What happens when a prominent neuroscientist finds out there is something wrong with his own brain? In this episode we explore the shocking discovery that our guest made when he realized, after years of studying the brains of psychopaths, that he had the exact same brain structure. We unwind the twisted narrative and the wild conclusions that come from his riveting discovery - and much more - with our guest Dr. James Fallon.
Dr. James Fallon is a Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine and internationally renowned neurobiologist. He is the author of the best-seller The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of The Brain. Fallon has lectured worldwide on neurolaw and the brains of psychopathic killers and dictators. His work has been featured on NPR, CBS, ABC, and numerous science specials.
A neuroscientist studying the brains and brain scans of murderers and psychopathic killers discovers something truly shocking
Studying and analyzing the brains of killers - Dr. Fallon found a surprising pattern of what the brain of a psychopath looks like
From studying the genes of Alzheimers patients - Dr. Fallon started uncovering the genetic links to brain structures of psychopaths and sociopaths
Adult Stem Cells in your brain can be activated to reverse serious brain conditions
Real life Criminal Minds - inside the brain of serial killers and psychopaths
What it’s like to discover that you’re a psychopath
What are epigenetics? Why don’t all genes express themselves?
What’s the “junk DNA” in your cells and what does it do?
One of the major things that triggers the expression of certain genes is stress and abuse, especially at a young age (between birth and 3 years old)
Most serial killers were not only psychopaths, but also typically had serious damage to their brains as well
Smart psychopaths are very hard to catch and very hard to spot
For an everyday person, how do you determine that someone is a psychopath or has psychopathic tendencies?
What are the typical signs of psychopathy / narcissistic personality disorder?
The use a lot of personal pronouns, more than an average person talking
Their hands often move up higher and higher above their heads
They will talk very graphically about their own sex life, or their own body, etc
They are very glib, they are very slick verbally, and know what to say
They often seem very intelligent
They are often over confident
They are often very competent and aggressive
They might seem too interested or care too much about you and your emotions
Their conversations always seem like a performance
Some of the most dangerous aspects of psychopathy are pro-social psychopaths who know how to navigate society
Many of the pro-social traits of psychopaths are often overlapping with the major pro-social traits of psychopathy
Psychopaths are always looking for what bothers you emotionally, and then they want to use it against you to manipulate you
What’s the best way to defend yourself from a psychopath manipulating you?
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
[Podcast] Mental Health News Radio - “An Empath Interviews a Psychopath: Dr. James “Jim” Fallon”
[Podcast] Hidden Truth Show with Jim Breslo - “VEGAS: "Psychopath Inside" Author Dr. James Fallon on Mind of the Killer; FBI Agent Chris Quick on Status of Investigation”
[Podcast] The Moth - Stories by James Fallon
[Podcast] NPR - “A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret”
[Podcast] Jordan Harbinger - 28: James Fallon | How to Spot a Psychopath
[Podcast] Snap Judgment - “The Scientist And The Psychopath”
[Article] VICE - “Dr. James Fallon Makes Being a Psychopath Look Like Fun” by Roc Morin
[Article] The Guardian - “How I discovered I have the brain of a psychopath” by James Fallon
[Article] UCI Dept. of Psychiatry - “Neuroscientist's research delves into the brain's dark side” Kathryn Bold
Zeitgeist Minds - James Fallon, Neuroscientist - A Scientist's Journey Through Psychopathy
The Mind Science Foundation - James Fallon, PhD: The Psychopath Inside
Clip from The Brain of a Murderer - Are You Good Or Evil? - Horizon - BBC
Clip from The Doctors - The Shocking Results of Studying Serial Killers’ Brains
Australia TV - Insight: S2014 Ep16 What Makes a Psychopath
Virga Tears by James Fallon
[0:02:57.0] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. James Fallon. Jim is a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at UC Irvine, an internationally-renowned neurobiologist. He's the author of the bestseller, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain. He's lectured worldwide on neural law and the brains of psychopathic killers and dictators. His work has been featured in NPR, CBS, ABC and numerous science specials. Jim, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:30.1] JF: Matt, very good to be here. Thanks for the invite, Matt.
[0:03:32.9] MB: Well, we're excited to have you on the show. There's so many interesting things to touch on and discuss. I'd love to open it up with your personal story and your own personal journey; it's so fascinating and I think really lays the groundwork for getting into some of the meat of the lessons you've learned and the work you've done with your research.
[0:03:51.7] JF: Sure. I've always been a hobbit scientist, like a small lab. I pretty much knew I was going to be a scientist when I was seven or eight-years-old. I really did. I met the girl and dated, had a first date with a girl who I ended up – I still live with her. She was 11 and I was 11-years-old and we went to a dance together. I've been set in my life from very early on.
It's been a quite a modest life, I think. I've been a professor ever since I can remember. I went to Saint Michael's College for my BS, Biology and Chemistry. Then I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and got a degree in psychophysics and psychology, and then to the University of Illinois Medical School for my doctorate. Then out here in to California, UC San Diego in La Jolla for my postdoc, and then started out as a professor in 1975, and I've been here ever since. I'm like a potted plant here.
