the 2nd half of the transcript of my conversation with Neuroscientist and entrepreneur James Fallon, author of The Psychopath Inside, a book which describes his journey of discovering he fits the profile of a psychopath.
This is the second half of the transcript of my podcast broadcast December 18, 2013
Thanks to Dick Overfield for transcript checking
R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township, New Jersey reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. My guest tonight is James Fallon. He is the author of the book, The Psychopath Inside; A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. Welcome to the show
and here's where the second half of the interview picks up:
R.K.: You said there were about fifteen warrior genes and about fifty genes tied to psychopaths?
J.F.: Well, there's about fifteen tied to empathy, about fifteen tied to aggression and violence and about twelve, or so, right now, that are associated with response to anxiety, for example, and other traits that play into psychopathy. So, there's a lot and you can have many combinations. Most people inherit a kind of mix of these so they're kind of average. They end up being kind of average level of aggression, violence, empathy but there are people at the very ends of the spectrum, of each spectrum genetically, of these traits. So some people you can never get mad. They're really p*ssy cats. You can't get them mad. Other people, who impulsively get mad, they stay mad, are at the other end and they see red very quickly. We all know these people. Those are really the impulsive hot heads. They have more of these warrior genes that control serotonin.
R.K.: Okay. So, how about you? Where do you fit in with how many of the fifteen do you have of the warrior genes?
J.F.: Well, I have almost all of the alleles, the genetic alleles that are associated with aggression and violence and almost all of them that are associated with low anxiety and low interpersonal emotional empathy. That's different than cognitive empathy. So I have those combinations, so like my brain scan, it's, I have kind of a severe combination. This all has to do with the luck that genetically what you inherited right? This is just a roll of the dice and I got a funny roll, but other people get this but the chances of it are very, very low to get as many as I did. But-
R.K.: Are there numbers, I ask you that question, is there a percentage, what's the percentage of people that get enough so they're much more likely or have all fifteen of them for example.
J.F.: That's not really known. Quantitatively, that sort of equation is not quite known because in order to study these, you have to, any particular trait you need about forty people so that kind of study with all those different combinations it would cost, it's about a fifty million dollar study. So it can be done and now we can do it because we can look at every little piece, not only of the coding DNA, but all of the regulators too and how they interact, but it's quite expensive right now to do that.
R.K.: Makes sense.
J.F.: So people haven't done it yet, so it's not known.
R.K.: So, I think there are a number of people who say they estimate about 1% of the population are psychopathic. In your book, you say 2%. Other people have said as many as 8% are sociopathic and I don't want to get into the difference between psychopath and sociopath unless you really want to, but your numbers are higher. Why are your numbers higher?
J.F.: Well, the numbers I have, 1% of females, 2% of males.
J.F.: Are categorical psychopaths and that's derived first from the Robert Hare Canada study from thirty thousand people and he's expanded that and other people have come in with about the same numbers, pan-culturally. That is around the world, but I should say one thing, even though those numbers are stable, the percent of people with the warrior gene like MAOA various from culture to culture so the same gene variant does not have the same effect in different races. So that you got to watch out for because it's how the gene interacts with all the other genes within a person and the context their gender and their race so you got to watch for that. But any way to get back to the one issue, I would say that if one looks at categorical psychopaths, twenty eight and above, twenty eight to forty on the Hare, the 1 -- 2% is what Robert Hare and other people have come up with, but if you look at borderlines, I think people who score in the twenties and who can be dangerous and you can really run into in everyday life, I would say there's probably five, eight percent of those, but it depends on where you draw the edge on the bell curve or what you call a borderline. These are all what are called dimensionality types of traits. They're not categorical. You can pick the number wherever you want but I think in terms of dangerous people you might be looking at more at 5 -- 8% because they're not categorical psychopaths, but they're close.
R.K.: Okay. Now one of the things that got me going with this was a couple of years ago a friend of mine wrote a book and he theorized that it took a sociopath to run a Fortune 1000 company. Now I know in your book you say that you've never met a CEO of a big company, but you have met CEOs of smaller companies, but that's what got me started on it and I have been very interested in the effect because of, look at a guy like you. You have done very well for yourself and I am going to guess that if you had a choice of starting without the collection of characteristics you have, you would do it again.
