Transcript

436:

The Psychopath Test
Transcript

Originally aired 05.27.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/436

Prologue.

Ira Glass

A few months ago, all of us here at This American Life heard that there's this test that they give to determine if somebody is a psychopath. And we thought, we want to take that. So we asked a forensic psychologist, Dr. David Bernstein, who gives this test all the time, to administer the test to us. He took us each into a room, gave us about an hour of questions.

David Bernstein

As a child, did you get into a lot of fights?

Ira Glass

I would say beat up more than got into-- [LAUGHTER]

David Bernstein

When you were young, did you ever do rowdy things outside of school, like vandalize, break windows, set fires, hurt animals, or young children, anything like that? Steal?

Man 1

No. There was a video that we watched in school that really warned me against it. The one thing that I did do--

David Bernstein

And you graduated high school?

?] Yes.

David Bernstein

And what did you do after leaving high school?

?] I did an internship, actually, at National Public Radio, like all budding psychopaths.

Ira Glass

Now, to be clear, Dr. Bernstein gave us the shorter version of the psychopath test, and he was not as rigorous as he would have been with real potential psychopaths. For instance, he didn't check police records to independently verify everything that each one of us said. Because, of course, we did not expect to find a psychopath on our staff. Though, to be honest, it wasn't until Dr. Bernstein actually arrived at our office and started administering these things that we really, I think, all fully understood just how far gone a true psychopath is. He explained to us a psychopath has no empathy at all, no sense of mercy, no conscience. They don't experience love.

David Bernstein

They could tell you what these things mean, particularly the smarter ones, the brighter ones. They could even, the brighter ones, will learn to fake it. But they could not experience it.

Ira Glass

But you work with people all the time. Think of any group of people that you know well. Friends, relatives, your state's congressional delegation. And sometimes you see them and the thought crosses your mind, OK, this person isn't a psychopath, but there's tendencies. There's a little note of something. And, of the people on the staff who took the test-- that's Julie, Jonathan, me, Sarah, Jane, Ben, Robyn, and Nancy-- we all did have our suspicions.

Man 1

So why were you in there for two hours, Robyn?

Ira Glass

Yeah, why were you in there for two hours?

Robyn Semien

I don't know. There's a lot of questions. There's so many questions.

Woman 1

He told me that you were actually a bit transgressive, more than others.

Ira Glass

Really?

Woman 1

Yes. He said that coming out.

Woman 2

Who's you? Robyn?

Ira Glass

Robyn.

Woman 1

Robyn, yes. Robyn was more rebellious than those.

Robyn Semien

Yeah, he did say that.

Woman 2

Wow, really?

Robyn Semien

Yeah, he did say that, but--

Ira Glass

The test, if you want to know, asks about your family, whether you've been in love, your favorite and least favorite things about love, what kind of employee you are, plus these general questions that really make you think about what a psychopath is. Like, have you done crazy or dangerous things for fun? Do you think people are easy to con or manipulate? Do people tell you-- this one's sort of scary-- do people tell you that you have a bad temper?

But a surprisingly large part of the questionnaires is about things that you did when you were a kid, when you were a teenager. So Robyn, with the stuff that she did in high school, seemed like she might score at least a couple points. And so did Jane. Jane had run-ins with the law as a teenager. Here's how she answered Dr. Bernstein when he asked, how would your teachers describe your behavior in high school?

Jane Feltes

Rebellious, irresponsible.

David Bernstein

Underachiever?

Jane Feltes

Yeah. Because I could have done a lot better. I'm sure they thought that.

David Bernstein

What kind of grades did you get?

Jane Feltes

A's, and then over time, D's. Yeah, to where I quit, basically, because I was failing all of my classes, and I didn't want to be there anyway.

Ira Glass

So, when we were all sitting around talking after we took the test, still waiting to get our scores, talking about whether we had been nervous taking it, there was one more person besides Jane and Robyn that everybody thought might score at least a couple points on the psychopath scale.

Ira Glass

Who do you guys think is going to have the highest score?

Woman 2

You.

Woman 1

You.

Ira Glass

Really?

Woman 1

Yeah.

Man 1

Yes.

Robyn Semien

Well, wait. So, Ira, wait. Were you nervous?

Ira Glass

I was very nervous. Yeah, I was.

Robyn Semien

Are you still, after taking it?

Ira Glass

A little.

[LAUGHTER]

Robyn Semien

I am nervous for you.