I've had I think a successful career and a successful happy life and a big family and we have a great time. There's nothing remarkable there at all, except just a regular guy that did okay. Everything went smoothly. Until about well, right around 2005-2006 and then Gandalf showed up at my door.
[0:05:10.6] MB: Tell me more about that.
[0:05:12.2] JF: Well, I had been looking at the brain scans of serial killers, mostly psychopathic murderers, but also impulsive murders since about 1989. I was doing it for X students who are now in psychiatry and radiology. They asked me to look at these PET scans, positron emission, tomography brain scans of guys who were murderers. Now we're in the penalty phase of their trials, so they wanted – they all basically wanted to find – have somebody say, “Hey, the devil made me do it.” There was something organically wrong with their brain and therefore, they shouldn't undergo the death penalty at that time.
I did those every year, one or two a year, and I didn't even notice it was just such a peripheral thing in my research. I read a lot of scans, thousands of scans for all sorts of people with all sorts of diseases, including psychopathy. I did that until around 2005, then I got a whole load of these scans to look at from different research, different psychiatrists and lawyers, attorneys. I told them, “Just send me a bunch of them. Don't tell me who is what. Anybody's a murderer and mix it in with normal people and people with schizophrenia, etc.”
I got these whole pile of about 70 of them to look at. At the end of that analysis, it was 1975, I found that there was a pattern. Nobody had ever really described a pattern before, so I started giving talks and wrote a paper about it in 2001, 5 or 6, at law school about the pattern of what a psychopathic brain looks like.
That was a new thing and it was interesting, because I read patterns. That's what my work is about. At the same time and it's purely coincidentally, we were doing clinical study on the genetics of Alzheimer's disease. We were doing PET scans and EEGs and genetics of people with Alzheimer's, looking for what gene had not been discovered that was interacting with the APOE gene, which was known to be a risk factor.
In the course of that, we were finished with the study, but we needed more normals. We had all the patients we needed. We needed them quickly, so I got my family. This was my first mistake. I got my family, including myself to get the PET scans done and do the genetics and the psychometrics for this Alzheimer study.
Everybody come in that and some flew in from New York and other places and we did the study. At the end of that, I was sitting at my desk looking at – I had all those pile of scans from all these murders, and the technicians came in and said, “We have the PET scans from your family.” I quickly looked at them. I know, I've seen so many that I know if there's something jumps out as a pattern that is abnormal. I went through this pile about eight or nine scans and they all look normals. It was great, because my wife was worried, because her whole family – many of them had died of Alzheimer's. She went along with it all. She said she was quite brave about it. She said, “Okay, I'll do it because it may help our kids and grandkids.”
Any rate, I was looking through and everything was normal, so you're really quite happy about that. Then I got to the last scan and the last scan, I pulled it out and I said – I called in the technicians. I said, “Guys, that's really funny. You took one of those psychopathic murderers and you slipped it into my family scans and haha.” Because you screw around, even in labs, right? Keep it screwing around. You're supposed to tell the joke.
Any rate, they go, “No. No, no. That's one of your family.” I said, “Whoever this is should not be walking around in open society. It's a very dangerous person, probably,” because it looked just like the psychopathic pattern I had seen in these murderers too and other psychopaths. they said, “No, it's really your family.”
I had to break the code by peeling back the cover on the name and then the name was mine. I sat there and just stared at it and got a good chuckle. They were laughing too. I said, “This is good.” I said, “Yeah, this is the joke, right? You got a scientist studying psychopathic killers, he gets a brain scan done and it's him.” Gandalf shows up at the door and it's him.
I mean, I saw that and I just laughed, because I know who I am, right? I'm a pretty regular guy. I still have my teams described, for Christ's sake.
I didn't say anything, except years later and I remembered this a couple years after that, I brought the – I went home that week after I was looking at the scans and I told my wife and I said, “You know, the damnedest thing happened. I got the scans of our family and everybody's including yours is quite normal, which is great.” I said, “But mine look just like the worst psychopath pure pattern I had seen.” She said something that was really odd. She goes, “It doesn't surprise me.”
Now, I know when she screws around, she's messing with me, but she wasn't. She was quite serious. I just let it go and figured what I think any scientist would. Since I'm okay, my theory must be wrong. Well, it turns out my theory is not wrong. This is one case where I wish it was. We were so busy and I had just started – I had raised about seven million dollars for a stem cell company, as we had found that adult stem cells in a animal’s brain or a person's brain are there and can be activated in adulthood. This was not embryonic stem cells; these were the person's own adults stem cells.
I was so busy finishing up the patents and raising money for that. I really didn't care about these scans, about my psychopathic scan. People have a hard time believing, but I really did and I figured, “Well, something's wrong with the scans.” I was just too busy and we were writing up other patents for schizophrenia and Alzheimer's and writing papers. We're very busy at the time with this other important, morally more important work. This tertiary stuff about the psychopathic brain and these killers was really just as really a side tertiary issue.
At any rate, a while later, I got the genetics back and the genetics showed the same thing, that is my family was an average of all the high and low level alleles forms of these genes, like warrior genes. For each complex adaptive behavior, there's about 15 or more genes that regulate it. The chances are, it's like a casino that if you roll the dice of these 15 or 20 genes, the chances are you’re going to get an average number of high-level and low-level acting genes, so you may get some high violence-related genes and low, but most people are in the middle, that's what we call normal.