J.F.: Absolutely. I am completely happy with the way I am and how it's turned out even though some of the things are a little annoying, each one of those characteristics and the disorders I had taught me about myself and about people so I thought they're quite, in the end very good.
R.K.: You have described how you have, you also discovered you've got some kind of bipolar disorder and that where you have not the worst kind, but you have maybe the best kind, the kind where you get the manic high and you've said, who would want to let that go and if you can describe and explain that a little bit.
J.F.: Sure. Well Rob you know bipolar disorder is defined more by the mania or hypomania than by the depression. So people can be purely manic or hypomanic can be described as bipolars and that confuses people because it's bipolar and it sounds like depression. It really has more to do with the mania or hypomania. Now mania, full blown mania is psychotic and that's your, and I have some colleagues who are professors who have that and in talking to them, they'll just in their personal life, they'll just all of the sudden fly off to Vegas and buy a bunch of cars and just really destroy their family life and their finances. They just really go wild. I have what's called hypomania and hypomania is this exhilarated feeling of very positive energy and you feel full of yourself and you're very confident and it feels great. That's what I have and I had that starting at about the time in my late teens it starts when I became a libertarian, when I left the church, when I became very aggressive. All of these things kind of happened at the same time, in my late teens, within the same year. From that time I've been quite, kind of stable in a sense that I've always had that and I have a form of bipolar, but I have the form that people, you want. I guess. I've had some dark times but the positive times so outweigh them with this hypomania that I'd never give it up.
R.K.: It sounds almost like the kind of state that you would want a drug to give you.
J.F.: Completely. And people with hypomania who do not have much of the depression part, they will not take anything. They will take no drugs or anything to get rid of that because it's, it's a non-drugged high without side effects other than it might get, people around you go, would you just shut up. Or we're happy that you're so happy but it's obnoxious. It can get to people, but in a situation people are attracted to that. They really like it. They like that energy and they sometimes equate it with charisma. You have that light around when you walk in a room. This swagger and this sociability that's very positive that people are attracted to.
R.K.: Now is there a tie-in between bipolar disorder and psychopathy?
J.F.: Yes. There is some co-morbidity. That is, there is a higher percent of those found together, but it's not a necessary part of being a psychopath. It's ,you know, some of the genes overlap that what gives you the bipolar and what is associated with psychopathy, especially with the serotonin and dopamine transmitter systems. There is overlap. The thing is is that cycling bipolars, which is a very bad disease, I'm not trying to make light of it because it's really a terrible disease in people who have the full blown one. The kind I have, that switch when it turns on, I become very creative and I just love everybody and when it turns off I'm less so, but it's in the positive state it's more conducive to psychopathy because you seem very charming, you seem very positive, full of energy, people like that so you're able to manipulate people more easily than if you're a down dark character, if you will, when you're in a depressed phase. So it's not a necessary part of being a psychopath, but it helps. It's part of the tool kit because you come off as being so confident and so stress free and so natural and positive that you can, it's good for conning people.
R.K.: So you kind of ride the power of the wave to engage in the kinds of things that you would do that are, would be considered, psychopathic behavior. Like manipulating people, or you also talked a lot about in your book about how you will take people who you care about, who care about you, into more dangerous situations than they would want to go into. You talk about one case where you exposed one family member to possible risks of Marburg virus which is like Ebola.
J.F.: Yeah. My brother hasn't quite forgiven me for that. That was in Africa, when I was living in Africa, and I wanted to see it and I didn't tell him about it. I just figured that the chances of us getting it were not very high and there was nobody there. The other physicians I know, that I worked with at the University of Nairobi, they said nobody goes up there because of what happened. I had to see it and go into the cave and follow that guy's pathway and when they finally, a couple of years later after we were there and Dustin Hoffman... the book and the film came out. He called me up and he was furious and he said, how could you expose me to that? I said, wasn't it a kick? And for me it was a great thrill and it wasn't quite the same for him. So, you know, I do that quite often, but I'm always with them. It's not like I could tell people to jump off a cliff, I say jump off the cliff with me.
