Dr. James Fallon Makes Being a Psychopath Look Like Fun
An interview with a man who lacks empathy.
“Roc, you got me on a good day,” Dr. James Fallon announced. The horses over at Saratoga racetrack had been running in his favor all morning. It was also the day that his best friend from college had died. Fallon received the news just four hours before he met me.
“I’m still waiting for it to hit,” he claimed. I smiled gamely and raised my eyebrows. He returned the smile and threw in a shrug. We both knew that it would never hit.
“When I really dissect my behavior,” the neuroscientist later confided to me, “everything in a strict sense is a lie. Everything. Even though I think I never lie, I’m lying all the time. I seem like a nice guy, but I want to be clear—I’m not as nice as I seem to be.”
In 2006, Fallon was studying the brain scans of psychopathic killers when he happened to compare them to a scan of his own brain. The characteristic deactivation of emotional regions was unmistakable. He discovered for himself what friends and family had been insisting for years: Fallon was a psychopath—albeit a “pro-social” one, as he likes to say. The 66-year-old father of three is happily married, highly successful in his field, and has no criminal record.
The aggression, the narcissism, the callousness, the recklessness typical of psychopaths—he can turn all of them off, he claims. The charm, however, is always on. At the door of his home in Irvine, California, Fallon greeted me like an old friend. He was on the phone with his bookie in Jersey—a six-foot-eight, 300-pound former Mafioso by the name of Big Moe. “His actual name is Joey,” Fallon chuckled. “He thinks it’s still 1965.” Within a minute of ringing his doorbell, he had me laughing and feeling at ease.
We took our drinks to the backyard where we could watch monarch butterflies feast on a milkweed garden—one of the scientist’s favorite distractions. He noted that the seasons elicit very different behaviors from the insects. “When they’re down in Mexico and up in Monterey hanging in the trees, they’re very sociable. But, in between, when they’re competing for food and sex—they’re killers. Two very different behaviors, one animal.”
“You can ask me anything, Roc,” he added through his beard as he spread his arms wide. “I am restricted somewhat, though. My mother is still alive, and my wife is still alive.”
“So, we’ll do the follow-up after they pass away?” I teased.
“Sure,” he laughed. “That’ll be quite a different interview.”
VICE: There are many definitions of psychopathy. What are the critical qualifications?
James Fallon: Core psychopathy is basically lack of empathy and extreme manipulation of anyone to get what you want. You don’t have to be sadistic like a lot of people think. You don’t have to be glib, but you often see glibness because the psychopath doesn’t have to make the loop into the limbic system [the brain’s emotional center], which slows you down.
Do you ever place pauses in your speaking in order to seem more authentic?
Sometimes—and, sometimes I’ll make up things so it appears I was wrong. I’ll insert a red herring, so that I can go back and say, “Gee, I was wrong about that.” It makes me more approachable, more believable.
You’re very good at building rapport.
But, I’m trying to slow down—trying to say, “Am I really being truthful here?” The game for me now is: Can I manipulate myself? The challenge is: Can I astonish somebody with purely the truth?
But you’ve also talked in your book about lying to achieve a certain effect.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve lied for some effect, in fact, in the opposite direction. So, for example, if I caught a 20-pound tuna, I’ll say I caught a 15-pound tuna, and somebody will say, “No, it was much bigger than that.” Those are manipulative techniques. I remember this really funny book called How to Cheat at Tennis from the 70s. A tennis court is supposed to be a perfect rectangle, but you can manipulate the court—repaint the lines to make it a parallelogram—screw with them that way.
So subtly that they won’t realize it.
Exactly. And then, of course, you do the obvious things—early in the match, if they hit a ball out, you call it in. That way, you can do the reverse later when you need it. Start lying the other way to set the person up later. I do that. It’s just a game, in a sense—a practical joke, but it’s still fucking with people. I never thought of myself as doing it in any malignant way. It was always fun.
Was it fun for the other guy?
Not all the time. It’s kind of intellectually bullying people, I guess—playing with their heads. There’s a darker side to it. In the past two years, I’ve come to realize how much I do that. I’ve never taken advantage of underdogs though. You know what I mean? I’m enough of the sportsman to play a fair game.
Is that a moral stance? It’s hard to imagine morality without empathy. Where does your sense of morality come from?
You know, growing up Catholic around priests, and nuns, and my parents—I just never did anything wrong. Lying, cheating, stealing, squeezing girls’ asses, I did none of that. But, it was part of an obsessive compulsiveness. I thought all behavior had to be perfect and in line with the universe. I had to keep everything in symmetry.
So, the code itself was arbitrary? I mean, if you had been raised under a different system, would that have become your ideal?
You know, there’s one psychiatrist I spent time with in India. She goes, “Jim, you’re actually a natural Buddhist. The type of empathy you have is not for people, but for mankind. That’s very Buddhist.” I think if I had been brought up in the Buddhist system, it might’ve been even easier.