Woman 3

Me, too. I think I'm nervous.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, what it is in me that the people I work with see as possibly psychopathic. And two of our favorite contributors, Alix Spiegel and the very funny Jon Ronson, each has been spending lots of time investigating the psychopath test, figuring out what it can tell us and what it cannot tell us. It's a test that's used in criminal justice systems all over the world. They explain why that may be worrisome. That, and of course, our scores. Who on our staff scored the highest on the psychopath test, me, Jane, Robyn, or some yet-to-be-named dark horse? Stay with us.

Act One. Underachievement Test.

Ira Glass

Act One, Underachievement Test.

The psychopath test that we're talking about all this hour is used by prisons, and by courtrooms. And the questions on the test are supposed to measure whether you have any of the traits on this checklist of 20 traits that scientists have observed in psychopaths. Lack of remorse, impulsivity, failure to take responsibility for your actions, pathological lying, sexual promiscuity. And because it's a checklist, sometimes people just call the test "the checklist," though sometimes they call it by its formal name, the PCL-R, which stands for Psychopathy Check List Revised.

And to give you a sense of how the test is normally used, we have this story from Alix Spiegel.

Alix Spiegel

The day that sealed Robert Dixon's fate began with a bike ride. Robert says it was still early morning when he asked his friend, a guy named John, to give him a ride home on the handlebars of his bike. But he says John was already upset. John had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend. He was jumpy and in a bad mood. So when they passed a young man headed in the opposite direction, Dixon says John made a proposal. Let's rob him.

Robert Dixon

He said to me, he says, hey, let's see what this guy got. I said, no, come on, man, just take me home. He says, no, come on, let's just-- this ain't gonna take that long. So he turns the bike, and I'm sitting on the handlebars.

Alix Spiegel

They caught up with the man, and Dixon jumped off the bike to act as lookout while John approached him, pulled out his gun, and asked for the guy's necklace. Dixon could hear them arguing. The man didn't want to give it up. He said it was a gift.

Robert Dixon

Now, my main concern at this time is that I don't want to get caught doing what we're doing. So I'm looking around. I look at them. He's talking to him. Again, I'm looking around to see if the cops or anybody see us out there doing what we're doing. And pow! The gun goes off. What I saw, when I looked at my co-defendent, was shock, that he was in shock that he had just pulled that trigger. And so, I said what happened? He looked at me and he didn't answer me. He just ran.

Alix Spiegel

In December of 1985, Robert Dixon got 15 years to life with a possibility of parole, for acting as an accessory to murder. Now, this was not Robert Dixon's first crime. There is no way to sugarcoat this. Robert Dixon was a delinquent. As a teen, he was convicted of raping one woman, and beating another. Since childhood, in fact, Dixon's life had been deeply disturbed. He tried to commit suicide at 10, and at 12, threatened to kill himself and his father, who, according to records, often beat him. He was in and out of detention for the rest of his teens. That was his life before the crime.

Robert Dixon

I'm just living day for day. I don't have a job. I've been kicked out of my home by my dad. He and I really not getting along. I'm ripping and running the streets. I was delinquent. I was a lost person.

Alix Spiegel

I went to interview Robert Dixon in a maximum security prison in Vacaville, California. 26 years later, he is still in prison for his crime. I went to see him because I wanted to understand who Robert Dixon is today. In the days before our meeting, I talked to a small army of his friends and family, all of whom felt, deep in their hearts, that they knew Robert Dixon, and that the man they knew was completely changed, that he was no longer a threat to anyone and was ready for parole. Here's Dixon's father, the man Robert once threatened to kill.

Robert Dixon Senior

I've seen him change in the last 10 years, drastic change in him, especially with me. He got older and he kind of slowed down, and I got older and I slowed down. Age change everybody.

Alix Spiegel

Now, Dixon Senior says this transformation didn't happen quickly. He says for a time even after his son went to prison, he was still impulsive, still hard. Robert's early years behind bars were riddled with 115's. That's prison speak for rules violations. And the stories he would hear from Robert were always about fights. But about 12 years ago, he says, the narrative began to shift.

Robert Dixon Senior

You know, he'd tell me about a lot of incidents that would come up and he would avoid them. You could have it your way, and walk away.

Bob Stuart

He knows that if he's going to get there, he's got to be twice as disciplined. He's got to do things above and beyond. And, quite frankly, he has.