R.K.: Yeah and, frankly, I read the description to the trip of this place where elephants go when they die and in these caves, and it sounded fascinating but again,
J.F.: It's really unbelievable and when my brother was there, we're sleeping outside in this one open area there on the mountain where you can build a fire but nobody there and there's lions around us and all night long, we had to jump up and down, it was like quest for fire with these lit up embers to chase them away. It was extraordinarily thrilling. And he thought it was thrilling until he found out that the real danger wasn't the animals, it was the virus.
R.K.: Yeah. So I want to, we're coming into the last fifteen minutes of this and so, maybe twenty, and I have developed this thought, this belief, that psychopaths can be pretty damaging to our culture. You mentioned that it probably costs the US alone a half a trillion dollars a year in costs of damage and that is only a partial list that is more concrete. The costs of keeping people in prison, the cost of theft and things like that, and you say that it's probably a lot more than that if you look at a bigger picture. Now I had one guest on who teaches therapists to work with people who have been victims of psychopaths and she estimated that eighty million Americans are, have been victims of psychopaths at any given time. So I came up with this idea that we ought to do something to identify the people who are at greater risk of causing that harm and then come up with strategies to help protect the rest of us and I've gained a lot of resistance to that and I recently interview Mary Ellen O'Toole, who was an FBI psychopath profiler, and she really resisted it. And I'm not trying to say, do something like the Minority Report where you put people in jail or camps or anything but you yourself, at the end of your book advised people that they need to be careful if they know somebody is a psychopath.
J.F.: Oh yeah.
R.K.: And I...have you thought about this? Have you thought about if there are ways to make the world a better place in terms of dealing with the threat that psychopaths have? Even in your family, have you done anything to work so that your family knows better how to handle you? Have you talked with them or have you come up with any solutions? I've got to give you credit because you do describe how you've attempted to go walk through the motions. William James once wrote that if you walk through the motions very often it'll produce the same feeling and that was really interesting to me to see that you've been trying it and getting some good results actually.
J.F.: Yeah. I didn't believe it was possible, that sort of adult plasticity into starting to associate the actual feeling of empathy with the behavior. I'm just starting very simply to see if I can do it. I mean I've got enough of an ego, I say well I can do this, I can beat that. I said well it can't happen, I bet I can do it and my wife and people close to me appreciate the change in behavior, but I've got to think of it every time because I'm not naturally a good guy like that. And so I'm trying to kind of force the situation and I do talk to them about this so, and allow for kids to teach their kids when the time is right on how to look for these predators because I've talked to predators and what they look for in kids and people at parties, or whatever, and how they are predators on them. So yeah, in a personal way done that. On a broader scale, to try to turn this into something useful to society we've put in for a couple of fairly substantial grants with the Human Brain Project in Europe to study the interaction of street violence, bullying especially, in areas where there is generations of it and how that creates the very belligerent sorts of environments and hot spots around the world and to show it biologically. To see if it's true biologically and if it will jump generations so they end up with these very destructive warrior cultures and so we're trying to show that to basically convince belligerent nations and belligerent people and neighborhoods and gangs that they're going to end up just killing themselves. It's self destructive because they don't need you to tell them violence is bad, war is bad, what they need is to tell them they're going to destroy their own people that way. That's the angle that we're trying to go but you've got to show this scientifically with the golden standards. Not just kind of soft psychology which is important by itself, but it won't convince people. So we're putting it together and we're working with the military here and also in Israel to see how we can change the way people are put into situations in extremist warfare and the type of people, if we have to have war to have the right people doing who not only won't destroy themselves in the process but won't be killing completely inappropriately if you have to. So, I don't... and as a libertarian I have a problem with the early testing, not just the testing of kids, but the outing of people with it. So somehow, if we can get, maybe nurses, practical nurses working with families and psychologists to find, to give them signs of early psychopathy, in like a two year old, and then have a kid tested but with privacy. You don't want some kid, especially who is just eccentric, there are a lot of eccentric kids who aren't dangerous to anybody, just a little funny, you know? And they never develop, they're not violent or anything. So this over-interpretation of odd behaviors I think would be very destructive. But there are ways of telling whether a kid is at high risk and then those people early on have got to be shepherded through so they're not bullied, they're not exposed to violence etcetera, but it's only probably 20% of the population that are vulnerable, but to identify them early, two years old let's say by then, then something may be able to be done. But after five, six, seven and certainly puberty almost nothing can be done.
