James Fallon (@jameshfallon) is a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.

What We Discuss with James Fallon:

  • The ingredients that go into creating a psychopath.
  • The differences between psychopaths and sociopaths.
  • How we as a society can limit the expression of psychopathic and sociopathic traits — and why evolution hasn’t done the job already.
  • How to spot a psychopath.
  • Why psychopaths are so good at manipulating people — and what we can do about it.
  • And much more…

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Psychopaths get a bad rap — and, in fairness, it’s often for good reason. The ones who tend to catch the public eye are known for murdering or, at the very least, manipulating the unwary without remorse. But what about the psychopaths who quietly live among us without raising suspicion? Are they all dormant serial killers just waiting for the right moment to strike, or can they contribute positively to society?

Joining us today is Dr. James Fallon — neuroscientist, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California in Irvine, and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain — to share what he’s learned about psychopaths over his long career. But why is his insight perhaps more valuable than that of your average neuroscientist? Because Dr. Fallon is, himself, a psychopath. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain author Dr. James Fallon (not The Tonight Show host — just getting that out of the way here) was a neuroscientist for quite some time before he discovered he was a psychopath.

While reviewing unlabeled brain scans of his family — collected as “normal” controls for an Alzheimer’s study — James thought one of the technicians was playing a joke on him. While most of the scans looked fine at first pass, he noticed one that didn’t look quite right. From previous research, he was familiar with brain abnormalities common to serial killers and other psychopaths, and here was one looking right back at him.

“I called in the technicians,” says James. “I said, ‘This is very funny.’ In a lab, like anyplace, you kid around with each other, right? I said, ‘Okay, you switched them. You took one of the worst psychopaths from this pile of murderers and you switched it into my family. Hah, hah!’ And they go, ‘No, it’s part of your family.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. This guy shouldn’t be walking around in open society. He’s probably a very dangerous person.'”

James tore back the covering from the name and discovered it was his own.

And then his mother broke the news that he was related to a number of famous psychopaths — including Thomas Cornell (who burned his mother to death in 1673) and Lizzie Borden (suspected but acquitted of murdering her parents with an ax in 1892) — on his father’s side, of course.

Psychopaths and Sociopaths

“About one percent of all cultures — these are all people — are full-blown, categorical, clinical psychopaths,” says James. “But there are probably maybe five percent of people who are borderline — maybe even more than that — who have the traits.”

James himself falls on this borderline, exhibiting prosocial traits common to psychopaths who have learned to adapt and pass in polite society without raising eyebrows.

But what is a psychopath?

“An intraspecies predator,” says James. “A human who is a predator on other humans.”

How does this differ from a sociopath?

“There’s a primary psychopath,” James says. “That’s like your regular psychopath. Then there’s a secondary psychopath, which we call a sociopath.”

Primary psychopaths are biologically primed for their condition by inheriting genes that predispose them toward aggression and then living through some severe trauma early in development — prior to puberty — that chemically cements this psychopathy before a moral code has been instilled in the subject.

Secondary psychopaths, or sociopaths, may be genetically predisposed toward their condition, but they undergo their trauma — like bullying or abandonment — in later childhood when they have at least a basic understanding of what a moral code is.

So the primary psychopath doesn’t even have a moral code. The sociopath knows what a moral code is, but just doesn’t care.

“The psychopath versus the sociopath, they can both have the identical behavior — they could both be killers, they could both be terrorists, they could both be murderers,” says James. “So superficially, they look the same. What’s causing it [is] completely different.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, the axis of empathy, how emotional and cognitive empathy differ, why James doesn’t believe in the concept of evil, why James isn’t a serial killer in spite of inheriting the biological determinants for psychopathy (and how this fact made him eat crow as a scientist), transgenerational violence as just one case among many for treating people well, how a society under constant siege perpetuates psychopathy (and eventually destroys itself), how to spot a psychopath in the wild, what to do if we discover a psychopath, and lots more.


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