The Psychopath Test

Penn criminologist Adrian Raine thinks that simple medical tests might determine whether your baby will grow up to be a psychopath. If he's right, would you have your kid tested? Really? Would you?

RAINE ENJOYS THE COMPANY of psychopaths. He isn’t alone in this. If you’re Ted Bundy, it helps to be charming. “Superficial charm,” in fact, is one of the 20 items on psychologist Robert Hare’s well-known Psychopathy Checklist, along with “impulsivity,” “promiscuous sexual behavior,” “pathological lying” and “grandiose sense of self-worth.” “They’re the life of the party—quite conversational,” Raine says. “They’re charismatic, fun to work with. They’re always trying to lead you down the primrose path.”

It was children who originally got Raine pondering the source of evil. While still an undergrad at Oxford, he worked for a charity that sent kids to holiday camp: “We’d get them up in the morning, take them out to play, be with them all day. And you could see the individual differences in them. Some of them were bullies. Nothing you did could change that.” He studied psychology, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the heart rates and skin conductivity of aggressive teenagers. At the time, in the ’70s, biological theories for behavior were considered hopelessly outdated. The only job he could find when he graduated was in a prison. So he studied pedophiles and rapists and killers, diligently recording their biological markers, and eventually found his way back into the academic world. In 2007 he was wooed away from his work at the University of Southern California by Penn’s Jerry Lee Center of Criminology.

Crime and academe make for an odd mix. Raine is an oddly dispassionate guy, almost detached. For him, crime is a puzzle to be solved, a problem that all our efforts to date haven’t budged. It isn’t logical to him to press on with current anti-crime initiatives: “They haven’t worked,” he shrugs. And he’s convinced that’s because for some of us, criminal behavior is a predisposition beyond our control. “Nobody chooses to have a bad brain,” he says. “Infants don’t choose to develop 18 percent less of an amygdala.”

There’s a problem with this, though: Under current psychiatric rules, no one under 18 can be given a ­psychopathic diagnosis, because the stigma is toxic. Who would want to tell a parent his child won’t ever change, grow out of it, develop a conscience, become … good?

But Raine’s conviction that miswiring in the psychopathic brain makes it incapable of empathy would settle a question any devotee of Law & Order confronts regularly: How can humans beings do such unspeakable things to other human beings? I can’t be rude to waitresses who are rude to me; I can’t imagine torturing someone, or abusing a child.

Psychopaths aren’t so hampered. In an article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Raine wrote: “Psychopaths may know the legal difference between right and wrong, but do they have the feeling of what is right and wrong? Emotions are believed to be central to moral judgment, and they provide the driving force to act morally.” As neurologist Antonio R. Damasio puts it in his book Descartes’ Error, while we usually think of emotion as disrupting rational thinking, “Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior.” Crimes of passion we at least can understand. Far more unnerving are people who rape and kill because they just don’t care.