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. ​


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+

George Michael: Political Perfectionist

Making his new album has not been a smooth ride for George Michael: rejections of songs from industry people; a foray into politics that saw various newspapers try to destroy his career; and a loss of musical inspiration.

text: T. Knudsen

Musician George Michael has been practically living at Sir George Martin’s Air Studios in Hampstead, London since January 2003, writing and recording his new album, Patience. If that sounds unusually long to you, you’d be right - this is an all-time record for the studio that opened in 1992. All good things must come to an end, though, and on the last Sunday in January of this year, the time had finally come for the artist to bite the bullet, and wrap up his album that he says has taken five years of his life to complete.

The previous day, as George was showing me around the Studios where he had created his long-awaited new record, it rapidly became clear that there was still more work for him to do.

- Sorry! I’ve just come from finishing the artwork for the single, he declares apologetically as he is more than half an hour late for our meeting. - And we still need to get the final mix of Freeek! done. We’re working right up to the deadline, which is… tomorrow! George points out (not only to me) as he introduces his sound engineer.

Since re-signing with Sony Music late last year, there has been a tremendous buzz in the music industry surrounding Michael’s new 14-track studio album, Patience, his first since 1996’s Older. Although many didn’t realise it at the time, Older was George Michael’s “coming out” album, dedicated to his first long-term gay partner Anselmo Feleppa who died of AIDS related illness in 1993. Musically the tone of that album was sombre, coinciding as it did with Michael’s grieving process for the person that he felt for a long time was the one true love of his life.

On parts of Patience, Michael continues where Older left off with personal lyrics that offer people who care about his music a glance into his life. The song Amazing, for example, could have been just a simple love song. Instead, he decided to make it about his current partner, Kenny Goss, providing listeners with an intimate insight into their relationship, including allusions to the fact that they both take many lovers – a reference George says he wasn’t sure whether or not to include.

At over 70 minutes in length, it’s a longer album than is usual for George Michael, but it doesn’t contain any cover versions as fillers. - After such a long time I felt I owed it to those who have been waiting for years, to give them an album of all original material, he says. The closest he gets to a cover version is Flawless (Go To The City), which borrows heavily from the track of the same name by The Ones. The album, he says, is more radio-friendly than ever, although it does contain his controversial tracks, Freeek! and Shoot The Dog too. The album juxtaposes electronic sounds with live instruments; ballads with up-tempo numbers; in equal measure, very much marking a return to his classic style.

The making of the new album has not been a smooth ride: rejections of songs from industry people; a foray into politics that saw various newspapers try to destroy his career; and a loss of musical inspiration have all played a part in delaying the completion and release of the record.

His original plan had been to make the album an entirely up-tempo affair, feeling that it could be his last chance to write an album of dance music. When his “dance album” plan fell to pieces, the next idea was to make the album a series of social commentaries on modern life. Unsure about the best way to proceed contractually, Michael decided to sign a one-single deal with Universal Music. He released the first of these commentaries, Freeek!, in 2002 - a song about the easy access that that children have to pornography on the Internet. The song was not particularly well-received, and Michael’s large 30-something female fan base in particular were not impressed. But this negative reaction was nothing, compared to his decision to get political.

At the very moment that the first terrorist plane hit the twin towers in New York, George Michael had been trying to complete another social commentary song, this time about the problems with terrorism that he thought political instability in the Middle East would cause the Western World. The song came to be called Shoot The Dog. - I was working on this song, trying to finish it, but didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. Then my sound engineer called me into a room with a TV in saying “You’re not going to believe this…”

Against the strong advice of Universal Music and other advisors, Michael insisted on releasing the song in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. It was accompanied by a video satirising Tony Blair and George Bush. Even Michael was shocked by the response:

- Newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch in the US and UK were scathing in their attacks, using headlines such as Washed Up Pervert. What really hurt, though, is that not one single artist stood up to support me.