What made Catholicism sub-optimal?
I had no problem with that strict code. I just went way beyond it. That’s the problem. You never lie, steal, cheat—all that stuff seemed obvious to me. People would say, “Geez, Jim. Relax.” The idea of adding the concept of morality to it was nonsense to me. The obsession with being perfect was just innate. You know, the first memory I had—and it may be from when I was two or three—is from when I would be going to sleep, and as I would close my eyes, I would see this… You ever live in the north?
Right. Now, if you go really far north, and it’s a really good storm, the aurora borealis is right overhead, so dramatic, and you just feel like an ant on the stage. These silver curtains come down—whoosh! Well, every time when I closed my eyes, it was just like that. It wouldn’t have any color or brightness until it started to get closer and closer. It would come in like a funnel, faster and faster. And it would condense into something that felt, every time, like the entire universe was hitting me right in the forehead. It would go: ping! And, it was light as a feather. It’s the most exquisite feeling, because it’s infinity and infinitesimal all at once. It would happen just that way every night. It may have set up some kind of leitmotif, very early on, that really focused me on the whole universe and perfection.
When did you lose the morality fixation?
I was 19 or 20 when it suddenly switched. I went from thinking that everything was a moral issue to thinking that nothing was a moral issue. So, even though I can bring back the sense of that light, it’s detached from morality completely.
What’s your religious affiliation now?
I’m an agnostic atheist. I will manipulate groups, but I try to do it for ethical reasons. I don’t think of it so much as a moral issue, but there’s a certain beauty to it.
You sound almost like the God of the Old Testament—appearing in order to restore balance.
I’ve never heard it put that way. That’s good. I identify with that personality of God the Father intervening at the right time to make things right, and he does it dispassionately. It’s really important that there’s no emotion.
I can imagine that being a benefit in many situations. It seems to be helping you process the death of your friend.
Yeah, there is no emotional flinching. I remember we had a great time together. He was an interesting guy, but something about it just doesn’t emotionally connect with me. You can look at it objectively—I should be upset, and I’m not.
In a way, it sounds freeing. Would you want to have empathy?
No. I’m quite happy with who I am. I really love my life. And, actually, everybody’s got a little piece of what I have—not everybody, but a lot of people. They’re not categorical psychopaths, but they have some really nasty psychopathic behaviors.
They’re on the spectrum?
Definitely. If you took the raw sense of how people feel about the people they’re interacting with, it would be brutal! You could actually say that these behaviors are not psychopathic because so many people have them.
Do you think an individual’s behavior is consistent, or can different environments bring out morally conflicting behaviors from the same person? For example, the commandant of Auschwitz would go home and kiss his wife and kids at the end of the day. Is there a consistency to that?
Well, that’s why it’s really hard for any psychiatrist to say that Hitler was a real psychopath, as well as most of the Nazis. They were close to their families. They had real empathy. They all did. They’re not psychopaths. Hannah Arendt’s concept about everyone participating a little bit means that they had to believe in the ethos of what they were doing. I’m sure they convinced themselves that they were helping the world—like the Norwegian shooter Breivik. If you read his manifesto, he was quite sane.
Not a psychopath?
Not quite a psychopath. He had empathy, but he had a vision. The problem is, that’s the equivalent of what Gandhi had, what Mother Teresa had, what Mandela had. They really believed that they were going to fix the world, even if they had to walk over people to do it. They knew that it comes with a price. To save the children of the world, Mother Teresa would walk over people. Gandhi walked over his family all the time, so did Mandela. To them, what they were doing was good, even though in a local way they were just doing brutal things—things that would be considered psychopathic. But it’s just a different kind of empathy.
How does that play out neurologically?
In neuroscientific terms, all behaviors that are reinforced, whatever they are, go to a little spot in the brain called the dorsal medial notch of the nucleus accumbens. It’s where everything comes together: all the dopamine, endorphins, acetylcholine, oxytocin, vasopressin. It’s hedonism central. So any behavior that can be reinforced has to go through this tiny little spot. And, people will all pick a different thing. Some people have a shopping addiction, some have an eating addiction, some have drug addictions—it just depends on the wiring.
So, essentially, you’re a slave to it?
Exactly. So, if you look at evil behaviors—if it’s going through that little spot, it basically takes the evil out of it, because it’s driven the same as everybody. I think a candidate for a truly evil act is unhooking from that. If you can do something for no other reason than for the pure rationale of what it is—only then could you start to consider something pure evil.
But if you’re not rewarded, why do it?
Exactly. Why do it? Because, if it all goes through that little spot, it means there is no evil, and there is no free will. Instead of evil, it’s just behavior we don’t agree with. And, that’s a real quandary, because I don’t know how you conduct a civilized society and have any kind of common ground.
