James Fallon, author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain and star of the TED Talk seen above, explores the diversity of psychopathy:
As far as public perception goes, I’d say that the best, most badass, sadistic, ultimate example of a psychopath would be the original Hannibal Lecter. That’s who we think a psychopath is. But I’d argue that Will Graham, the FBI agent who tracks Hannibal, is the version of a psychopath we see more often in reality: he’s the pro-social psychopath, the guy in the office who seems a little off but who doesn’t engage in really ugly, egregious criminal behavior. And that’s where I would put myself. I might have a lot of weird, disturbed thoughts, but I don’t act on those thoughts. The Hannibal guys are a small subset, but they’re certainly overrepresented in the media.
He explains why some psychopaths become killers and others successful CEOs:
[Early in my research], I looked around and knew a lot of great poor people and a lot of really rich jerks, so I said “Hey, if the environment is key to all of this, it really isn’t doing the job we think it is.” Instead, I became convinced that we were born and not raised – and I spent my career studying exactly how the brain influences who we become.
But I didn’t fit my own theory. I had similar brain scans to full-blown, psychopathic killers. I had the genetic profile of a psychopath too. So why didn’t I fall into that kind of behavior? Well, I’d say it’s because I had a very fortunate, very warm upbringing with a wonderful family. And a lot of those who have my same genetic makeup and go onto violence endured awful abuse or trauma.
So you need to give environment more credit than I used to, but that doesn’t mean I’ve thrown out biology: around the time this was all happening to me, the field of epigenetics started to explode. Maybe it isn’t that biology doesn’t determine who you are, but that your environment can play a role in which genes are turned on or off.