Sometimes It Helps To Be A Psychopath

– I’m only dangerous to people I’m close to, because I get them to do things they don’t want to do, explains neuroscientist James H. Fallon. He accidentally found out that he has the brain of a psychopath. 

text: T. Knudsen

In 2006 James H. Fallon, renowned neuroscientist and former professor of psychiatry & human behaviour, looked at his own PET-scan and realised he has the brain of a psychopath. After further research, he also found that he has the five gene variants associated with aggression. This combination is usually a recipe for disaster – but for James Fallon it’s been the complete opposite. 

Not only is he without a criminal record, Jim – as he prefers being called – has been with the same woman for 58 years, he’s a successful husband, father and grandfather, he has research credentials within many complex and interesting fields, he’s made important medical discoveries and he does talks all over the world on a vast number of subjects. 

He’s also written the book “The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” 

He’s achieved everything he’s put his mind to, mainly because he doesn’t care about rejection and because he has a lukewarm level of care for other people in general.

– I take a lot of risk. I calculate the odds and I go for it because I just know that I'm going to win in the end, he explains, and I wonder: Is it sometimes helpful to be a psychopath?

When I set up the interview with Jim I had certain expectations. To begin with, I was pretty sure he would find something more interesting to do while he was in Oslo and cancel on me - because that’s what he does. After all, he once went to a party instead of his favourite uncle’s funeral. When he confirmed our appointment the day before, I was expecting him to at least turn up late. When he showed up at 2.30pm on the dot I was pleasantly surprised, if not a little puzzled. When we entered the bar, he asked where I preferred to sit followed by what I wanted to drink. If being considerate doesn’t come naturally do him, he’s not doing a bad job of pretending. 

– I’m only dangerous to people I’m close to, because I get them to do things they don’t want to do, he starts off right after he’s ordered a local draft beer. 

– But strangers, and people I happen to meet, they're completely safe with me. I'm manipulative, but it's only a game and it's always a fun game. For me, manipulating people is something that's so inherent in my brain that I do it all the time. Right now, when I’m talking to you, I'm trying to fight it. I have to tell myself “don't try to manipulate her”. I have to consciously override this tendency and remind myself not to go there. There’s no evil involved. It's just a lack of caring, which is different than meaning somebody harm.

On that subject, Jim once lured one of his brothers to the Kitum Caves, an abandoned mountain and caves on the border of Uganda and Kenya, because he wanted to see where the deadly Marburg virus was thought to originate. 

For those who don’t immediately twig, Marburg is a cousin of Ebola. This happened without his brother knowing the details until a couple of years later. But in Fallon’s mind, he didn’t understand why his brother was so upset. After all, it had - in spite of a few lions, hyenas and a leopard - turned out well and he’d been there too, taking the same risk. 

– I never thought of any of those behaviours as psychopathic, he says. 

– I thought it was playfulness and, I guess, boredom and thrill-seeking. After being analysed, they said it was in fact psychopathic behaviour because it’s put people in a lot of danger. I didn't care, I didn't tell them about it and I did it for fun, but I would never have thought of it as psychopathic. At the end of the day I appear to be a nice guy – but I’m not as nice as you may think, he quickly adds. 

He’s given me the official Jim Fallon disclaimer: Nice on the surface, bad to the bone. I feel like I should be worried, but I’m not. He may think manipulation is fun, but as least he’s kind enough to warn me about it, right?

James Fallon’s best and worst asset is that he just doesn’t care. His life is about probabilities and percentages. If he has a 20 to 1 chance of getting the grant he wants, he puts in 20 different proposals to make sure he gets it. 

– I take a lot of risk. I calculate the odds and I go for it because I just know that I'm going to win in the end. When I apply for grants it's not like I get every single one that I apply for, but that's not winning. Winning is getting it in the end - and I always do, he says.

– I'm not thrown off by disappointment. I'm not thrown off by depression. Part of it is that I don't care about what hurts people because they can't hurt me. If I’m turned down for a grant or an opportunity I ask himself, “Why did this happen?” rather than, “Why am I not worthy?” and improve the pitch until I get what I want.

Fallon classifies himself as a ‘pro-social borderline psychopath’. In other words, he does what society expects from him, and he likes manipulating people – but he’s not dangerous. When he started taking his condition seriously, around 2010, he looked at especially his male friends and how they related to people. How they sacrificed when nobody was looking. 

– I just knew I was different from them. I take care of my kids, but if there's a party I'm going to go. They’d sacrifice in a way that I’d never be willing to do. They did things even though there were other things going on that were more fun, and I would always go for the fun, he says. 

On the other hand, Jim says he’s probably the only one in his family, among six siblings, that gets along with everyone. 

– The others fight and they always come through me to get together. Even though they feel emotionally tight, when you look at the actual behaviour, I'm the one throwing the party for everybody and trying to make sure they get along. 

– What’s it like having you as a husband and a father?

– There's a disconnect. People want to be loved in a very deep, catastrophic way and that I can’t deliver. I've been going out with the same woman for 58 years. I tell her, “I completely adore you” - but I have reasons why. People don't want to hear the reasons. They want the magic and I can't deliver the magic. I just can't. It's not there. 

He talks about how his wife often tries to get him to get angry with her. 