Alix Spiegel

This is Dixon's best friend, Bob Stuart. Like Dixon's father, when I went to visit Bob, he regaled me with stories of Dixon's transformation. And this change, Bob said, wasn't simply a matter of getting older and mellowing. Dixon, he said, had worked at it, worked at it hard. Bob brought out a folder with copies of Dixon's various certificates, from business courses, from self-help seminars, a thick stack documenting hours logged in a quest for change.

Stuart comes from a very different background than Dixon. He's a successful engineer who was introduced by a friend who met Dixon in prison and thought that Dixon could use a mentor. And at first, Stuart was just that, a mentor. But 16 years later, it's clear that that has changed.

Bob Stuart

I mean, I consider him my best friend, and likewise. And hard to believe that somebody inside prison would be. And I have good friends, but he's the person I trust absolutely.

Alix Spiegel

Dixon's goal, Stuart told me, was not just to get out of prison, but once out, to do good. Dixon says the same.

Robert Dixon

I'm not proud of my life. I've hurt people. I've disappointed myself. I've ruined my life. And I'm doing everything that I can to salvage some part of the second half of my life. So, yeah. I'm trying to turn it around.

Alix Spiegel

So that's the way that Robert Dixon's friends and family see him, a man once bad, deeply reformed. But there's another view of Robert Dixon.

Peter Bradley

Assessment for risk of violence.

Alix Spiegel

Dr. Peter Bradley is a psychologist in California who does forensic evaluations. And when I went to visit him, he showed me a stapled report with Dixon's name on top. The report was a psychological evaluation done by another psychologist, a psychologist employed by the state.

Peter Bradley

This is the main report that was done through the prison system.

Alix Spiegel

You see, in California, before a lifer, like Dixon, goes in front of a parole board, they're given a psychological evaluation by a state psychologist. And as part of these evaluations, the prisoner is given a test to determine if they're a psychopath. All lifers up for parole in California are given the PCL-R.

Peter Bradley

The Psychopathy Checklist Revised.

Alix Spiegel

Now, I want to say here that I did ask the California Department of Corrections to talk to me about Dixon's test. But they said no. Dr. Bradley, however, had reviewed Dixon's testing, and read to me from the report.

Peter Bradley

Mr. Dixon obtained a total score on the PCL-R which placed him in the high range of the clinical construct of psychopathy. He scored higher than 73% of those offenders on this instrument.

Alix Spiegel

That's very technical, probably hard to understand. What it means is this, that the psychologist saw Dixon not as a man reformed, but basically as a psychopath, as someone cold and remorseless, incapable of empathy, manipulative, narcissistic, impulsive, and therefore, as a person, likely bound by his very nature to do further violence. And it was really in large part because of his score on this test that Dixon was determined to be too high a risk and was denied parole at his last hearing.

So which Robert Dixon is the real Robert Dixon, the one the test sees, or the one that his friends and family see? To answer that question, you need to understand more about the test, the man who created it, and how it came to have so much power.

Man 2

[SINGING] So, what? A classroom of people watches this video?

Robert Hare

No, maybe a couple.

Alix Spiegel

This is taped from one of more than 1,000 interviews collected by the creator of the PCL-R, the Canadian psychologist, Robert Hare. All of the interviews are with prisoners, many of whom, like this man, are psychopaths.

Man 2

Anyway, I was going on about justifiable murder. Someone rapes your wife, molests your kid. And then a guy's got to do that. If he doesn't-- that's just the way it goes. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for I pack a .357 Magnum.

Alix Spiegel

I visited Hare at his home in Canada, and together we watched videos like this for hours, psychopath after psychopath, one after another.

Robert Hare

I've got so much great stuff in here. This guy's terrific. He's part of the New York mob.

Man 3

I was upset that he didn't want to pay me the money. He had the nerve.

Alix Spiegel

Hare would play some tape, then stop and talk about language use and psychopaths, or pain and psychopaths. And as he watched, there was always this glimmer in his eye. It was impossible to ignore the pleasure he got from watching them.

Alix Spiegel

Like, there's a smile on your face.

Robert Hare

Oh, that's gas pains. In spite of the fact that I've been in this game for a long time, I'm still-- it's a source of amazement.

Alix Spiegel

Hare has been in this game a long time. He began studying psychopaths in the 1960s. And it's easy to forget now, in part because Hare's work has made the idea of the psychopath so commonplace, but back then, research on psychopaths was totally obscure. And no one, least of all Bob Hare, thought that this work on psychopaths would ever have any practical applications.

