24 Apr 2017

The well-adjusted psychopath

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 24 April 2017

Neuroscientist Jim Fallon found out he was a psychopath whilst studying psychopaths.

He's what you'd call a "social" psychopath; he has a family, and even friends. 

He describes his younger self as a class clown, and a catholic boy, but scratching the surface he always knew he was a little different. 

Now he’s written about his condition, in a book called The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain.

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Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter is arguably the world's most famous psychopath. Photo: Silence of the lambs

Speaking with RNZ’s Bryan Crump, he says growing up he was a well-liked and popular guy.

“An athlete and sort of smart and funny, a tonne of friends.”

He says his mother, who was an insightful person, told him later that there were some strange things she noticed about him as he was going through puberty.

“She made sure my teachers knew, basically keep this guy really busy constantly, because if he’s not busy there’s going to be trouble.”

“At times I did a lot of making of explosives and blowing them up.”

During his teen years and on vacation he would often end up organising groups of kids to drive police crazy, he says.

“I’m a self-diagnosed regular guy that just likes to have fun.

“I didn’t find out until 2010, really, that this wasn’t quite the case.”

Upon being told he was a borderline psychopath, he says he really didn’t care; the dénouement of all his other basic traits.

“I’m not a categorical, I just miss being a clinical psychopath.”

He says those close to him were not surprised by the discovery.

“They said you do psychopathic things and you can really hurt people.

“I don’t physically hurt people, or sexually abuse people, nothing like that, but I mean I manipulate people and they went through all the manipulations I do and putting people in danger.”

He says he’d always interpreted that as having a good time, but multiple clinicians told him that was what psychopathy was.

For the most part he says it’s just thrill seeking behaviour.

“I’ve put my kids, you know we’d go up water-skiing on a boat, we’d go out in the ocean, I’d find sharks because it was fun, let’s water-ski around the sharks.”

He says there can be positives from his psychopathic tendencies, such as not suffering from anxiety or guilt, and being able to disconnect emotionally.

“I take a lot of risks and I carefully weigh what the risks are, and they’re usually not acceptable to people… if you need insects eaten or some weird thing eaten, I’ll do it.

He says those behaviours, can be positive for the human species.

“Psychopaths tend to do things that can end up being quite bad for the people around them but positive for the species.”

He says some people who are charming are also psychopaths.

“It looks like charisma. Somebody walks in the room and looks like they’ve got like light around them, like Bill Clinton did, and JFK, that’s what psychopaths have, but people think it’s charming and it’s wonderful.

“If you have it, it doesn’t mean you’re a psychopath, but these things add up.”

Upon being told of his psychopathic make up, he says he decided that he was going to overcome it.

“I had enough narcissism to say, look people can’t beat this but I can.”

He says he tried to display behaviour around his wife and would regularly ask himself, ‘what would a good guy do?’

“After two months my wife said ‘what has come over you? … She goes, you’re like a really nice guy, what happened?’

He says it’s exhausting being a good guy, and while it may not be as much fun he’s determined to see if he can do it permanently.

Fallon had always believed people were looking for sincerity in others, but says now he understands they just want to be treated well and with respect.

“Even though the person who is being kind and nice, is really thinking in the back of their mind ‘oh this is a joke’.”

He credits his parents with managing to steer him on a positive path, despite his psychopathy.

“I was quite in denial, because I thought genetics were everything and I had to eat crow on this one because I was wrong.”

He says research indicates that if you have psychopathic genes, but are treated well, it has the opposite effect.

“If you’re born with really sort of resistant genes, the environment doesn’t mean much, but if you’re born with a lot of high risk genes for this stuff, then the environment means everything.”

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