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.

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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.