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?

IN PUTTING HIS exceedingly rational mind to work examining irrational behavior, Raine joins a long line of thinkers who’ve tried to answer the question of why people do bad things. For most of human history, we laid evil at the hands of an external malevolence, like Satan or Iblis. It was Philly’s own 18th-century­ physician, Benjamin Rush, who broke with the traditional view of madness as a sign of sinfulness and identified it as a disease. Lawyers began to term madness “moral insanity,” and fought to have it accepted as a criminal defense. The opposition sniffed a problem with this, as Nicole Rafter explains in her book The Criminal Brain: “If the mind could sicken, then it might die, and the soul might die with it—quite contrary to the religious doctrine of the immortality of the soul.”

Gradually, though, belief in the Devil went out of fashion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, new explanations were proposed for why some of us are monsters. Famed Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso sorted criminals by “physical stigmata,” delineating different body types for murderers, rapists and thieves. English psychiatrist Henry Maudsley declared evildoers “a distinct class of beings,” “marked by defective mental and physical organization.” Phrenologists typed character traits by where people had bumps on their heads. This societal obsession with classifying and identifying in order to isolate criminals and reestablish “purity” led to eugenics, complete with enforced sterilization of the “feebleminded” and the horrors of the Nazi regime.

So it really isn’t surprising that post-World War II, Freudian psychology took center stage: Evil wasn’t biological, but rather was caused by one’s environment. Criminals felt guilty for lusting after their mothers, and committed crimes to get the punishment they deserved. Nurture overtook nature.

But toward the end of the 20th century, Rafter says, “The social sciences began to lose explanatory power while the biological sciences gained it.” We became less interested in punishing criminals and more obsessed with preventing crimes. Raine’s lifework can be viewed as part of this trend. “For decades, we’ve put the focus on just the social component when it comes to crime—deprivation, ghetto life, discrimination,” he says. “We’ve systematically ignored a basic part of the equation. The work I’ve done shows there are biological causes.”

Take the low resting heart rate that is the most consistently replicated link with criminal behavior. “If you have a chronically low level of arousal,” Raine explains, “you’re going to seek out stimulation. You’ll get it by joining a gang, shoplifting, whatever. There’s an optimal level of arousal, and we all seek it.” His theory jibes nicely with Canadian serial killer Peter Woodcock’s exchange with a BBC reporter, quoted in The Psychopath Test:

WOODCOCK: I just wanted to know what it would feel like to kill somebody.
REPORTER: But you’d already killed three people.
WOODCOCK: Yes, but that was years and years and years and years ago.

But you know who else has low resting heart rates? Bomb-disposal experts. “The ones who’ve been decorated for bravery have really low resting heart rates,” Raine notes. “Paratroopers, too.” Some stimulation-seekers­ find perfectly socially acceptable ways to get their kicks.