What Bob was interested in was basic science. He wanted to understand what made psychopaths tick. To figure this out, he went to a place he figured he'd find at least some psychopaths, a prison 30 miles away from his office at the University of British Columbia. And he asked the prisoners for their help.

Robert Hare

And the offenders in those days had hardly ever been studied. They were very interested in what I was doing. And they would all volunteer, and, in fact, one of the head inmates there, the one at the very top of the heap, actually held a public address. In those days, they could congregate in groups of 400 or 500. And said, look, this sounds interesting. I'm in. And everybody else then said, we're in, too.

Alix Spiegel

So Hare set up a lab and started pumping out studies. For example, Hare would place the prisoners in a chair, tell them that in 30 seconds, he was going to zap them with an electrical shock, then measure their heart rate to see if that information bothered them.

Robert Hare

Most showed lots of emotional arousal, anticipatory fear, anxiety, while they're waiting for the shock to occur. Psychopaths, hardly any.

Alix Spiegel

In another experiment, Hare showed the prisoners both highly emotional and totally neutral pictures-- a picture of a rape, say, versus the picture of a chair-- and again measured their physical response. He found that, for most prisoners, the emotional pictures prompted a very different reaction than the pictures of a table or chair.

Robert Hare

But with psychopaths, there's no difference. They treat these horrific pictures as if they were neutral pictures. No difference, whatsoever, between them.

Alix Spiegel

And over the course of these experiments, Hare developed a theory. He believed that the psychopaths he saw were, essentially, emotionally deaf, simply did not have the capacity to feel, in a first-hand way, emotions like empathy, remorse, and love.

Robert Hare

It's sort of like trying to explain to a color blind person what the color red is. Can we teach a color blind person how to see red, what red is? You can have all the dictionary definitions you want, but this person will never quite get it.

Alix Spiegel

Now, this work was basically well received. But Hare says there was still a huge amount of skepticism. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that this field of research, psychopathy research, was lacking one very important ingredient. You see, in science, before you can do practically anything, there is one thing you absolutely, positively, have to get straight.

Robert Hare

The key is measurement. Science cannot progress without reliable and accurate measurement of what it is they're trying to study. Simple as that.

Alix Spiegel

To understand this, consider for a moment the blood pressure cuff. Hare says before the blood pressure cuff was invented in 1881, doctors had no good way of figuring out if someone had high blood pressure or low blood pressure, which meant they couldn't figure out that high blood pressure was related to heart attacks, and all sorts of seriously unfortunate things. Here, Hare concluded, was the problem with his field as well. There was simply no way to measure.

Robert Hare

We did not have the psychiatric equivalent of the blood pressure cuff.

Alix Spiegel

And so, Hare decided to make one. He sat down with his long-term research assistant, and together they wrote down all of the personality traits that they and other scientists had consistently seen in the psychopaths they studied, traits like, well, like these, read by Hare and a former student of his, Steve Hart, who is now a leader in the field.

Robert Hare

Egocentricity, grandiose sense of self-worth.

Steve Hart

Pathological lying, cunning, manipulative.

Robert Hare

Lack of sincerity, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy.

Steve Hart

Sensation seeking or proneness to boredom, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, and so forth.

Alix Spiegel

Now, for each of these traits, Hare wrote up a little description so that people would know what he meant by, say, lack of empathy. Psychologists using the test were supposed to ask the interview subject a series of questions about their criminal history, their family, to determine whether the person had that quality.

Robert Hare

Parasitic lifestyle.

Alix Spiegel

If the trait was present, they got a two. Absent, they got a zero. And if it wasn't really clear, they got a one. There were 20 traits to check, which is why Hare calls it the Check List, and at the end of the test, your score was totaled. 40 was the highest you could get, but anything over 30 certified you as a psychopath. Voila, the PCL-R was born. It was 1980. At his house, Hare pulled out an ancient-looking document.

Alix Spiegel

So this is literally it.

Robert Hare

This is it. This is the first thing that people saw. 17 pages, double spaced.

Alix Spiegel

A certified diagnostic test, which at least appeared to be remarkably reliable. When two different testers gave the test to the same person, they usually got the same result. The PCL-R was on its way. Kind of. Actually, the only people really interested in his test at this point, in the early '80s, were other academic researchers. People in the criminal justice community still saw the study of psychopaths as marginal, irrelevant to understanding crime. You see, at the time, criminal justice people thought about where crime came from in a very specific way. Criminals were made, not born.