So in order for society to function, we have to participate in the illusion of free will?
I think so. Participating in the illusion is important. But, it’s funny, you know—I started treating my wife better as a little experiment. She liked it, and I told her—because I can really be honest with her—I said, “I don’t mean this. I’m just doing this as a game.” She said, “I don’t care. You treat me better. Why would I care why you’re doing it?” That, I don’t understand, because it should be all about intention.
What are your relationships like with women in general?
I have a lot of female friends. When I go out roaming, they like me, even though I look like hell. It doesn’t matter, because I act like I don’t care, and I really don’t care, and they love it.
Why do you think that is?
We have to look at everything in terms of sexual fitness. If you don’t need them, it means that you can get anybody, therefore they want your genes. You can’t get me, therefore you want me. It’s a little too glib and slick, but it’s probably true. And, if I have a conversation like this with my female friends who are really very, very smart neuroscientists—they have to keep from getting mad, even though they know there’s some truth to it.
Their emotionality blinds them to it?
I love how my female friends, who are so smart, are fighting their emotions all the time. They know it, and they actually come asking for it. They want me to torture them. They want to push up against something. Most guys are always on the make. They’ll say anything to get laid, but to have a guy push against her, and say something to her like, “You’re never getting laid tonight,” they go crazy for it.
How do you think the world would be if everyone were like you?
Well, it would be bad for people like us. I think the biggest thought experiment would be if we got rid of all aggression-related genes, and got rid of some psychopathic traits—as a species, we’d be screwed. We’d be completely screwed if everybody becomes Jimmy Carter. Any aggressive person could run the world. People say that it would be great to have peace and love. Their heaven, to me, is the end of humanity.
You’ve written about the possible increase of aggressive genes in places of conflict. Is the reverse true? Is aggression being bred out in stable Western societies?
I think so. Right here in California—I don’t want to call it the feminization—but you have the idea that everybody wins. It’s about getting along so much that you have no competition. I see it as a very, very negative force, if you care about the species. But there’s always this dynamic about what’s good for the species and what’s good for the individual. These are very much at odds with one another. In a sense, we need psychopathy. We don’t need full-blown psychopath dangerous fuckers, but having a prevalence of psychopathic traits is associated with leadership. It’s in presidents, and prime ministers, and in people who take risks. They do things to protect against aggressors.
So you’re saying that they’re doing it for themselves, but it just so happens to protect society as well?
That’s why people like Jimmy Carter do not belong in those positions. Obama’s stuck on this a little bit.
He’s too good?
He’s not psychopathic enough. Almost all the great leaders have high levels of psychopathic traits. If they took the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, they’d score pretty high. In the end, this is a broader discussion that I’m not really qualified to talk about, but you are.
What do you mean?
See, what I did there was manipulative. I really don’t think you are, but I said that you are. I don’t think you are, and I don’t think I am either.
I wanted to ask about your brain scans. You have zero activity in your emotional regions in the presence of emotional stimuli, but obviously those regions are being used for something, right? Do you know what that might be?
It’s probably being used to inhibit my bad behavior. I guess there’s a way of testing that. You’d have to get people like me, and then give them an opportunity to do something bad and then have them stop themselves and see if that area turns on. That’s a very good experiment.
Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t have too much trouble finding subjects. I know you hang out with some rough characters.
That’s true. I get a lot of contacts from really bad guys and girls—people who are on the edge. I can’t give medical advice, but they see me as somebody who would understand. So, it’s almost like a brotherhood of psychopaths. They’re usually very earnest. The ones that aren’t earnest, I can sort out. I’ll say something to them, and they go fucking crazy. I can find people very quickly—I have my ways. If somebody’s in hiding and they’re trying to screw with me, I just have ways of knowing exactly where they are at any time, and showing them that I know where they are. They hightail it.
What’s your ultimate objective in life?
I’m actually trying to catch myself from trying to manipulate people all the time. I’m trying to get rid of it all.
Because, then I can beat myself. I’m my own best opponent. If I can beat myself, I’ve won.
But then the game is over, isn’t it?
In a way, it’s over. It’s checkmate, but I still make mistakes like I did with you earlier.
That comment you called yourself out on?
Right, because that wasn’t honest.
And, you didn’t set that up as a red herring?
No, I didn’t. I’m trying to be truthful here. The game for me now is to manipulate myself. In terms of the checkmate, I think the real prize would be ego death.
The universe tapping you on the forehead?
I think so.
What do you think you’ll find there?
Probably some existential realization that this is just this. But, that ego-desire is very strong, to the point of obnoxiousness. So, the game is to try to strip that part away. If I had my druthers, I would get rid of all the ego, and be able to do something truly good, just for the sake of goodness. But, the drive is really just to prove that I can do it—not for the action itself. It loops within itself and becomes instantly phony. Still, I like it as a target, as a goal. It’s the best game I can think of.
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