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.

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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!

  • Narcie

    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???

  • Narcie

    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.

  • Joanne

    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!

  • ptosis

    “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.” –

  • vistriai

    This is a pretty scary development for free will.