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?

THE WORD “PSYCHOPATH” is from the Greek for “suffering soul,” which shows just how fearful and “other” the condition is. Who can fathom what Albert Fish, a father of six, was thinking in 1928 when he charmed 10-year-old Grace Budd’s parents into letting him take her to a birthday party? They never saw Grace again, but six years later they received a letter from Fish that described in horrifying detail what had become of her:

First I stripped her naked. How she did kick, bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body.I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished.

Adrian Raine’s theories about the biological bases of crime pale beside such depravity. He knows that. “Retribution is built into us genetically,” he says. “We’re built to be brutal on those who break the rules. We’ve been successful as a species because we’ve cast out the sinners. We want that pound of flesh.”

Yet Raine says the criminal justice system currently doesn’t take into account the genetic wheel of fate: “The law assumes we’re all responsible, we can all make decisions—but do we all have the same amount of free will? We should say, you’re responsible for what you’re dealt. You and I—we have more free will than other people. If we commit a crime, we should be punished more.”

Despite the dark nature of Raine’s research, he’s pretty sunny. Perhaps he couldn’t immerse himself so thoroughly in evil otherwise. “As humans have learned more, we’ve progressed,” he insists. “From the Renaissance to now, we’ve become more noble. We’ve freed mental patients from their shackles.” Could psychopaths be next?

Not if it’s up to Duke’s Sinnott-Armstrong­. “Brain structure doesn’t remove responsibility,” he says. “Psychopaths have free will with regard to some actions, even if not all actions. When they choose to brush their teeth in the morning, they’re as free as you or I.” What would remove responsibility, he says, is if they’re incapable of conforming their conduct to the law or of appreciating that their acts are morally wrong. “And criminal brains don’t show an incapacity of that sort,” he says.

So what do we do with a criminal with all of Adrian Raine’s biological markers? Lock him up, Peter Singer says, free will or not: “We might think of it not so much as punishment, in a sense that implies moral responsibility, but as detention to prevent the person from offending again, and to deter others from committing similar crimes.”

Spikol agrees: “We have a right to protect the rest of society. It’s about public safety. There are people who need to be confined.”

What, then, about the next step? What if we could identify psychopaths in utero? “That’s an interesting neuroethical question,” says Raine. Right now in America, 92 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted—and trisomy 21 isn’t linked to murder or rape. What would the abortion rate be for potential Ted Bundys and Peter Woodcocks and Albert Fishes? What should it be?

Some people are just lost. But I wouldn’t say that about a child. …

“If we had a reliable marker for psychopathy,” says Singer, “I think a test could be offered to pregnant women.” Sinnott-Armstrong­ agrees, though he’d be “amazed” if such a test ever came to fruition: “A parent should be able to test for it, as we do now for illnesses, for height, even for hair color.”

Hair color?!

“I think that’s a bad thing to do,” he says, “but eugenics—the policy of weeding out bad genes—should not be government policy. It’s a family matter.”

As for Raine, he says these are conversations we need to have, since the evidence for biological causes of crime continues to accumulate. At the same time, he knows it’s a terrible injustice to contemplate: A child with a little less brain here, a little less brain there, winds up causing unbearable pain for his family and society. But hey, don’t bother feeling sorry for psychopaths. They wouldn’t feel sorry for you.