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?

SUCH DAREDEVILS MAY be what Raine terms “successful psychopaths.” A few years back, he decided to study people who have the traits on Hare’s list but pass for regular Joes. To find them, he placed a classified ad: “Wanted: charming, aggressive, carefree people who are impulsively irresponsible but are good at handling people and looking after number one.” (Note: It’s perfectly normal to read this stuff and start weighing whether you’re a psychopath—or sleeping with one.) Another fertile hunting ground was temporary employment agencies. “People at temp agencies are eight times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy than the general population,” Raine says. “Psychopaths move around a lot. They manipulate the people around them, they use them, and then they move on. So temp agencies are a safe haven.” (Doesn’t your brother-in-law work for a temp agency?)

Successful psychopaths, Raine’s research showed, have some of the negative brain-structure “hits” of unsuccessful ones, but exhibit enhanced executive function. They don’t show significant gray matter reduction in the prefrontal cortex. Raine thinks the better frontal-lobe functioning makes them smarter, and more sensitive to environmental cues that predict danger and capture.

It may also make them ideal capitalists. The incidence of psychopathy in the business world is four times that of the general population. Psychopaths are reckless; when placing bets, they wager more the more they lose. The behavioral brakes the rest of us have are missing. “Individuals with psychopathic traits,” Raine’s study of successful psychopaths states, “enter the mainstream workforce and enjoy profitable careers … by lying, manipulating and discrediting their co-workers.” Closing factories and eliminating thousands of jobs requires a certain lack of empathy. So does generating sub-zero mortgages, or suggesting that a wife falsely accuse her husband of child abuse in a custody trial.

Raine isn’t arguing that any one brain malformation or genetic abnormality guarantees ­psychopathy—but he believes science will eventually pin down what does. What his studies show now is predisposition—the inclination toward evil. It can be reinforced by having bad parents or eating a bad diet; it can be mitigated by a positive environment and good food (but not always—plenty of psychos grow up in normal, loving homes). There are reasons for his caution. “We have a history of misusing research in society,” he says, mentioning the Tuskegee Experiment.

But he doesn’t let that history deter him. Though the knowledge of good and evil is what got Adam and Eve tossed out of Eden, it’s exactly what Raine is trying to pin down.