Robert Hare

Criminologists, sociologists, tended to explain crime in terms of environmental factors, where you were raised, who your family was, your peer group. So in those days, social factors, environmental factors, were the explanation for all crime.

Alix Spiegel

The idea was that anybody could be bad, or good. It was all the environment. And Hare's focus on personality didn't really fit this zeitgeist. But the disinterest of the criminal justice community changed almost overnight, after one of Hare's students, an undergrad, proposed to do a study. What the student wanted to do was see what happened to prisoners who had been tested after they were released from prison. Was a person with a high score on the PCL-R more likely to commit a crime than a person with a low score? Turns out, they were. Bob Hare.

Robert Hare

Those who had low scores on the PCL-R, about 20% or 25% would be reconvicted within four or five years. The high group was 80%.

Alix Spiegel

So score high, and there was an 80% chance you would re-offend. Score low, 20%. In other words--

Robert Hare

The checklist did an excellent job of predicting who would commit another offense within the next couple of years.

Alix Spiegel

How excellent a job?

Robert Hare

As good as one could get.

Alix Spiegel

This was a huge finding. For years, criminologists had labored to dissect the environmental causes of crime. Then, suddenly, here was the PCL-R, a personality test, used for marginal academic research, that appeared to identify the world's most serious chronic criminals, the people we really needed to worry about. Steve Hart, Bob's former student, says that everybody was shocked.

Steve Hart

Here we are, using a diagnosis of personality disorder to predict criminal behavior, and it's working. And it's working in a way that's obvious. You could see the differences. An old psychologist, Jacob Cohen, called this the intraocular effect, like it just really hit you between the eyes.

Alix Spiegel

The paper was first publicized in the mid-'80s, and people in the criminal justice community quickly came calling. For example, Steve Hart remembers that shortly after the paper went public, the lab got a visit from Canada's National Parole Board. They wanted the test.

Steve Hart

They said, quite literally, what we want to do is give everybody this test, and then have the test score written in big red numbers on the front of the file. No parole board should be able to make a decision without having some knowledge about whether or not somebody is psychopathic.

Adelle Forth

I think most of the researchers in the room were horrified, that, no, we don't want that.

Alix Spiegel

Adelle Forth is another researcher who worked in the lab.

Adelle Forth

The idea that you would just stamp something on someone's file would be horrific, because this label, someone is a psychopath, this will stay with this individual. This is not something that will go away.

Alix Spiegel

In fact, every researcher that I spoke to who was there at first found this idea of parole boards using the test deeply disturbing, including the guy who invented the thing, Robert Hare.

Robert Hare

The potential for misuse of an instrument that has solid scientific credentials is very great. And the reason is, people say, well, it's got solid scientific credentials. It's really, really good. It must be good. So my apprehensions were there from the very, very beginning, about the potential for misuse.

Alix Spiegel

And so, at least initially after the criminal justice people came calling, Hare was clear. Hare said they weren't getting his test. Steve Hart.

Steve Hart

I'm never giving the checklist to somebody who works in the criminal justice system. I'm just going to give it to scientists who do nothing, as opposed to people who actually try to make decisions. And we actually had a lot of value or moral discussions about that, about would it be appropriate to withhold the information from people who might try to use it?

Alix Spiegel

And so, for many years, Hare refused requests from the criminal justice system. But Hart says Hare's students argued with him, told him that this was simply not his choice to make, that scientists don't really have a right to withhold knowledge once that knowledge exists.

Steve Hart

Like, you know, come on, buddy. Free it up. If you've got something important, then let's let everybody take a look at this.

Alix Spiegel

Eventually, Hare agreed, and in 1991 he published the PCL-R officially, so that anyone could use it, including people in the criminal justice system, which is how the test ended up being used in America, on people like Robert Dixon.

Charles Carbone

I remember reading the report, and feeling heartbroken.

Alix Spiegel

This is Charles Carbone, Robert Dixon's lawyer, talking about a day two years ago, when Robert's psychological report arrived in the mail.

Charles Carbone

I knew, no matter how hard I worked from that day forward, that when I brought him back to board, we were going to get denied.

Alix Spiegel

The political reality, Carbone says, is this. In California, not only the board, but the governor must sign off on every parole granted. And there's just no benefit to being seen as soft on crime. So if a psychologist gives a bad report because of a high score on the psychopath test, even if the board or the governor wanted to set that person free, there is, as Carbone points out, no political cover if the prisoner re-offends.

