting cruelty without experiencing it?

Either way, it's an obviously glib and deficient piece.

And I love some of the circular reasoning in the comments: in a society where we let psychopaths take positions of power they have created a society that is "ruthlessly competitive and selfish", which of course requires us to let psychopaths run loose.
Patricia Mathews
9. DarrenJL
I like how the lynchpin of this guy's argument is the word of an admitted psychopath.
Patricia Mathews
11. dubsub
This American Life just did a really interesting episode on the Psychopath Test:
Patricia Mathews
12. ChrisT
Psychopaths succeed because we live in a psychopathic society. Isn't that what science fiction authors such as Thomas Disch (i.e in the story 'Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the USA') and to some extent J G Ballard were trying to say?

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