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.

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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.