– She throws drinks in my face and I just laugh. I've never touched her or shown any anger towards her, and that's the problem. I don't ever get angry but I get her so mad because I don't respond. She knows that my goal in the situation is to get her to lose her temper and that makes her madder. It's hard to get to me and people don't like that. It's like “how do I know you love me unless you get mad?”

– And the kids? 

– I think my kids would say that I was a great father. A lot of fun, taught them, was involved, went to their ballgames. We were very close. They don't see a problem at all. Neither do my grandkids. They kind of understand the way I'm talking about everybody, of the illusion of love. Objectively you would say that I’m a very loving guy and a great father. My relationship with them isn’t cold, but certainly not warm. Tepid. I think of the kids as interesting but I do feel connected to them, quite strongly. ​​​WHAT’S 

In his book, Jim talks about how he constantly asks himself “what would a good person do here?” when interacting with people. 

He started using his own narcissism to overcome his psychopathy. When his wife asked what had come over him, he said he was trying to treat people better. She said she appreciated the effort, to which he replied: “But you know I’m not being sincere.” Her response was that she doesn’t care as long as he makes the effort – which is something he can’t wrap his head around. 

He simply doesn’t understand how people can appreciate being treated with respect and kindness without the sincerity involved, even though this is how most of us function in day-to-day life. 

We all deliver little white lies several times a day and do things we don’t want to do. “Nice dress”, “Cute shoes", “You're not bothering me”, “I'm OK” and “I don’t mind doing your work for you.” You don’t like the boss, but you still laugh at their jokes. You don’t want to make room for the double baby buggy on the bus during rush hour after your 10-hour shift but you do it, albeit with a forced smile. We all do it, but in Jim’s case it’s viewed as pathological because he has the brain patterns to back it up. So, what’s the real difference between him and us? 

– Narcissists, psychopaths and normal people have the same behaviour but for different reasons, so it’s all about the intent, he explains. 

–  For moral or ethical behaviour, there's a cortex devoted to it, just as there's one that's devoted to inhibition of behaviour. Usually when you don't do something, this is what people think is morality. I didn't f*ck, I didn't drink, I didn't do it. It's not that you did something good, you just didn't do something. I'm always amazed by people who would set moralities by what you don't do. What a cheap way out! he sighs. 

– In the movie Animal House, there's a scene where the guy has a naked gal on his bed and she's drunk. The devil shows up on his shoulder and tells him to do her and the angel shows up on the other shoulder and says to leave her alone, and they fight back and forth. The same thing happens in the brain. The ventromedial/orbital prefrontal cortex is the angel, and the extended amygdala is the devil. What would be called the superego and the ID, and how it ends up being adjudicated cold cognition, which you'd call the ego. You may be punished for doing something, but it's always the ego that ends up in court to explain it. Court is like when you die you see St. Peter and you get judged. That's God talking to your ego. 

Fallon thinks that all the behaviours that are carried out by psychopaths, and narcissists, are appropriate in certain contexts. 

– Killing is not bad, he says and adds a long pause. 

– If someone is attacking your mother, killing that person is a good thing. Objectively, subjectively, universally. OK? In the end, it's all to do with context. It's also in the context of salesmanship to manipulate people. Teachers are manipulators. The trust is that you manipulate for something that's meant to be good. Look at Presidents and Prime Ministers. It’s OK that they lie, as long as they do it for our own good. Right? 

Jim thinks everyone has some level of narcissism, and that it’s a normal and healthy human trait.​- Some are very high, some are very low, but you can have a very high level of narcissism and still be a normal person. 

In the case of Jim Fallon, he has the brain patterns and gene varieties of someone that should be played by Antony Hopkins and talking to Jodie Foster through a bullet proof glass in a basement. Instead he’s an upstanding citizen who’s got enormous success in his field, he’s entertaining, he’s polite, he’s the life of the party and can relay his story of how he found out he has the brain of a psychopath like a stand-up show. 

In his book, he calls himself “a lucky psychopath”. One that happened to have a nurturing upbringing with a loving father and an insightful mother who kept him occupied because she saw that the evil came out once he was idle. He thinks that this and his avoidance of abuse and violence, which a common denominator for people who end up being violent psychopaths, probably saved him.

In addition to his upbringing, which other factors does he think played a part in him turning out to be who he is rather than someone behind bars? 

– Because I'm too clever for that, they'll never get me, he delivers sternly, then immediately follows up with a belly-laugh. 

– Generally speaking, even before you're born, you've got the genetic patterns down. The historical argument has been about Tabula rasa, that you’re born with a clean slate and a pure soul. That we, as your father and mother, as your priest, minister and government, we're going to keep your morality... that's horse sh*t! Kids are born with a natural sense of good and evil. We accept instinct in animals, but we don't accept them in us.

– For kids who are abused or abandoned early, even before birth if the mother is an alcoholic, etc, the basic changes of structure in their genes happen in the 3rd trimester. If you're born with highly resistant genes, if you're born with a certain temperament, you're going to be set at that level. Somebody who's full of stress-resistant genes, environment means nothing so in that case, it’s 100% driven by genes. In other people, that are very susceptible, environment is everything and they’re really at the mercy of that environment. 

My final question to him is… if there was a big, red button he could press right now that would give him a “normal” brain, would he press it? 

– NO! 

First published, in Norwegian, in VG+