Charles Carbone

The headline will be, well, the psychologist told you so. There is no political upside. They only have something to lose by allowing these lifers to go home.

Alix Spiegel

Which is why so few people with Robert Dixon's test scores ever do go home. Still, Carbone is trying to fight it. He hired Dr. Peter Bradley, the forensic psychologist you heard from earlier, who evaluated Dixon, and like his friends and family, concluded that he is not a psychopath.

Peter Bradley

That he has developed, among other things, a sense of caring and ability to be compassionate with other people, that he's matured in that way.

Alix Spiegel

Dr. Bradley says, in general, he doesn't like to use the PCL-R, because he feels the scoring of the test is determined too much by events in the past that prisoners can't change, by juvenile delinquency, and things that happened in school, an inmate's criminal past, not who they are today.

Peter Bradley

It's weighted more toward the historical factors. It's not able to look at factors that can change and that do tend to change with a lot of people.

Alix Spiegel

This is what Dr. Bradley thinks has happened to Robert Dixon. He thinks Dixon's changed substantially, but will always get a high score because Dixon had a long criminal record before he went to prison. As for Dixon, he doesn't know why he's doing so badly. He says his friends and family don't understand either. They keep asking him what's happening.

Robert Dixon

What are you going to here saying to these people? I says, hey, I'm talking to them just like I'm talking to you. I'm not switching up here. This is not Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I don't know what's going on.

Alix Spiegel

Now, obviously, Dixon's friends and family could be wrong. Robert Dixon could be a psychopath. But I will tell you that in recent years, use of the test in the criminal justice system has come under criticism. And you know who's one of the people criticizing? Robert Hare. He tells me that some of his initial fears about how the test might be misused have actually come to pass.

Robert Hare

I feel ambivalent about it.

Alix Spiegel

You see, while Hare's a strong believer that his test works well for the basic lab research that it was originally designed for, he, like others, has begun to wonder if the test does as good a job outside the lab.

Daniel Murray

Once you get into the real world, there does seem to be some lessening of reliability.

Alix Spiegel

This is Daniel Murray, a professor at the University of Virginia. About four years ago, Murray did a study which looked at what happened when a psychologist hired by the prosecution gave the test to the same prisoner as a psychologist hired by the defense. Did those two psychologists give the same score to the same person? The answer? Definitively no.

Daniel Murray

10, 15, even 20 point score differences we found. And overall, there was about an eight-point difference in scores.

Alix Spiegel

In fact, in 2/3 of the cases, the scores were substantially different. And the differences were not random. Psychologists hired by the prosecution consistently scored people higher, found more psychopaths. Psychologists hired by the defense scored people lower, found fewer psychopaths, as you might expect. But there's something else which might explain these differences that Murray found. There's no regulation of who can administer this test. Hare tells me that he often does training in America, and says he frequently sees things that, frankly, horrify him: people without degrees in psychology using the test, poorly trained people using the test.

Robert Hare

Many of these people have really no business doing this. It would be sort of like asking a nurse now to go out and start performing surgery. It doesn't work this way. It shouldn't work that way. So I'm very concerned about the inappropriate, unprofessional use of this instrument for purposes that have serious implications for the individual and for society.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think that, on an emotional level, like it's hard for you emotionally to think about your instrument having hurt somebody?

Robert Hare

Oh, yeah. Interesting question. Notice I didn't say that's a good question. Interesting question. Almost certainly. I think about this periodically, and I probably try to suppress it. Yeah, I do dissociate myself from it. If I thought of every potential use or misuse of the instrument, I probably wouldn't sleep at all.

Robert Dixon Senior

OK, are we going to the bedroom, or here stay?

Alix Spiegel

Of course, the friends and family of Robert Dixon are convinced that there's been a misuse of the test. And convinced, too, that that error will somehow miraculously be corrected. When I went to visit Robert's father at his home, he took me down a hallway and showed me a neatly prepared, fully equipped second bedroom. It was, he told me, for Robert.

Robert Dixon Senior

OK, this is his room. There's a bed. There's a closet. This would be his dresser.