Some people get none of them and they're very passive people. In the case of mine, I got all of them. I got all these forms of these highly aggressive genes that are called warrior genes and also all the genes associated with low emotional empathy, high cognitive empathy and low emotional empathy and low anxiety. I had these things that are associated with psychopathy. The brain pattern look just like it.
Both mental biological markers, the main biological markers of antisocial personality disorder that is psychopathy, but I was like a regular guy, so it didn't make sense. After this, I was asked to give a TED talk. That was a couple of years after. I the TED talk they said, “Tell us about something that's interesting.” I was going to give them the story of starting a stem cell company, in an area of science that wasn't popular, that is endogenous stem cells. Everybody wanted engineering. Everybody likes to engineer stuff, for cells, embryonic stem cells into becoming brain cells, which is great, but that's not what we were doing.
It sound like, I got the story about how hard it is to buck the system in science and they said, “Do you have anything more personal?” This is my second mistake was that I said, “Well, actually there's this other screwball thing, but I don't know if anybody be interested in it.” I told them the story about the brain scans and me and all this stuff of my family. They go, “That's it.” I said, “Oh, boy.” I ended up giving that TED talk. Then there was a lot of interest in it.
I don't know anything about marketing, but I do know that over – if you have some video with the keywords are psychopathic killer, you'll get 30,000 hits in about an hour. That's what General Electric and the TED people put as keywords. My colleagues were calling me and saying, “You just got 30 and the 40, 50,000 hits,” so quickly got up to a million hits on my TED talk. I guess, I think it was more about the keywords of the views. We have good marketers.
At any rate, I started to get lots of calls from people. I got a call from the showrunner for Criminal Minds that is Simon Mirren. He and another guy were the head showrunners, writers, executive producers of the Criminal Minds. He says, “I know what you're talking about.” He said, “You're not talking about yourself. You're talking about the effect of long-term violence in neighborhoods and in countries.” I said, “Absolutely right.” He got it. I couldn't believe it.
He said, “You got to come up and act in it.” I acted in the 100th – I think it's a 99th episode of Criminal Minds called Outfoxed. He put me in there to just blab away. I'm not an actor, but he goes, “No, no. You'll be fine. Just say your stuff.” We become good friends since then. I worked with him and we try to put shows together, etc. That was an outcome of that.
Then I got approached by three literary agents from New York. I chose one that was the one that had just done Obama's book. Actually, the head editor was smarting a little bit, because that was the book where it said that Obama was born in Kenya. She was very careful about vetting my – in doing research on my book. When I was writing the book that was living in this little 500-year-old chateau. It wasn't a chateau, it was like a block house up in the Alps in the northern Italy that my friend was a psychiatrist, his family has owned forever.
I wrote it there the year afterwards. It wasn't until 2010, I was asked to give a talk, a public talk at the university with the ex-Prime Minister of Norway. I was at the University of Oslo and I gave a public talk with the prime minister. He had just come out and he had admitted that – admitted; he told the country that he as prime minister was just diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Now for a European, especially in northern European, especially a northern European politician to admit that he had some psychiatric disorder, that took a lot of balls. I was quite impressed with that, and so I flew over and gave the talk with him. He gave his personal story and I gave the story of how we diagnose people and how we find out – basically, how we find out what the genes are and what the brain patterns are with all different disorders, including bipolar and depression, also schizophrenia.
I had to use somebody's data to show how we did it. I had to use mine. Ethically, I could only use mine. I showed all my data and all of my behaviors throughout my life. At the end of the talk, a guy stood up and he was the head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Oslo. He goes, “Well, thanks for that talk. That was good.” He says, “I got two things to say. First of all, you're a bipolar yourself. You don't know it. You're just up all the time.”
Matt, you can see how I'm talking here. I'm trying to slow it down, but if the more I talk, I'll become very fast. It's not just because I'm from New York. It's just I'm hypomanic and that's part of the definition of bipolar. The thing is I just don't get down at all, which you don't have to be down in order to have bipolar. I never had heard this before. I'd heard that I was hypomanic from clinicians, but not bipolar. That was interesting.
I said, “Okay.” He said, “The second thing, we want to talk to you afterwards.” After my talk, we met up the president at the University of Oslo's house for reception. At it, the head of the department of psychiatry and other psychiatrists and psychologists I was talking to him and having some wine and everything for a few hours. At the end of that discussion they said, “You probably don't realize this, but you're probably right on the border really being a psychopath.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” That was the first time I ever took it seriously. That was the end of 2010.
When I went home, I started to ask people individually, like my wife and then my kids and my brothers and sisters and people really close to me and psychiatrists who knew me well. I said, “What do you really think of me?” I said, “Don't be scared or anything like that. Just tell me the truth.” They all told me the same thing, that I do these psychopathic things. I don't seem dangerous, but I still do things that are psychopathic.