R.K.: So what you're saying is you want to identify them because they're at higher risk and if they can get through those early years without trauma they're going to be less likely to be more hurtful to the rest of the world?
J.F.: Right. And they can use the traits, because it couldn't have been traits that are very powerful to a very good advantage, to leadership, and to discovery and to very good things and not destructively. So let's not get rid of them, but make sure they're not abused, not abandoned. So you've got to look at these very high risk neighborhoods and groups of people to make sure that they, this great harm doesn't come because these things keep going over and over in families in the neighborhoods and we don't want to pinpoint certain areas but that's where it happens. And we've created that and it's in the Gaza, it's in different places in Europe, America, all of the world and we've got to stop tha,t I think, and the way to do it is to have inexpensive testing if you will and identification without violating the rights of the individual and their families.
R.K.: So I guess you kind of answer my question that yes you think that there should be some kinds of studies to do research to identify people and to develop interventions, but you've got a lot of caveats on that and I agree with you 100% and I'm really pleased to get that answer from you. So my next question is have there been forums where this idea has been discussed and explored?
J.F.: Not too much. Most of what is discussed, Rob, is in criminology conferences. It has to do with criminalities. Okay, what do we do with them now? But in terms of this early intervention, no. Very little is done with it and so we're spending most of our time now. I've diverted a lot of my research efforts into putting together these research plans to get to this problem because if not, it's not discussed in comprehensive way and in terms of societies, with different kinds of societies and with different kind of techniques and so no it's not done. Even when you look at the testing of serial killers, it's either imaging or genetics. They don't even do the two together. Nothing is known and we have a lot of ancillaries, side indirect evidence. Your question is, are we directly assessing this in a big way? The answer is "no" and I think that's a crime.
R.K.: And it seems to me that with the numbers that we're talking about, a half a trillion dollars on the very low side and probably over a trillion a years on the high side, which I think is a reasonable guess, the research, what is the research budget annually on looking at psychopathy which is one of, based on just those numbers, probably one of the most acute economic afflictions upon our culture?
J.F.: Yes and there's nothing we can do about it. We know the answer is to avoid the abuse and abandonment early on, we know the answers it's just how to identify them in the right way, you know? With a soft touch, but with an accurate touch and there's almost nothing. I know we've looked at the budgets and when our proposals are being put in right now, we're the only ones that have anything like this. For some reason it's not being looked at in this way. It's hard to believe because we're also looking for, it's a lot of work for collaborators. So we're hoping that we can really get some interest because this is a lot of work and, I agree with you, it's incredibly important and societally and economically and just the human toll is quite extraordinary. And no, there is nothing, almost no money going into it.
R.K.: Less than a billion dollars a year then?
J.F.: Less than a billion? Yeah. Less than tens of millions.
R.K.: Less than tens of, wow. So I made up the decision when I began working on this project earlier this year that this is a campaign that I'm working on.
J.F.: Oh okay.
R.K.: And I believe that, and a big part of the campaign is getting funding to start spelling out initially just spelling out the parameters and the considerations. There ought to be a big conference that says, that looks at the economics of it, the costs in terms of prisons and crime, the costs in terms of corruption, the costs in terms of damage to people and their personal lives, and then looks at all the different ethical considerations that are possible in terms of identifying and developing models for helping to keep people from being hurt and helping those who have the genes and the brain structure which we barely talked about, to not hurt people and to understand what they have because you didn't even realize it and you're a brilliant guy and you didn't even know were a psychopath, or a pro-social psychopath, or a lucky sociopath, psychopath, whatever word you want to use. You didn't even know it until it was pounded into your head with reality many, many times.
J.F.: Finding out what I was doing was abusive to people in such a subtle way but it was a kind of bullying. I was my own enemy and I didn't even realize it.
R.K.: So maybe we can continue this conversation afterwards because I would like to help. I would like to see billions of dollars being spent on this because I think it deserves it and I would like to have some help because I know enough politicians because of the other side of the work I do, to start getting them to start talking about this in a way that makes sense.
