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Two years ago I drove the legendary Canadian psychologist Robert Hare through the Welsh countryside so he could catch his train to the airport. We saw a car crash. Someone had been thrown clean through the window. The shock of it sent my amygdala into overdrive. It shot signals of fear and distress up and down to my central nervous system like there was no tomorrow. I started swerving all over the road.
"Psychopaths would see that crash and their amygdalae would barely register a thing," said Bob.
The way he described the amygdalae of psychopaths reminded me of one of those Hubble photographs of a dead planet. My amygdala, conversely, was like one of those Hubble photographs of solar flares. I was, in my over-anxiety, the neurological opposite of a psychopath.
Then Bob said, almost to himself, “I should never have done all my research in prisons. I should have spent my time inside the Stock Exchange as well.”
I looked at Bob. “Really?” I said.
“But surely stock market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial killer psychopaths,” I said.
“Serial killers ruin families,” shrugged Bob. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
This – Bob was saying – was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths. That part of the brain that doesn’t function right. You’re standing on an escalator and you watch the people going past on the opposite escalator. If you could climb inside their brains you would see we aren’t all the same. We aren’t all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They’re the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond.
It seemed such an extraordinary thought – almost the wild supposition of a conspiracy theorist. But Bob Hare and his fellow psychologists, who believe much the same thing, weren't conspiracy theorists. They were thoughtful and reflective and clever. Their statistic was this: a little under 1% of regular people are psychopaths, meaning an absolutely absence of empathy. 25% of the prison population are psychopaths (and are responsible for 60% of prison unrest). And nearly 4% of people at the top of the corporate tree are psychopaths. You're four times more likely to be ruled by a psychopath than you are to have one as your subordinate.
"But getting access to people like that can be difficult," Bob said. "Prisoners are easy. They like meeting researchers. It breaks up the monotony of their day. But CEOs, politicians…” Bob looked at me. “It’s a really big story,” he said. “It’s a story that could change forever the way people see the world…”
That was the conversation that convinced me I had to journey, armed with my new psychopath-spotting abilities, into the corridors of power.
It's two years later, and my book, The Psychopath Test, is finished. The conclusion I came to is that Bob is right. Capitalism, at its most ruthless, is a physical manifestation of psychopathy. Theirs is the brain anomaly that shapes our world.
But I learned someone else – there is a terrible seductive danger in spotting psychopaths everywhere. In fact becoming a psychopath spotter turns you a little psychopathic. You start to dehumanize people, define them by their maddest edges, wedge people into the box marked psychopath. Almost every journalist I meet asks me, Is Donald Trump a psychopath? Is Dominique Strauss-Kahn? This morning I got an alarming email from a reader. She wrote, “Damn, how many people miss the point? I was just listening to Sean Hannity and he began quoting you, referencing in all seriousness the list of psycho criteria. And then he went on (in TOTAL seriousness, mind) to explain that president Obama fits the facts and qualifies. How easy it is to marginalize (and lock up) anyone who doesn't agree with us.”
I couldn't have put it better.— Jon Ronson