Okay. That was a surprise. That led on to the question of if I had all of these traits, biological determinants of psychopathy, why was I just a regular guy? Because I don't even have an arrest. Well, I’ve been arrested, but I was talking to cops out of it. Growing up and we used to get in all sorts of mischief. They could cart my friends away, but I always have – the cops always thought, “Well, he's just in it for the fun,” which was true. I never really got booked at all ever, but as playful as most guys were, if you will.
At any rate, I really didn't quite understand it. While I was writing that book, the two years later 2012-2013 in Italy, two papers came out to show that the genes that were supposed to be warrior genes, that had to do with the metabolism of serotonin, that if you have them in your abuse early in life between birth and about three-years-old, it's real bad news. People who get that usually turn into psychopaths.
This was a case of epigenetics, that is you have genes, but then they're changed, they're turned on forever, as opposed to just in the context of being turned on. You get me mad, I get mad, but I'm not mad all the time, or I'm not revenged all the time. That made sense. What made more sense is that if you were treated well, it had the opposite effect. These warrior genes became resistance, resilience genes that negated the other tendencies to become a psychopath. Well Ii said, “Well, this is it.”
That it really made me reflect on how I was brought up, which was I was brought up in a great family. All my grandparents and my aunts and uncles were wonderful. I’m just crazy about them and looking at all the pictures and the movies and just the memories, there's all this very positive stuff. Especially my mother and her sisters, they were all educated. They're Sicilians and they're educated, because their father, my grandfather came from Sicily and they’re very poor; at 11-years-old that he lived on the streets of New York. He just had to really make his way there. He's completely uneducated, but he made a vow that if he ever had kids, his daughters would all go to college and they did.
Not only they went to college at a time when women didn't go to college much, but they also went on to graduate school, either nursing or my mother went to business school. Very hit people and very – they’re smart, but they're wise too. My mother knew and she admitted this to me a few years ago. She's 102 now, I couldn’t believe it. She admitted a few years back, she goes that she was quite worried about me. Not the other kids, but about me because I was acting strangely when I was going through puberty; very dark person.
One of the things she did without telling me is she told all my teachers to keep me busy. I ended up playing for intercollegiate sports all through high school and college. They’re violent sports – not violent, high contact sports, wrestling and downhill skiing and football and somethings like that. I was always busy with these sports. If I wasn't in the sports, I was in plays being acting, or in the arts, music, playing music.
She kept me busy constantly. I guess it worked, because she goes, “Whenever you got bored, it was trouble.” This came back years later, because a few years ago when I was analyzed by two psychiatrists. They didn't know this, but one of them said, “Well, here's a guy who has got all the thoughts and urges and dreams and everything, augmentations of a full-blown psychopath, but he just never axed them out.”
It was odd. He didn't understand how that happened, because I have apparently what I think about and my drives are quite psychopathic, which you don't know in your own brain. I just thought everybody had this. They said, “Well, you just have a well-developed upper part of your prefrontal cortex that suppresses it at all. You have all these urges and just never play – act them out,” which is true.
My mother knew this, but this drive I had that I had to be kept busy, which I always have. That was the fix I get. I was also raised in this wonderful family, and so whatever genetic proclivity I have, it was never epigenetically triggered, that is marked epigenetically so that these warrior genes are always on, okay. They're not like that. I'm very competitive, like a lot of people are very competitive and all her kids are. My mother is, they're all killers, in the sense of being they can't lose. We're all driven to succeed. Even my granddaughters, everybody is like that. Just the worst family to play Scrabble with, or poker with, because of this drive to always win no matter what. We have that, but we don't have the drive to murder or rape or do anything like that. We’re a pain in the ass to play games with.
[0:22:52.8] MB: It's a truly incredible journey going from being a neuroscientist who's studying the brains of psychopaths to discovering that you may be a borderline psychopath yourself. It's an incredible coincidence.
[0:23:06.2] JF: It's stupid. It's really stupid when you think about it. There it is. I mean, it’s pure serendipity and purely a mistake of how I found out. I'm able to function okay. I married a great woman who's very tolerant of my behaviors and she knows who she is. That was a key. I was like, I was born into the right family and I ended up marrying somebody who's very smart and very tolerant of my craziness, if you will. Not craziness, but I was like a wild guy in a way, okay.
In the sense – I'll give me the sense of wildness, because it was, I don't think it was a big deal, but I'm just one of these guys. I went to Saint Michael's College and one of my classmates contacted me many, many years later. This was maybe about five years ago. We were there from 1965 to 69. A couple of years ago, he contacted me. I hadn't been in contact with him and he goes, “Jim.” He was, “I growing up –” when he was in his 20s he says, “I never dated girls and women and then brought them to a dinner and a movie.” He didn't do that, he says.
One day he did. It was like 1978 or 79, 10 years after we graduated. He is sitting in this movie and he's halfway through the movie and goes, “I went to school with this guy.” He did all of the stuff, exactly the stuff. Of course it turned out to be Animal House. It was talking about Bluto, because all of those things that Bluto did, I did. He thought that this guy – the other writers followed me around. I said, “Look, every school had a couple of those guys.” Everybody knows that guy.
