Five of the Most Important Minutes in Television: Anderson Cooper Interviews James Fallon about Reducing Psychopathy & Psychopaths in Power
The other day, on January 10, 2014, I suddenly saw a huge increase in traffic to this site. Investigating, I found that it was coming from a surge of people searching for information relating to Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, and a “psychopath test.”
So I looked into it.
It turned out that, on that day, Cooper had done a segment with James Fallon, the neuroscientist who, in the process of studying the genetics and brains of psychopathic killers, discovered that he himself, despite being a successful non-violent researcher, had many of the genetic and brain markers associated with psychopathy.
I wrote a very detailed post about Fallon and his fascinating story last year called “Neuroscientist James Fallon’s Work & Life Shed Light on How Psychopathic Killers are Made…and Perhaps Prevented.” So I won’t cover that in any more detail here.
But Fallon has recently released a book about his story called The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. And, in the wake of the book’s release, he has been showing up more frequently in the media, sharing his insights about psychopathy, its impact in the world, and what his story tells us about the possibility of reducing the number of psychopaths that develop, which is wonderful.
The interview with Anderson Cooper is below and, even though this clip is only five minutes long, it could be five of the most important minutes I’ve ever seen on television.
Early in the interview, Fallon:
- Shares a bit about his story
- Talks about the psychopathic traits that can be recognized by looking at brain scans
- Explains the difference between the “cognitive empathy” that he and psychopaths have and “emotional empathy,” which they tend to lack
The upshot of Fallon’s story is that, despite having the genetic and biological markers for psychopathic traits, he did not become a full blown psychopath. In fact, he became a very productive, contributing member of society. He believes the reason is that he had a very loving upbringing, which counteracted his destructive biological predispositions. And he believes that such an upbringing can have the same beneficial impact on others with similar biological predispositions.
As Fallon tells Cooper:
“I thought everything was driven by genetics, biology. And I didn’t think nurture had anything to do with it. Once I realized, because of the genes I have, that if you’re brought up in a very nurturing environment, you can offset the biology.”
I agree that Fallon’s case offers us hope that, at least in a subset of cases, people with biological propensities for psychopathic traits can be prevented from becoming full-blown psychopaths. However, I still think a lot more research is needed to determine how generalizable his case is. Is Fallon representative of all or most people with these markers or is he in some way a rare or special case?
Contrast Fallon’s statement that a caring upbringing can offset biological predispositions for psychopathic traits with this quote from Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend by Barbara Oakley:
“Oddly enough, one study has shown that murderers who have a normal family upbringing have even lower function in their right orbitofrontal cortical areas than murderers who were abused during childhood. Perhaps murderers without a psychosocial ‘push’ toward violence require a greater neurobiological ‘push.’ In other words, children with less severe neurological problems may be helped by having a normal upbringing – but children with more severe neurological difficulties may not be.”
The study Oakley cites for this claim in the book’s footnotes is:
Adrian Raine et al., “Reduced Prefrontal and Increased Subcortical Brain Functioning Assessed Using Positron Emission Tomography in Predatory and Affective Murderers,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 16 (1998): 319-32.
I would like to see work to determine how Fallon’s claims and those of Raine’s study, which Oakley cites, can be reconciled.
The entire five minute clip of Cooper’s interview with Fallon is important. But, its last two minutes, from 3:13 on, take that to an even higher level, consisting of about as significant an exchange as I’ve ever seen aired.
Anderson Cooper basically admits to being convinced of the central point that many advocates of ponerology, from Andrew Lobaczewski on, have been trying to bring to public attention for decades now – that the influence of psychopathy and psychopathic traits in our world, including in circles of power – and specifically in the very highest circles of political power – is much greater than most people recognize.
“I find this whole topic of psychopaths really interesting because I’m convinced there’s a lot more people out there who are psychopaths than we realize and particularly successful people, accomplished people, people on TV, people in the political sphere. I’m convinced there are tons of psychopaths.”
“If you look at, there was just a study done, a scientific study of all our presidents. And all the biographers answered all these questions about them and it was on a scale of psychopathy. And on the scale of psychopathy, in sort of the one part of psychopathy, not the criminality part but the other part which is a big part of psychopathy, the ones who scored very high were Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, FDR, Bill Clinton very high. The ones who had no psychopathy at all in this were people like Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford.
And when you look at the association of those psychopathic traits with leadership, it’s like we want these people, right, because they do things that are…they take chances, they lie at the right time. You know, FDR was lying all the time but he saved us so it was OK. So if you look at people that we choose to be leaders I think a lot of them have these traits and they’re part of leadership skills.”
Cooper then adds:
“I also think what it takes to propel somebody into the public sphere or propel somebody to success, I mean, it’s not, they are not normal impulses, I think and I think a lot of them are psychopathic impulses.”
“If you have that grand vision, cause psychopaths will have a grand vision – not all of them, some are just lousy rats – but people have that grandiose, narcissistic need and they’ve got something to prove and they’ve got something they say I’m gonna save the world. That’s part of it. Doesn’t make you psychopathic but it’s one of the traits that fits into this puzzle of psychopathy.”
Anderson Cooper is one high-profile journalist that seems to have realized the tremendous importance of ponerologic topics. Not long ago, he did a segment about Ariel Castro, the man who abducted three girls and held them captive for nearly ten years, in which the topic of psychopathy was front and center. Kudos to Cooper for recognizing how crucial it is that we educate the public on this subject and for courageously covering it on his show.
And the huge traffic surge that I saw as people looked for information in the wake of his interview with James Fallon?
That shows how much interest there is among the public about this topic. And it’s very heartening to see that interest increasingly being met not just by sensationalized fiction or news focused on titillating crimes, but by objective science disseminated by competent researchers and clinicians.
As for the psychopath test:
Well, after the interview with Fallon, not shown in the clip in this post, Cooper said:
“As I said, I find this just amazing. If you’re curious about where you fall on that scale of psychopathy, you can actually take a test to find out. We’ve posted it on our web site AC360.com. It just takes a couple of minutes. I’ve taken it. Pretty much everyone on our staff has taken it and let’s say the results are very, very interesting.”
The link he references on the AC360 blog is here.
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Tags: ac360, adrian raine, anderson cooper, andrew m. lobaczewski, ariel castro, barbara oakley, bill clinton, biology, brain scans, channel 4, empathy, evil genes, franklin delano roosevelt, genetics, gerald ford, james fallon, jimmy carter, john f. kennedy, journalism, kevin dutton, nature vs. nurture, neuroscience, orbital cortex, parenting, politics, presidents, psychopath night, psychopath test, psychopathy, the psychopath inside, the wisdom of psychopaths, theodore roosevelt
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