Over the course of my life, I've been called "psycho" a handful of times. What fun-loving girl hasn't, right?
There was the ex who said my serial infidelity was a "definite" sign of psychopathic tendencies. There was the ex who once saw me in a crowded room, turned white, and left immediately. (That same ex who told me that I'd driven him to drugs.) And then there was the former coworker who told me that he could really see me in a "Tony Blair position" in a future government, and looked pained when I asked if that was intended as a compliment.
We think we have an idea of what psychopaths are like—narcissistic Patrick Bateman types, twisted serial killers, or the president of the good ol' USA. Recently, the pool of potential psychopaths has widened to include high-flying CEOs or ruthless bankers. But what about regular, law-abiding people who don't crash the stock exchange or end up in jail after strangling their grandma? How psycho do you have to be to be considered a psychopath?
Dr. James Fallon, a University of California neuroscientist and the author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, knows more about this question than most. A few years ago, a chance mix-up with some brain scans at work led him to realize that his brain more closely resembled those belonging to psychopathic murderers than those of regular people. While researchers say that only 1 percent of the population are true psychopaths, Fallon believes that 5 to 7 percent are "on the borderline" like he is. Fallon describes himself as a "prosocial" psychopath—someone on the border of true psychopathy, who doesn't maim, kill, or do any of the violent acts we associate with psychopaths.
First of all, Fallon told me that the behavior we associate with being "psycho" in relationships bears little relation to that of a real psychopath. "'Psycho' really means deranged and crazy," he says. "Psychopathy is the opposite of that. It's very controlled and cunning. [Psychopaths] who are distempered, either because of alcohol or drug abuse, lower IQ or education, or brain damage—they can be kind of 'psycho' and out of control, but they usually end up in prison by the time they're 18."
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Psychiatric researchers like Fallon take their cues from leading criminal psychologist David Hare, who studied criminal offenders and came up with 20 identifying traits of a psychopath. They include characteristics like glibness and superficial charm, emotional shallowness, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, promiscuous sexual behavior, cunning/manipulative tendencies, impulsivity, and irresponsibility.
This was all starting to sound uncomfortably familiar. As any serial cheater knows, you have to be pretty bored, slutty, impulsive, and irresponsible to sleep around behind your partner's back. You also have to be relatively charming and cunning in order to a) sleep with others and b) get away with it.
The first step to diagnosis, Fallon says, is to "find a psychiatrist who knows about these things and have them diagnose you. There's no other real way to do it. You can take online tests, but it's a parlor game."
Besides undergoing various formal testing and psychiatric analysis, Fallon came to his diagnosis through a relatively straightforward exercise: asking people what they actually thought of him ("old girlfriends, sisters, brother, everyone"). After he reassured them that he wouldn't get mad, "they all caved and finally admitted what they really thought." And It turned out that a lot of them thought he was psychopathic.
He also watched his peers to see how they behaved in situations when they thought nobody was looking. "I found out that guys and girls my age were sacrificing… like taking care of a friend for some mistake they made or going to a funeral. They all were [making] sacrifices that nobody knew about—things I would never do." Fallon, on the other hand, said he would happily concoct a phony excuse to skip a funeral so he could go to a party.
Fallon also began to observe his daily interactions with his wife on a moment-to-moment basis. "Each time there was a choice for me to not get into a fight, I would do the most selfish thing possible," he says. "Every time."
Anybody can apply this test to themselves, Fallon says. Most humans engage in simple, cordial behavior that takes others' feelings into account—stuff like picking their stuff off the floor of their shared apartment or being a good housemate. Psychopaths don't.
"If you're psychopathic, you don't go back to loop into the limbic system and think about how you're hurting people," he explains. "You just act very quickly. You seem very smart because you don't take the extra time to think about how it's hurting the person. It's perceived intelligence, but it's not—you just don't give a shit!"
Oh my god, I think. Maybe I am a psychopath? After I describe to Fallon the various ins and outs of my past relationships—including one particularly ignominious episode involving an old boyfriend dumping me when he realized I'd met up with him immediately after leaving a one-night-stand's house on Valentine's Day—he smiles and says, "That is the stuff. You don't have to be a full psychopath, but that's partial psychopathy."
I'm a self-diagnosed normal person. I think I'm a regular guy. But I'm not.
What if, I say, I felt really bad about it once my boyfriend found out? (For the record: I did. Sorry, Alex.)
Well, Fallon says, that's different: There's actually no such thing as a psychopathic act. "[Psychopathy is] purely the context and your reaction to the context. He gets upset, people are hurt—[when] you don't care, that's the psychopathic thing. It's not the act itself."
Fallon says there is some truth to the old adage that if you think you're a psychopath, you probably aren't. Most psychopaths think they're fine. That's why Fallon's own diagnosis came as a total shock. "I'm a self-diagnosed normal person. I think I'm a regular guy," he says. "But I'm not."
What should you do if you are a psychopath, but you realize the objective value of, say, not ending up in jail or alienating everyone around you?
"I started to think every time I had an interaction, What does a good guy do?" Fallon says. "I just said, 'Everyday I have to do this. I have to cognitively suppress my natural instincts, and this is the way I'm going to overcome it.'
"The true feeling I had was, Nobody can beat this. But I'm so good and I'm so fucking smart, I'm the only one who can do it," he adds." So I relied on my own narcissism to drive it. It just became a game with myself."
In fact, partial and prosocial psychopaths like Fallon can actually be very useful in society. The group of psychopathic traits defined as "fearless dominance"—defined by Psychology Today as a "tendency toward boldness that includes such traits as a desire to dominate social situations, charm, willingness to take physical risks, and an immunity to feelings of anxiety" are actually very attractive in others. "People consider those traits [to be] charisma and leadership," Fallon says, "and so we tend to vote in or hire people to do that work for us."
As for me, I may have behaved in irresponsible, narcissistic ways in relationships, but my ability to feel remorse means that I'm no psychopath. It just makes me a garden-variety awful human being—just like everyone else. Phew.