That’s how I was – behavior, even though it was really academic. Obviously, it was pretty academic all the way through my life, but I love to screw around and be a joker and do the stuff that Bluto did, that John Belushi did in Animal House, exactly the same stuff. It's that stuff. It's being slightly naughty, not being a bad guy really.
[0:25:04.2] MB: There's a lot of different things I want to unpack from your story and your journey and your work. Maybe to start out, I'm actually curious to dig in a little bit around this conversation about genes and epigenetics. I'm somewhat familiar with this, but I'd love to explore and maybe explain for the listeners what exactly do you mean when you say epigenetics and why don't genes always express themselves if they're present?
[0:25:30.5] JF: Yeah. Every cell in your body has basically the same coding genes. In about each cell, about 5%, 7% of your genetic material is what people consider to be genetics, like a warrior gene, or stress genes, or control heartrate, etc. The rest of it, so-called junk DNA was years ago was found out and they didn't really – like Barbara McClintock back in the 40s and 50s, they didn't understand what it meant, this junk DNA. Well, the junk DNA turns out to be all these regulators of genes and not the genes themselves.
There's a whole group of these and these regulators of the genes are where most of the action is. They are regulators of the regulators too. They're called transposons, which we study a lot about in schizophrenia in our own lab. There are these regulators of genes and the regulators have different forms. If someone can be long or short – if you have the long form, it's like a gas pedal that's on, like heavy. If you have the light form of the gene, low aggression gene, a warrior gene, that's the low allele form, and a second gas pedal that's not turned on light.
Then the regulators, if you add methyl groups to them, these little methyl groups; carbon with three hydrogens, you can add them to these regulators of the genes and what happens then is that they're on all the time. It's like having your foot on the pedal all the time. You lose the context dependence of behaviors.
If you look at behaviors, for example of psychopaths and narcissists and everything, those behaviors in and of themselves are not considered pathological if they're in the right context. Nothing is wrong with murdering somebody, if somebody is trying to murder you or murder your family, for example. It's not the actual behavior, it's the context of behavior.
Having sex. There's nothing wrong with sex, but you have sex at certain times with certain people, not all the time with everybody. If you have these epigenetic marks, which the marks or the methyl groups basically, then these things are turned on all the time and you lose the context dependence of your behaviors, that's what's pathological. Now that's one explanation of epigenetics.
It's like the notes are all there in the piano, but which ones are being played is the epigenetic part of it, right? You're not always playing all the notes all the time. That's the quick and dirty of it of what epigenetics is.
One of the major epigenetic markers, what does the marking is stress and abuse. What's important for the elaboration of the etiology of personality disorders, especially the pernicious ones, which we call the cluster B personality disorders, the dangerous ones like psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorders that have to do with how you treat other people, your interactions with other people and what makes you a predator or not a predator on other people. Well, those genes can be turned on all the time, but the way they get turned on permanently is if you're abused early.
First of all, you have to have the forms of the genes that are the high acting forms that are related to for example, high violence or low emotional empathy or low anxiety. If you have the genes already, that's not pathological. If you're abused or abandoned early in life between birth and three-years-old, that permanently sets them in a high form. It's like keeping the gas pedal all the time on. It's pretty much permanent. That's what's pathological. You have to have this interaction between early environment. It's not just any environments; early environment and it usually has to do with abuse, with these – the forms of the genes that can be dangerous. Those two together is what makes the magic of these pathological personality disorders.
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[0:30:44.4] MB: You obviously had the benefit of science, the research, actually looking at the brain scans and the genetic analysis. For an everyday person, how do you determine, or notice, or discover if somebody has psychopathic tendencies, or if they are a psychopath?
[0:31:02.5] JF: Yeah. For somebody who is a – not a damaged psychopath, because a lot of people I study, the murderers, they're sloppy and they were hit over the head with pipes and abused drugs, etc. Not only were they psychopaths, but they also had brain damage, right? These guys are usually caught early. Teenagers, they start behaving poorly around, even before they're 12 or 13, some of them they’re five-years-old.
They usually get caught, because they’re sloppy. There are psychopaths that do not have this other brain damage. These guys if they're smart, they're very hard to catch and very hard to sort out, that is to determine who they are.
Now I work with a group and one of the things I do is work with the oppositions in these countries that have dictators; North Korea, Syria, Russia. There's about 12 of them. We work with them, but one of the things they like me to do is to go in and hang out with whoever is coming in as the opposition leader, right? To determine, maybe the guy coming in is worse than the tyrant they have in there now.
That usually involves hanging around the guy, having drinks, getting drunk with them and just talking at a bar for hours, looking for the signs. If you're in a case where you're talking to a really smart guy or gal and they haven't – they're not damaged and they know what the signs are for psychopathy, or NPD, narcissistic personality disorder, they've learned to suppress them.
You can go on for an hour or two and they don't show you anything. Some will go on for days and they won’t show you much of anything. The typical way of looking for the tells of psychopath is – I mean, there's some lightweight things like as they're talking, their hands – when they use their hands talking, they go higher and higher in front of your face, so their hands get very high.
Not like talking to an Italian, where the hands are right below the chin and go, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. The hands go up. Also, they use a lot of personal pronouns more than the average person talking; I, me, I, I, me, me. They also talk in a funny way about their own guts. They’ll talk about – have a stomachache. They'll talk about it in a very graphic way, or about their sex life, or about things that are visceral. They get really explicit about it and seem quite happy about it.
