When the average person hears the word “psychopath,” they might imagine Javier Bardem’s cold-blooded assassin from No Country For Old Men, or Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Gotham in The Dark Knight. The reality though, is far less insidious. The common consensus among experts is that psychopaths make up around 1% of the overall population, and large numbers effortlessly blend into and function in society. Your neighbor, your boss, or even your spouse could be entirely without empathy or conscience and you may never know it.
And while it’s true that those with anti-social personality disorders, like psychopathy, represent a disproportionate amount of those incarcerated in the U.S., simply being a psychopath is not an immediate indicator of criminality.
Regardless, researchers at New York University have been studying behavioral preferences in psychopaths, in the hopes that someday we may be able to identify them based solely on their taste in things like music.
The NYU research team surveyed 200 people and combined preferred musical choices with their scores on a separate psychological exam that ranked a person’s tendencies towards psychopathy. The preliminary study results show a link between psychopathy and rap music, which shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone. Many rap song lyrics are about committing crime, engaging in promiscuity, or establishing oneself as a “boss.”
An article at The Guardian notes how such findings might be used, saying “if psychopaths have distinct and robust preferences for songs, their playlists could be used to identify them.”
Well, that’s true… but aren’t we getting into some dicey “precrime” territory now?
Pascal Wallsich, who leads the research effort at NYU, clearly likes this idea saying, “[y]ou don’t want to have these people in positions where they can cause a lot of harm. We need a tool to identify them without their cooperation or consent.”
Yeah, that seems a little sketchy.
Wallsich elaborates further that, “[t]he beauty of this idea is you can use it as a screening test without consent, cooperation or maybe even the knowledge of the people involved. The ethics of this are very hairy, but so is having a psychopath as a boss, and so is having a psychopath in any position of power.”
Yes, the ethics of identifying suspected psychopaths who have committed no crime, based on psychological evidence secured from secretly screening them without their consent or awareness is “ethically hairy.” And it’s frightening to hear someone in Wallsich’s position espouse such ideas.
Wallsich and the other researchers on his team at New York University apparently believe the end justify the means. If psychopaths can be kept out of powerful positions, it’s worth the precrime condemnation of otherwise innocent persons.
Ironically, many evolutionary anthropologists and sociologists believe that society requires a small percentage of psychopaths in order to properly function. Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, said the following in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine:
“Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.”
While Mr. Dutton’s statements haven’t convinced me to make efforts to befriend psychopaths, I certainly don’t think we should be trying to hunt them down and limit their lives based on psychological tests. If the goal of this research was to better understand incarcerated psychopaths and, in doing so, keep them away from behavioral stimuli that increase recidivism rates, that would be one thing. But that’s not the case here. The NYU team is looking for easy ways to sort out what they believe to be the wheat from the chaff, so the chaff can be collected and discarded. Seeking easy ways to identify everyday Americans, living with a personality disorder they were born with for precrime punishment seems wrong on many different levels.