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 At the time, in the ’70s, biological theories for behavior were considered hopelessly outdated.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.

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  • Eben Spinoza

    Interesting biologically, but diagnostically it may be useless. The specificity of the test greatly depends on the prevalence of criminality in the population and the specificity of the test. Here’s a scenario in which the test isn’t very useful:

    Let’s say that of a population of 1000 people:
    1% are criminals = 10 people, and of those 9 test positive = 9 people.
    99% are non-criminals = 990 people, and of those only 1 of 10 test positive = 99 people.
    Now, let’s say your baby test positive, what does that tell you? Not much, because of every 1000 people, 9 criminals and 99 non-criminals test positive. That means your kid has a probability of being a criminal of 9/(99+9) or 8%.
    Not such a good test, eh?

  • Ron Peters

    This guy is dangerous. The false positive rate for ALL mental health screening tools is so high that they will inevitably create more harm through the side-effects of unnecessary treatment than help. All this will accomplish is to generate valid billing codes for psychiatrists to get even richer than they are now.

  • chris g

    Well, there goes half the Republican party for starters.

  • Charles

    In 30 years humanity will be too involved in fighting and mitigating the runaway greenhouse emergency to be concerned with testing for psychopathy, or much of anything else. Except hating their parents and grandparents for letting it happen.

  • What a surprise

    Some awful people have thrown about the Autism and ADHD diagnosis like it is nobody’s business, and they’re afraid to find out whether their kid is going to be Bernie Madoff or the Boston Strangler?

    Come on people! At least punish the wicked with a consistent approach!

  • Criminal behavior perpetuates further crime. With everything stacked against you, crime becomes the only option. Some people commit crimes even though they had just about every advantage to begin with but were saddled with emotional/psychologic problems that stunted their growth and life. Combine this with substance abuse to alleviate mental pain and how do you decipher whether anyone is a psychopath???

  • People commit crimes as a result of lack of parenting, environmental upbringing, poverty, and cannot rise above it once they have been to prison. So they continue because they have no alternative. Some have emotional disorders combined with substance abuse that does not allow them to be diagnosed other than criminal. How do you determine whether any of these people are psychopaths? They fall through the cracks and becomes victims of society in numbers not even recognized.

  • Jene

    Super interesting. Just watched “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Very disturbing. It made me glad that I don’t have kids.

  • This is one of those articles that makes you go “Um?” However, it did provoke a really good conversation with my daughter, expecting her second child, her husband and her best friend. No conclusion was reached but it does make you think!

  • “The exploiter will adroitly transform themselves as if a shape-shifter when ever a victim becomes aware of being manipulated. These changes can happen so quickly it’s as if the person is a slippery eel wiggling with all their might when you are closing in to nailing them down.” –

  • This is a pretty scary development for free will.