Becoming Bad

The brains of psychopaths are anatomically different from healthy brains in a specific set of ways, says a new study.

Areas of the brain that enable us to feel guilt and fear, and to understand other people’s emotions – particularly the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and the temporal poles – are significantly smaller in psychopathic individuals.

As you can see, this research – and other recent studies of abnormalities in psychopathic brains – raise some pretty intriguing questions. For example: What is it about certain brains that makes some people – psychopathic or otherwise – more willing than others to commit harmful acts? Is a person – even a child – who acts psychopathic necessarily a psychopath?

In other words, what is it that makes a person “evil?”

To answer that question honestly, we’ve got to begin by looking into our own minds. Because – let’s face it – we all break a few rules now and then: we drive over the speed limit; we jaywalk; we download things we’re supposed to pay for; we tell white lies – and we justify these things to ourselves in two main ways: we classify them as harmless (speeding), and/or we believe they’re in the service of a greater good (telling a white lie).

Those two concepts – “it’s harmless” and “it serves a greater good” – provide us with our first clues about the neuropsychological nature of evil.

Take, for example, the story of Toby Graves:

(Image from NPR)

Toby Graves committed a $7 million bank fraud that caused about 100 people to lose their jobs – he’s now in federal prison. His first fraud was a falsified $350,000 loan, which he took out to save his business, imagining he’d pay it back as quickly as he could. As he discovered that his company was even further in debt than he thought, though, he began pulling trusted employees aside, laying the truth bare, and asking for their help in creating more and more false loans:

“Maybe that was the most shocking thing,” Toby says. “Everyone said, ‘OK, we’re in trouble, we need to solve this. I’ll help you. You know, I’ll try to have that for you tomorrow.’ ” According to Toby, no one said no.

By the time the feds caught up with him, he and his employees had been filing false loan applications for years – and getting them approved by bank workers who knew exactly what was going on, but played along anyway. Were all these people “evil,” to some degree or another?

In a series of studies, Notre Dame researcher Ann Tenbrunsel has found that when people frame moral decisions in a certain light – “this is a business decision,” for example, they tackle problems with an entirely different cognitive framework than they’d use for personal ethical decisions – they’re more likely to cheat, and to falsify information, if they’re primed with a business mindset:

(Image from NPR)

The point is, according to this research, there are certain circumstances in which anyone’s brain – yours; mine; Toby’s and his colleagues’ – bypasses normal empathy, and ignores the normal instinct to “play fair.” And just like Toby and the people who helped him defraud the bank, we’re most likely to think that way when we can convince ourselves that what we’re doing is harmless, and/or that it serves a greater good.

Now, the interesting thing about psychopaths is, not all of them are criminals – in fact, many of them have learned to be quite charming, and to steer clear of trouble. But what makes psychopaths different from the rest of us is that their brains are physically wired to think in ways the rest of us would consider “callous” or…yes, even “evil.” You could say they run their entire lives from a business mindset. Gives new meaning to the phrase “corporate personhood,” doesn’t it?

Of course, if you’re not a psychopath, you probably can’t imagine yourself committing massive bank fraud (or starting a mobile meth lab) – but don’t forget: There was no moment when Toby just “snapped” and began to concoct an evil scheme – when he took out that first false loan, he intended to pay it back; not to let his lies grow to federal-crime proportions. Neither did Chris Chaney, who was once just a bored loner with a knack for hacking, and is now in prison for selling celebrities’ private photos. My guess is that Bernie Madoff feels the same way these days.

Am I saying you’re capable of crimes like these? Nope – I’m just asking you to take a moment to ask yourself, “What would I do if I suddenly found out I was $1,000,000 in debt, or that I was unquestionably going to die in a week?” and give yourself the honor of a truly honest answer. Take a few minutes to dream about how you’d be willing to behave if suddenly you had no more reason to fear loss of control, or embarrassment… or death.

And now you’ve had a little glimpse of what it’s like to be a psycho.


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