Good or Evil? The psychology and physiology of a psychopath

Good or Evil?  The psychology and physiology of a psychopath

By Liz Lockhart

The question of whether evil exists or whether psychopaths are psychologically different or even unwell is one that has intrigued me for some time.  I was riveted to the Horizon programme ‘Are You Good or Evil?’ as it posed even more room for debate on the subject and certainly gives us so much more to consider.

At the heart of this programme was a new twist on the ‘nature versus nurture’ question and the reason why we turn out the way we do.  What unfolded was little short of mind boggling.

The programme started off by looking at young children to see whether we are born good or bad or in varying quantities of the two.  It seemed to favour the ‘born good’ theory.  Horizon then went on to look at the work of Professor Jim Fallon who had been given the task of assessing the brain images of many groups of people including those of mass murderers, people with depression and mental health disorders along with ‘normal’ people.  Prof. Fallon had no previous information as to which image was connected to which condition.

It became apparent that there were significant differences in the brain activity of the group of mass murders.  A secondary test was then done which discovered a variant on the MAOA gene which is also known as ‘the warrior gene’.  This gene has been shown to predispose its carriers to violence. 

Prof. Fallon then discovered that he, himself, also had this warrior gene and the abnormal brain activity associated with mass murders.  So what sets him apart from the mass murders?  He believes that his idyllic childhood holds the key.  One conclusion of this programme was that you need to have a combination of the brain pattern, the warrior gene and an unstable childhood.

Professor Fallon was the first to admit that he had the traits of a psychopath.  A further finding was that many high achievers, bosses and top businessmen have the brain pattern and the warrior gene carried by psychopaths. 

Fallon’s son, James, said of his father ‘He’s got a hot head.  Everything you’d want in a serial killer, he has.’  This is a brutally candid assessment but one with which Prof. Fallon agreed.  His mother cheerily informed Fallon that there had been 16 murderers on their family tree.

Fascinating as these findings are one particular aspect of their discovery troubles me.  This study was used in a murder trial in Tennessee, where a jury was persuaded that what initially appeared to be first-degree murder was actually voluntary manslaughter because of the ‘warrior gene’. 

A lawyer in this Tennessee trial said of people who carry the gene ‘It makes them vulnerable (to commit violence), but it does not make them commit the crime.’  Hopefully this will not open up the floodgates for defence lawyers to seize on this theory to make their case.

As for the question posed in the title of this Horizon programme ‘Are You Good or Evil?.  I do not come away from this TV special with any clear answer.  In fact, if anything, I have many more questions than answers now.  It would seem that we are all capable of being either depending on how we respond to our genetic predisposition.

The programme is a must watch and although I have tried to report on what I took away from it, this will be different for each individual.  You can watch ‘Are You Good or Evil?’ here.   

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