Not all of them do that, but that's not a typical, okay? Which is to say it's fairly typical of them if they talk long enough. Also, you start getting a feeling, getting a little bit of a creepy feeling from them if you keyed into this. Now part of the danger of psychopathy are the people who are near psychopaths, that is they have a lot of the pro-social traits. There are pro-social traits. Pro-social doesn't mean you're nice. It means that you have traits that allow you to navigate society without being caught.
Then there are the negative traits, which make you basically an asshole. Nobody likes those. They're really antisocial. They're criminal. Even other criminals don't like them. The positive traits, which are about half of the traits, these are things like being glib and being very slick verbally. I'm always asked of course, “Is Trump a psychopath?” Of course, no psychopaths talk like Trump. Nobody does. The people, the person with the most – I didn't vote for Trump, but the people who they talk like are people who are really smooth, like Bill Clinton is probably got the most positive and negative traits of a psychopath.
I’m not saying he's a psychopath, but he's got it. It's that smooth glib talking guy that a lot of people really love. Obama had it too. There are other presidents and leaders who have it throughout history, which is the very glib. They know they got the rap and people are drawn to that. They think it's a sign of intelligence. Sometimes it is, but people – you can find a street guy who's got the really cool rap, but doesn't mean he's really intelligent, but they know what to say and they talk fast and all that stuff. Those are positive signs, or positive traits, because it allows you to navigate through society.
They're also very confident, a bit too much. They’re very confident. These traits of being very positive and really being narcissistic – You don't have to be a narcissist to be a psychopath, but they usually have this very big wonderful thoughts about themselves. It makes them confident. A lot of people likes somebody who talks well, they're glib, they talk fast and they are also very confident. It turns out that the same traits that are considered pathological, but the positive traits, or pro-social traits of psychopathy are the same ones that people consider to be leadership.
People always wonder, “Why do we get so many leaders of not just politics, but journalism, everywhere? Why do we have these people?” Well, because we like those people. We choose people with those traits, because you like, “I want that guy. I want that gal on my side.” They're really glib and they're aggressive and they always seem to win things. They take chances and they win.
Well, this is leadership, but it's also psychopathy. This confusion allows them to do very well in society, as long as they don't have a lot of negative traits. If they have the negative traits too, then they have enough – they score enough on the psychopathy tests, like the hair test, or the PPI, which is otherwise normal people, the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, that they score high enough, that they have the traits, but not so many that they're clinically diagnosed.
Somebody like me, I have positive traits and not many of the negative traits at all. I can get away with a lot of things. Psychopaths, especially borderline ones with the positive traits, people let them get away with things because they can be very – lot of fun and they seem to be charismatic, which means they walk in the room, they got that light around them, like Clinton, or Obama, or I don’t – maybe some people think that somebody like Trump does too. I don't, but nonetheless, there are these consensus things like this guy, did you see him? I mean, he's got the light around him. Well, that is not only leadership, but it's usually associated with psychopaths too.
That's that makes it hard to find them out. In fact for guys, a lot of women love this stuff, right? Oh, he's really confident, he’s cool and he's got the rap, he's all this stuff and he knows what he's doing and he seems to be a winner. Women are naturally – not every woman, but a lot of women are drawn to that. They also will draw in psychopaths. The psychopaths, what they will tend to do is they'll engage you and they know that – first of all, they're looking for your weaknesses. What's your problem? If they really want even some way, either to take your money, or to have you sexually, or just to own you for a moment, for a couple of hours, because a lot of times it never leads anywhere, but they just like to own people for the moment.
As they're talking, the back of their mind they're saying, “Okay, is this person what? Does this personally hate their father and their mother? They hate authority or they feel suppressed or they’re religious?” They're always digging slightly for any signs and symptoms of what bothers you emotionally. That's what they'll put in their holster and use that against you to manipulate you. That's the game. Since they’re so charming, you don't see it.
Now some people will smell a rat all the time. It's funny, because my wife, she always complains. She goes, “Just my girlfriends. We’re always hit on when we were growing up.” She’s, “Nobody ever hit on me.” I said, “Because you got a sign on this. Your sign is keep off the grass.” She could really sniff out a rat. She didn't sniff out me, because she knows me to be a nice guy otherwise, right? Even though she knows I’m a jerk, and so when I start acting up either at a party or a bar and I got people around me and I'm telling stories, she goes, “You're doing that thing again. You're doing that thing.”
She never really talks about it that much and she never really wanted to do any interviews, because we had had a lot of interviews here from different networks and we had the BBC here twice. Then one of the BBC thinks she finally said something. The only time she's ever said anything in any interviews. She goes like, “I'm married to two guys. One guy is this really, fun, smart guy, kind, great guy to be around, he's got a lot of great friends and he's just a kick. He's interesting and loving and all that.” She said, “I love that guy.” She says, “Then there’s this other guy, this dark character. I do not like at all.”
