This interview is broken into three parts.
Rob:Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey, sponsored by opednews.com.
My guest tonight is Scott Lilienfeld. He is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University. He's the current President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy and he's been doing research on psychopathy for over 20 years.
Welcome to the show.
SL: Thanks very much Rob. Great to be here.
Rob: So, as I wrote to you, I discovered...became aware of things about psychopaths in the last year really. Initially looking at sociopaths, I've learned that that's probably not the right term to use. And where it's taken me is I've come to believe that this is a huge problem and I use...I base that on an FBI report from a couple of years ago that said that the cost of dealing with psychopaths is over $500 billion dollars a year. And yet from what I understand, hardly anything is spent on it....to understand it, to understand them, to understand what they do to our culture, and how to deal with them. So am I right on those things that I just mentioned so far?
SL: I do think so. I think it's hard to quantify the cost...the estimates. I don't know how valid they are -- I'll assume they're hard to quantify because undoubtedly there are big economic costs, but there are also huge interpersonal costs that probably can't be pinned down to numbers. These are people....often wreak enormous havoc in relationships, friendships at work and so on, and I think sometimes those costs are the more intangible costs or in some ways maybe even more problematic than the financial costs although I don't want to minimize those either. And you are right that the amount of federal money, at least, that is poured into psychopathy research is typically much lower than it is for other conditions like schizophrenia and autism, and depression, and of course those are also very, very important conditions and I don't want to minimize them -- we need to understand those -- but I very much agree with you that we also want to understand and need to understand psychopathy very much. I suspect that part of the reason why money does not go as...or flow as readily into psychopathy research is two-fold: first, psychopaths tend not to be the most sympathetic characters in the world. So there aren't many advocacy organizations for psychopaths as one can imagine, whereas there are for people with other disorders who often suffer. And also these are individuals that typically cause problems for other people rather than for themselves. Of course they do wreak havoc on their own lives eventually, but by and large what you typically see is the problems are more inflicted on loved ones, on coworkers, on friends, and so on. So therefore these are people who are...do not seem to be suffering, at least overtly, from a mental illness as people with the other conditions I mentioned are.
Rob: So is there a budget...do you have an idea what the federal budget... government...or whatever...spends on research on psychopaths in a given year?
SL: I do not. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know if they're good estimates so that they're probably....it's certainly going to vary from year to year because there's no specific money allotted to any particular disorder....that's going to vary very much from year to year. So most of the grants that would be going to psychopathy research would go through NIMH, National Institute of Mental Health, and what I hear through the grapevine -- I've served on a few grant committees for NIMH -- is that there are fewer grants approved for psychopathy research through NIMH. And again, that's I think in part because the demand from constituents and others for understanding this disorder are just not as great as there for most other conditions.
Rob: Okay, so let me just throw some numbers at you. Would you say it's $20 million a year -- would that be high or low or unreasonable or...
SL: Yeah, it's hard for me to guess. I would be...it's hard for me to say but that would be on the high end, frankly from what I would guess. I could be wrong, but that would below that.
Rob: That's amazing. So, you know, as I wrote to you, I've actually...somebody said, 'What are you on some kind of a mission?' And I decided I am. I'm on a mission to get people to spend a lot more money to understand psychopaths. And it's not because I'm so interested in curing psychopaths as it is I'm interested in protecting people...just like...it's like you want to get people so they don't have cancer, it's not like you want to understand cancer just for the sake of understanding cancer. So that's where I am and that's where I've kind of gone on this mission to understand it, and learn about it from all kinds of different perspectives. So I've been very much looking forward to this conversation. So I've got a batch of questions for you. We've got a limited time...
SL: Sure, sounds good.
Rob: Let me start...I like to ask my guests...tell us a story based on your work, your experience with psychopathy research and psychopaths.
SL: Yeah so, we...most of our work actually is a bit different from some others in that we've done some work with prisons and prisoners. Most of the work we do is a bit unconventional in that most of our work actually looks at something called 'successful psychopathy.' So we probably don't have as many visits stories of psychopaths behind bars because we're actually very interested in more the intangibles -- looking at how psychopathy manifests itself in the real world settings. So one interesting study we did, which is obviously not a personal story but I think it may be of interest to some of your listeners, is some interesting work we did which created a bit of a stir and also some controversy, which I always think in science is good. We looked at psychopathic traits in the US Presidents. We had historians rate the Presidents on a variety of different personality measures and from those we were able to extract some pretty good estimates of psychopathy scores. And what we found is that certain traits that we believe -- there's some controversy about this so we can talk about that -- we believe are relevant to psychopathy, that have been called 'fearless dominance.' Fearless dominance consists of maybe the more adaptive traits of psychopathy or at least in the short run may seem to be adaptive, like -- as you can guess from the name -- being very socially dominant, being intimidating in some cases. One extreme, being fearless, bold...in some cases, reckless... Those kinds of traits actually seem to be a bit related to positive functioning...among the US Presidents, seem to be related to better leadership. In particularly in the case of some of the US Presidents, things like better crisis management, better persuasiveness, better leadership skills, better relationships with Congress. And that has made us wonder whether or not, at least a sliver of those traits, could actually result in better functioning in some case when they are by themselves.
What interests us is, we don't know this yet -- something we're exploring -- is it possible that those traits in isolation could actually...to better functioning? But that when combined with some of the other traits of psychopathy, like having poor impulse control, or being callous -- being unempathic, could actually result in worse functioning, that it could actually be a bit of a double edged sword in the domain of leadership and interpersonal behavior. So that's one...not so much a story about a person, but's it's a story about a research program and something we are continuing to follow up on. I have to say, it's pretty controversial because we don't quite yet know the answers and it's still really a largely unexplored area.