I recently went on a date with a beautiful and smart girl who laughed at all my jokes and then never replied to my texts. I walked away from the date thinking nailed it! while I guess she walked away thinking he didn't nail that. I mean, who knows what she actually thought—but I spent the next few days wondering.
Wondering what other people think is a classic problem, and rejection sucks. When the phone doesn't ring, the invitation doesn't arrive, or you get cut from the team or the job, it's only natural to feel hurt. But I should say that it's natural for most people, not everyone. Because for psychopaths, caring what others think isn't an issue—which is why I decided to ask one for advice.
Dr James Fallon is a neuroscientist at the University of California. In 2006 he was studying the brain structures of serial killers when he realised his own brain fit the same profile. Amused, he started telling his friends and family, who all confirmed it was something they'd long suspected. As James described in The Guardian, "I started to ask people close to me what they really thought of me… and tell me they did."
When I read this I knew I'd found the guy. James scores as a "pro-social" psychopathic, meaning he's empathetic enough to be married and enjoy a social life, but lives without the worry or hurt most of us feel constantly. So I called James to ask how he does it. How does he go through life untouched by insult? And could I learn to do the same?
VICE: Hi James, let's start with the broadest question. How does rejection feel for you?
Dr James Fallon: It feels absolutely fine. As my two psychiatrists say, my biggest problem in life is that I don't give a shit. They tell me "you just don't care." And it's true.
I just know that I can do anything I want and something better will come along. I guess that absurd swagger is most of it.
But not all of it?
Well, no. I'm a professor and a scientist so my whole life is about probabilities. Everything for me is a percentage. For example if I think something's against me at about 20:1, I'll put in 20 different proposals or versions to make sure I get what I want. Doing that trains your expectations too. If your chances are 20:1 and you only put in one attempt, then you can't get upset if it doesn't work.
I train all my students to think the same way. I say "you have to set up your expectations, not only for success but failure in a three-tiered way." So you've got have some basic stuff that you're 100 percent sure is going to get published, then you have this middle stuff that's the kind of medium risk, and then you've always have something you're doing that's very high risk. The chances of it paying off are low, but if it hits the returns are huge. Basically I think a lot of life should be approached like this.
That makes sense but it's also pretty clinical. You're probably more predisposed to this sort of thinking right?
Yes and I can tell you why. See one of the key areas of the brain associated with dread and fear is called the middle cingulate cortex. If you're Jewish and you put on a yarmulke and then trace your finger down three inches, that's where it is. Now it's not certain this is the part of your brain that's associated with rejection, but I'd say it's possible. In tests that part of my brain is turned off, so it makes sense.
So you're saying your brain has no capacity to feel rejection?
Yeah, or the amount of rejection I would feel is much less than the average person. My circuits are tuned down, which is probably a product of genetics and nobody quite knows the genetics of that circuitry yet. But another piece of evidence is that if you look at people in whom this circuitry is very active, they often have borderline personality disorder. Those are the people who feel hurt and rejected all the time. Some of them end up committing crimes because of this, like a psychopath, but for different reasons.
Is there a way to manipulate this part of the brain?
Well there's a paper that came out last year that showed that there was one drug that turned it off. That is, an experiment was done with cancer patients who are afraid of dying. They have this sense of I'm going to die and there's going to be nothing out there. Just this existential dread. But when they were given psilocybin the fear went away.
Psilocybin? As in magic mushrooms?
That's right, magic mushrooms. So the study showed that psilocybin numbs a lot of psychic fear, and I would suggest it probably turns down the pain of social rejection.
Ok, assuming most people are reluctant to take up full time microdosing, I'd say working on attaining healthy self-esteem is a more realistic solution. Can you tell me more about your overriding sense of self worth? Is it backed up by evidence?
Yeah. When I want something, I almost always succeed in getting it. It's just my experience.
Which came first? The sense you could do anything, or the evidence that you could?
The latter option. That is, if I remember back when I was a little kid, I don't remember feeling like I could do anything. But by the time I was in my middle teens, I started to really feel that way. I discovered that if I really had the will to get something, I would always get it. But I think I started with the raw materials for that to be the case. I mean, I look like hell now but when I was growing up I was 6-foot tall and handsome. I was a really good athlete, funny, and smart. So I was lucky in that way. Then I was just able to put those traits together and get what I wanted.
Do you think you're better than others?
I think I'm smarter and more capable than a very large portion of people. I don't think I'm a better person, but I think I'm more capable and have better insights. But I don't think I'm morally or spiritually superior.
Ok, let's put this all together. Do you have any final advice for anyone reading this article?
Well with rejection, I always ask myself "why did this happen?" I never ask "why am I not worthy?" Did I aim for the wrong person, the wrong granting agency, the wrong editor? Did I reach for the wrong pitch? It's always about improving the pitch and the technique, or knowing if you're chasing the wrong thing. That's all it is. When I get rejected I feel bad for like negative-two seconds. It's just, oh how do I fix it?
James Fallon is a neuroscientist, and professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the School of Medicine at the University of California. He is the author of The Psychopath Inside.