She has always known me to be that way and accepts it, because my actual behavior is not so bad, you know what I mean? I'm a guy, but I'm not – I'm still within the range of acceptable guyness, I guess. She knows who the asshole is there and she does not like that. I can suppress that. I've learned now that I know that I might have these traits or might be close to being a psychopath, I've tried to overcome it.
I said to myself a few years ago, a couple years ago. I said, “Nobody can beat psychopathy.” I said, “But I can do it.” Because I just tried to use my own narcissism to say, “Nobody can do it, but I can do it. I'm that good at this stuff.” Every interaction with my wife, I started with my wife and for a couple of months and I tried – I thought to myself, “What would a good guy do in this specific circumstance?” A lot of it's just being a good roommate. You pour the wine for the other person first, you pick up after yourself. Regular, like being a good roommate stuff.
Then it was things like going to her aunt's funeral, or my own aunt’s funeral, where I'd find an excuse and I'd be down at some – I'd say, “Well, I’m busy. I got to do this thing.” I’d be down at some beach bar in Newport having a party, while they're at the cemetery. I do those things, which are not considered too nice.
Everywhere in between that, I just kept looking at all my behaviors and I found out a couple of things. First of all, after a month of this, I was completely exhausted every night. Instead of sleeping four hours a night, which I've always slept since I was maybe 17 or 18, instead of sleeping eight hours, I started sleeping four hours a night. Now when I was trying to do this, I started this – I was up five and six and then seven hours, because I was so exhausted from trying to be a nice guy.
After two months, she said to me spontaneously, she goes, “What has come over you?” I say, “What are you talking about?” She just, “Like you're really nice guy all the time.” I had to tell her. I said, “Don't take it seriously. It’s an experiment. I’m trying to see if I can suppress all of my urges to be a jerk and to be a nice guy.” I said, “I've been watching my other friends what they do.” They have kids and grandkids. I noticed that they do things I don't do and they really sacrifice themselves.
I tried to do that and other people noticed that too. I've been trying to fight it, but you got to think about it every day. It’s like an addiction. If you look at anybody who has alcohol addiction, or food addiction, or drugs, or anything, in order to overcome it, the only way to do it is every day you've got to make a conscious decision. It's so exhausting, but it's a lifelong thing. Or else, in the case of one addict, they slip back into it.
That's why most people who do a New Year's resolution, they're back doing the same stuff in the week than people who are chronic sinners. I grew up Catholic, so we went to confession. I’d ask a lot of priests, but also rabbis and ministers. I said, “Do people always have the same sins? Bad sins?” They go, “Yes.” Then the obvious occurred to me is that these what people call sins, which they can be absolved and it's just psychopathy. The same bad shit you do all the time to people.
The good thing about going to a confession or talking to your God is that you're absolved of it. You're forgiven for because that's the way that system is set up. It's easier and more comforting to say that I am a sinner, but I'm going to try better, than to say I'm a psychopath, which is no cure for. It’s being damned, I guess.
I tried to do it by just always thinking. I'm still trying to do it. I'm really succeeding, except I'm sleeping longer and longer and less of academically successful than I was before I found this out, because I didn't sleep much. I was able to work a lot. When people ask me, “What's the secret of your success?” I don't sleep, or when I sleep, I get a full night's sleep and get on my REM sleep in, and so it takes me two seconds of low sleep. I get all the sleep, but it's also correlates I think with my ability to produce and be successful.
You have these different things that people consider faults, but a lot of times they're your strengths too. I'm sure you've heard this many times and I think it's quite true. All those things that are the bane of your life, different conditions that you might have, things – bad things that have happened. Well for me, I welcome these so-called bad things, because – and the failures, they're built into how you improve yourself. If you accept those things, it becomes very easy to fail and it becomes very easy to take those negative things in your life and I make it better. I do that and I did it with this too. I'm still trying to be a nice guy.
[0:44:37.5] MB: How do you, or how does someone listening defend themselves against being manipulated by a psychopath?
[0:44:46.0] JF: If you engage a psychopath and usually, probably your listeners are successful, smart guys and gals that and they're going to run into psychopaths or partial psychopaths, or pro-socials that are pretty smart too. If you engage them and think you're going to beat them, forget it, because that's their whole game. A lot of psychopaths will groom people for weeks and months and even years. They'll have a number of people they’re trying to get to for different reasons. Women to get at, men to get at, violence to pull over on you, or money to steal from you, or just to manipulate you.
They'll have multiple people going at one time and they'll be grooming. They can be very patient too. They're not all just impulsive. People can be setting you up for months, weeks and weeks, months, even years to finally get you. They’re grooming you and they're getting you into a place where you accept, they trust you. They not only trust you, they find – will probably be suspicious a bit. You're going to have to be a little naughty with them or something and you get them to accept that, find it as exciting.
You got to go – if you look at all the people who follow gurus, like Charlie Manson. He was able to read these women for their hatred of their fathers and society and then he was able to use all that. He groomed all those gals for years. It's not that hard to do. As long as the person you're talking to is pissed off at something and upset, they want to get even. Now those are very easy to get to.