Alix Spiegel

As I said before, for most of their lives, these two men had grave difficulties. But now, every other Sunday, Dixon Senior goes to visit Dixon Junior in prison. They talk about what they're going to do when Robert gets out. They want to go fishing together. Dixon Senior already bought the gear. And as I listen to them talk about these conversations and the relationship they have, it's hard to believe that it's a con, that it's cold-blooded manipulation. They seem very close, just as Robert seems very close to his best friend. And I found myself wondering if a true psychopath could really have relationships like this.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think you're going to get out of here?

Robert Dixon

I hope so. I hope so. And I hope I can get out before my dad pass away.

Robert Dixon Senior

Yeah, well, better hurry up. And I'll be here waiting for him.

Alix Spiegel

Robert Dixon Junior has been incarcerated for being an accessory to murder for 26 years. In 2014, he will have a new parole hearing. If he goes to that hearing with his current score on the psychopath test, which he is slated to do, it's very likely that Robert Dixon will be denied.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel. She's a science correspondent for NPR News. Coming up, the positive side of being a psychopath. Jon Ronson on how being a psychopath can help you in your business. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. King of the Forest.

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show is all about the psychopath test, created by Bob Hare, used around the world by courtrooms, and prisons, and this week by us as well. We took the test. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, King of the Forest.

Jon Ronson has a new book out about the psychopath test. In fact, that's the name of the book. It's called The Psychopath Test. In his research, Jon met with Bob Hare, who created the test. He also went to a seminar, to learn to administer the test himself, which had an unfortunate effect on Jon. He started seeing all kinds of people as psychopaths. It really is everywhere if you start to look for it.

Jon saw this statistic. 1% of the general population tests as psychopath, 25% of the US prison population, which makes sense, I guess, and 4%-- 4%-- of business leaders. Ronson wondered if that could possibly be true, that so many business leaders might have psychopathic traits. And so, he tried to find a business leader who might prove this true or false. And then he learned about a former chief executive of Sunbeam, the toaster and appliance company.

Jon Ronson

In the mid-1990s, Sunbeam was a mess. The board of directors needed a merciless cost-cutter. And so, they offered the job to someone quite unique, a man who seemed to actually, unlike most humans, enjoy firing people. His name was Al Dunlap, and he'd made his reputation closing down plants on behalf of Scott, America's oldest toilet paper manufacturer. There were countless stories of him going from Scott plant to Scott plant firing people in amusing, sometimes eerie ways. At a plant in Mobile, Alabama, for instance, he asked a man how long he'd worked there. "30 years," the man proudly replied. "Why would you want to stay at a company for 30 years?" Dunlap said, looking genuinely perplexed. A few weeks later, he closed the Mobile plant down, firing everyone.

He fired people with such apparent glee, that the business magazine Fast Company included him in an article about potentially psychopathic CEOs. All the other CEOs cited were dead or in prison, and therefore unlikely to sue. But they took the plunge with Dunlap anyway. They referred to his poor behavioral controls. His first wife charged in her divorce papers that he once threatened her with a knife and muttered that he always wondered what human flesh tasted like. Then there was his lack of empathy. Even though he was always telling journalists about his wise and supportive parents, he didn't turn up at either of their funerals.

On the July 1996 day that Sunbeam's board of directors revealed the name of their new CEO, their share price skyrocketed, from $12.50 to $18.63. Dunlap went on a year-long rampage across rural America, firing 12,000 employees, and closing plants in Shubuta and Bay Springs and Laurel, Mississippi, and Cookeville, Tennessee, and Coushatta, Louisiana. And on and on, turning communities across the American south into ghost towns. With each plant closure, the Sunbeam share price soared, reaching an incredible $51.00.

I emailed his personal assistant-cum-bodyguard, Sean Thornton. I said there's a theory shared by neurologists all over the world that the brains of certain highly successful people literally work differently to ordinary people's brains. It's basically all to do with the amygdala shooting signals of fear down to the central nervous system. The theory goes that very highly successful people, like Mr. Dunlap, are literally fearless, because the amygdala doesn't shoot those signals. I didn't mention in the email that psychiatrists call that brain anomaly psychopathy. They said I was welcome to come over.

This first obviously strange thing about Al Dunlap's grand Florida mansion and lavish manicured lawns was the unusually large number of ferocious sculptures there were of predatory animals. They were everywhere. Stone lions and panthers with teeth bared, eagles soaring downward, hawks with fish in their talons, and on and on, across the grounds, around the lake, in the swimming pool health club complex, in the many rooms. There were crystal lions, and onyx lions, and iron lions, and iron panthers, and paintings of lions, and sculptures of human skulls.