J.F.: Well, you know, Rob, this is fantastic to hear because I've never heard anybody else talk about it in such a comprehensive way and that's the vision you need because you've got to put your arms around every part of this in order to ask the right questions. And spend the money wisely, too, because you can just throw money at things, that's no good, but to define all the issues like you're saying up front is a way for efficient and good research to start.
R.K.: Well maybe we can take this conversation on afterwards. One last thing, I did want to talk to you about while we're on is libertarianism and politics and this whole idea. Where does your brain and your genetics fit in with your libertarianism?
J.F.: Well, starting when I was, like I said in my late teens, when I lost my emotionality in a big way and became much more intellectual, I had a very intellectual view of the world and people and things. That's when I became a libertarian. That was when it first started and I saw that as a rational way for the world to respond. Not an emotion way, not ad hominem, sort of making believe you care, but doing things based on objectively how you can do the search for good without all of the sort of appeal to emotion and, really, I thought it was the way to go and it was the way ultimately to have ultimate fairness and justice which became very important to me, as opposed to telling people, or listening to people say I feel your pain and that kind of phony stuff. I thought a lot of what was going on was phony.
R.K.: You're quoting Bill Clinton of course.
J.F.: Of course. He's one of the best conservative presidents we had, besides JFK, but I was a real liberal, but when everything turned left in 1969, 68, and when the right, the conservatives, they turned kind of more fascistic, I dropped both of them. I thought it was not the way to go and I really studied up and became a libertarian from then on.
R.K.: But what I'm asking you, since then you've learned that your brain and your genetics have made you have all of these psychopathic characteristics. Any aspects of that that fit into the libertarian rationale?
J.F.: Well, yeah the people who know me well, especially people on the left, they say I'm heartless. They say don't you care about the children? I say what do you do about the children? Tell me objectively what you do other than talk about it. And you got to look at the behavior. So in fact I do do things, but I don't talk about it and I am involved with a lot of, and I always have been and actually doing something about it. I'm not saying I'm a good guy but I'm saying it's the action that matters, not the talk about the caring and all that. So I'm trying to get around the phoniness of it. But still people, left and liberals, they'll just say you're just heartless. Don't you want to keep throwing them a bone? And I go well that's unsustainable over the long haul. Over hundreds of years you can't run it because large governments and regulations, they end up spending so much money and they keep growing and growing and growing until everybody's broke. And I say, it can't work that way just because of the way human nature is, especially with large federated sorts of thinking. Part of it's practical and part of it's just weird, how to precisely define fairness and get emotionality out of it.
R.K.: Well where does fairness sit with the fact that the US has become one of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of opportunity for success for people who are poor for example?
J.F.: Well our society has really, the US has really drifted over the years on both the left and the right, so yeah it's not fair at all but crony capitalism, crony federalism and all of that is killing us. I don't know any libertarians who like that. It's quite unfair.
R.K.: We could do a whole session just talking about this stuff and we're running out of time unfortunately. Maybe we can revisit. Maybe I've given you enough buzz which you described as what motivates you in many ways.
J.F.: Any way. Right Great talking to you Rob.
R.K.: We'll do another show with you. Last thing, and just throwing it out of the blue, I call it the Bottom Up show, I'm very interested in top-down versus bottom-up ways, centralization, hierarchy, things like that. Are there any ways that you see that ties in with all of this brain and genetic stuff that you're talking about?
J.F.: Well I think the tendencies to favor those different levels of organization and where power comes from and where powers follow, I think it is very much affected by biology, including genetics. So all of those predilections and all those affinities with different personalities, different personality types and ways of ruling, I think are very much based in biology. So I think they can be defined. People don't want to take the magic out of life though. They like all of the mystery and the magic and in breaking it down scientifically, people don't want to do it. I think partially the funding isn't there to get real answers because people say don't take this magic away from us anymore.
R.K.: Interesting. Taking away the magic. And you wrap up saying that there is a sweet spot on the psychopathy spectrum, just tell us what's that about and let's wrap it up with that.
J.F.: Well the sweet spot I think is where you could be is where there are... you have some of the traits and it could give you a number of about fifteen total without the criminality and without getting into the social part, but all the other things could be very ... and so I think the sweet spot would, is that spot where you're very effective. You're very effective in the society and to yourself and you don't go overboard.
R.K.: Okay. Well we've got to wrap it up.
J.F.: Okay Rob.