It doesn't matter how smart they are either. They can get them. They'll be grooming you and be getting a lot of information. I mean, for me when I can see somebody doing it, they seem too interested in you, you know what I mean? It's like, they care too much about you. Some people, especially women will say, “Oh, he's really interested in what I'm thinking, what I'm saying.” You say, “Well, actually he's grooming you right now. He's acting very interested in you. Unusually interested, like I've never met a boy or a man who is this interested in what I have to say.”
A psychopaths will be able to read that need that this is somebody who's a gal who really doesn't feel she gets respect, and so act like a guy who really cares what she says. While he's doing that, he's reading into what you're mad at, what your weak spots are. A lot of times, these guys – and I can see them. I’m sitting on a bar listening to them. I roll my eyes. There’s always some guy, one guy in a bar at least that's a real psychopath, and you can hear him working on people. They're very intensive and they’re very – they’re throwing a joke and it seems –
If you look at them enough, it seems like – it's always a performance. It doesn't seem like a natural organic conversation to me ever. It's very somewhat scripted interaction. They care too much on what the young man or the young gal has to say. They're interested. They’re a little too caring. All of these things add up and really will be probing, will be probing for some personal information and about your family and you – that seems normal, right? It seems normal. It's nice to have somebody who really cares about you, rather than talking about themselves all the time.
At some point, there's some people that just care too much. The question is what is that? Is there some threshold that's useful and you say, “Ah, you pass the threshold. You're a psychopath. I don't want anything to do with you,” walk away. Well, it's like that. The best thing to do with somebody who really think is a psychopath, who cares too much and gets a little – starts getting more and more a little controlling or creepy with you, you walk away. You don't try to fight it. You just walk away, because that's their game and they love playing the game, and so you just walk away.
[0:48:26.0] MB: What would be one really simple, quick action step, or piece of homework that would give for listeners who have been listening to this conversation and either want to maybe investigate their own psychology, or think about ways to better understand psychopathy?
[0:48:43.2] JF: Yeah, there's no really good way to do it yourself, because people not only lie to themselves, but they also are too rough on themselves. Let's say, well I have this narcissistic trait. They really don't. It's very mild. Even if you do with some friends that try to be dramatic about your traits, whereas the real trait if you score them to zero like you have none of that trait, or one, you have a bit, or two, you have the full-blown trait; people tend to be a little bit too much in denial, will give too many zeroes and too many twos, not enough ones.
It's very hard to do this yourself. The only way – you can't really tell if somebody's a psychopath by looking at their genes or their brain scans either. You have to do it by being – having a formal structured-unstructured interview with a psychologist, or psychiatrist who knows personality disorders. It's the only way to do it.
There are people who take online tests, like the Levinson, the PPI, or the hair test if they get a hold of it. They take these tests online, but they really – it doesn't work too well, because some people want to be it. They think it's cool to be a psychopath. It's not so cool to be a psychopath, but they’ll think it is, so they’ll be scoring themselves heavily like, “I'm really good there.” Well, they're really not. Whereas, the real psychopath will hide it.
They’ll probably suppress it and they’ll force it to be a lower number. They don't want to be found out to themselves either. It's very difficult to do it yourself. I had been working around them and worked in the field and I didn't even know it myself, what I had. I should have been completely aware. In fact, psychiatrists around me had told me for years, they said, “We've been telling you, you're a borderline psychopath. You never listen.”
I said, “I thought you were saying I was crazy.” They say, “You’re not crazy. We didn't say you're crazy. We said you have psychopathic traits and you’re a pain in the ass, man. You just do things that are like that.” I just didn't listen to it. I heard it as I wanted to hear it. I was certainly in denial. I don't like having this. I'm a father and a grandfather and it's not so great, because it's –they have to live with that. The only good thing is I've never done anything. I don't have a record or anything, so I'm just a – some animal in a zoo, I guess a bit. They don't really mind.
It's a weird game to play, because it can affect some kids and you got to watch it. The answer to your question is the only way to do it is to go to a psychologist who knows adult psychopathy and adult personality disorders. It's going to cost some money to do it. You really can't do it with an online test. That's the answer you did not want, Matt.
[0:51:24.5] MB: No, that’s still very helpful. For listeners who want to find you and your work and your writing online, what's the best place for them to do that?
[0:51:32.8] JF: If you just put – if you type in James Fallon Psychopathy, you'll see my posts all over the place, unfortunately. Either in the videos, because I've given a lot of talks, so you can probably find about 50 videos of different talks I've given. It's James H. Fallon. If you just, James Fallon Psychopath seems to pull up a lot of stuff, and that's one way to do it.
People can also contact me. I don't respond to phone calls at all, because I just – you got stuff somewhere, or texts. People e-mail me with real questions and I try to answer them. I have a book that's I still I guess, pretty relevant because the sales are still quite good on it. That's The Psychopath Inside.
We do other research too. Even though I'm semi-retired, because I shut my labs down, I still do research with my collaborators. We do other research too. If you want to look up what kind of work I'm doing, you look in PubMed, P-U-B-M-E-D and just put in James H. Fallon. My papers would come up on other research I'm doing well.
[0:52:40.2] MB: Well Jim, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your incredible and wild personal story and all the lessons that you've learned from the fascinating research that you've done.
[0:52:51.5] JF: My pleasure, Matt. You made it easy for me too.
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