Months later, as a coalition of armed forces led by the US and UK completed final preparations for launching their attack on Iraq, Michael put all thoughts of music on hold, as he trailed around television stations giving interviews about why he believed the war to be wrong. He seemed to believe that he could persuade Tony Blair (if not George Bush) to pull back from going to war. And he didn’t seem to care so much about his musical career any longer. At the time of the release of Shoot The Dog, he had been adamant he was not going to let the press destroy him without a fight. But by the time that war was imminent, he said. – I’ve had 20 good years, and at this point, if my career suffers then to be honest that’s not the most important thing.

It was in the midst of this that Kenny Goss reminded him that what people really wanted from his was music, and Michael hurriedly recorded a cover of Don McLean’s The Grave – a song which had touched him as a young boy, just getting interested in music. He released for free, as an MP3 download and later agreed to include it on the Hope CD, proceeds of which went to war victims. - My Inspiration returned I was determined to make an album that would satisfy the audience.

This seemed to mark the return of his muse, and a determination to make an album that would satisfy his audience. After that, he was rarely away from the studio, and in the summer of 2003, he recorded what is perhaps one of his greatest ever songs, Through – a track with wonderful, soaring vocals, and one of the standout ballads on the album. With his inspiration back, Michael was working at full throttle. In July, the plan was to release the album in November, but as each month passed, the release date slipped. By November 2003, the record wasn’t complete, and he was still deciding on record contracts. In the end, he decided to sign with Sony the company he took to court in the 1990s. This time round, though, the contract is for just one album. Having given up on his record sales in America for years, the return to Sony will see George make a renewed attack on the US.

Patience is set for release on 15 March, with the single Amazing released a fortnight earlier. And, in a move designed to satisfy the extraordinary demand for George’s new work, Sony has made the single available to buy on-line where it has already topped the download charts. Amazing, it seems, was a change of heart as a first release on Sony. Last year, shortly before signing his new record contract, George Michael had told me that he was planning John and Elvis Are Dead as his first single – and indeed he’s already recorded a video for this song. The title of this song, which refers to John Lennon and Elvis Presley, has all the makings of a global smash hit, George used the multi-million dollar John Lennon piano he bought some years ago

– I used it to give the introduction the right feel, he says. - The album is a lot more radio friendly than before, explains the singer.

As well as making a musical return to form after the eight-year gap following his last album of original material, George has committed to promoting for his new record. And, for an artist that hates doing interviews, his schedule looks gruelling: - He’s doing 21 interviews in two days next week! grinned Andy Stephens, Michael’s current manager.

In addition to these interviews, George has others planned with radio and TV. A highlight should be another appearance on Parkinson, on BBC1. His last appearance there was in 1998 – coinciding with his infamous arrest – where he was unusually given a one-hour exclusive. He performed his then latest single, Outside, and his first solo single after the split from Wham!, A Different Corner. Michael said at the time that a lot of people considered Careless Whisper the first solo record, but that he considered it to be A Different Corner.

- I’m definitely doing Parkinson again in March. It will probably be a full hour special like last time, and I’ll be doing a couple of live performances! triumphed George. He has also completed a documentary to promote his new album, - They filmed my vocal performances for that back in December, he says.

Perhaps the return to doing so much promotion shouldn’t come as a surprise. George Michael told Trevor McDonald in a television interview, when he was being attacked by certain sections of the media for his anti-war stance, that he didn’t mind becoming Britney Spears with a flat chest and a big mouth if that’s what it takes.

As well as promoting the album in the media when it’s released, even touring may be on the agenda. Michael who hasn’t toured since 1991 - thirteen years ago – has been reluctant to do so ever since his 1988 world tour, when he was promoting his biggest selling album to date, Faith.

- A tour? George says slowly, repeating my question - Well, at least I’ve booked Wembley Arena for towards the end of 2004! he smiles and winks at me.

Sources at Sony claim live concerts could come even earlier, perhaps in the spring or summer, but followers of George Michael have learned to be sceptical about his promises for concerts - even though it really does look like it’s going to happen. We can but hope it does indeed turn out to be "a stage show that will blow everything you’ve seen away". So, whilst George is Through with the studio (for now), it seems things are really just starting again for his millions of fans around the world who’ve shown such Patience.