"Lions," said Al Dunlap, showing me around. He's wearing a casual jacket and slacks, and looking tanned, healthy. His teeth were very white. "Lions, jaguars, lions. Always predators. Predators, predators, predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did, I had to go make happen."

Cunning, manipulative, I wrote in my reporter's note pad. This was ice and fire from the Bob Hare psychopath checklist. Al's statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of predators and prey, that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others.

"Gold, too," I said. "There's a lot of gold here, too," I'd been prepared for the gold, having recently seen a portrait of him sitting on a gold chair, wearing a gold tie with a gold suit of armor by the door, and a gold crucifix on the mantle piece.

"Well," said Al. "Gold is shiny. Sharks." He pointed at a sculpture of four sharks encircling the planet. "I believe in predators," he said. "Their spirits will enable you to succeed. Over there, you've got falcons, alligators, alligators, more alligators, tigers."

"It's as if both Midas and also the Queen of Narnia were here," I said. "And the Queen of Narnia flew above a particularly fierce zoo, and turned everything there to stone and then transported everything here."

"What?" said Al.

"Nothing," I said.

"No," he said. "What did you just say?" He shot me a steely, blue-eyed stare which I found quite debilitating.

"It was just a jumble of words," I said. "I was trying to make a funny comment, but it all became confused in my mouth."

"Oh," said Al. "Shall we get some iced tea?" he said.

We gathered in the kitchen, Al, his wife, Judy, and Sean, the bodyguard. I cleared my throat. "You know, I said in my email that your amygdala might not shoot the requisite signals of fear to your central nervous system. And that's perhaps why you've been so successful, and so interested in the predatory spirit," I said.

"Yes," he said. "It's a fascinating theory. It's like Star Trek. You're going where no man has gone before. Why are some people enormously successful, and others not at all? The kids I went to school with had a lot more privileges than me, but they're not successful. Why? What's different? Something's different. It's a question that's been on people's minds for generations. And that's why, when you mentioned this amygdala thing, I thought, hmm, that's very interesting. I'll talk to this fellow."

"I have to tell you that some psychologists say that if this part of your brain doesn't work properly, it can actually make you--"

"Mmm?" he said.

"Dangerous," I mumbled inaudibly. I suddenly felt incredibly nervous.

"Sorry?" he said. "I can't hear you."

"Dangerous," I said. There was a short silence.

"In what respect?" he said thinly.

"It can make you, " I took a breath, "a psychopath."

How Judy and Sean, the bodyguard, stared at me for a long time. I was in over my head. What did I think I was doing? I'm not a licensed medical professional or a scientist. Nor, if I'm being honest with myself, am I actually a detective. I blamed Bob Hare. He hadn't told me to do this, but I never would have had I not met him. His checklist gave me false confidence that I could make my way in this land of psychopaths. They looked at me, at once deeply angry, befuddled, and disappointed.

"I've got a list of personality traits written down here that define psychopathy," I said, pointing at my pocket.

"Who the hell are the people who make the list?" said Al. "What are their names? How about I never heard of them?"

At this, I realized I could turn the situation around, to make Bob Hare take the blame, in absentia, for the unpleasantness. "Bob Hare," I said. I pronounced his name quite clearly. "Bob Hare."

"I've never heard of him," said Al, a triumphant glint in his eye.

"Never heard of him," Judy agreed.

"He's a psychologist," I said. I exhaled, to indicate that I felt the same way he presumably did about psychologists.

"So that list," said Al. He suddenly looked intrigued. "Go ahead," he said. "Let's do it."

"OK," I said. I pulled it out of my pocket. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Let's do it."

"OK. Item one. Superficial charm."

"I'm totally charming," he replied. "I am totally charming." He, Judy, and Sean laughed, easing the tension.

"Grandiose sense of self-worth?" I asked. This was item two on the psychopath checklist. It would have been a hard one for him to deny, standing as he was below a giant oil painting of himself.

"No question," said Al. "If you don't believe in yourself, nobody else will. You've got to believe in you."

"Is there another list of good things?" said Judy, quite sharply.

"Well," I said. We all fell silent. "Need for stimulation, proneness to boredom?" I said.

"Yeah," said Al. "I'm very prone to boredom. I've got to go do something. Yeah. That's a fair statement."

"Manipulative?" I said.

"I think you could describe that as leadership," he said. "Inspire. I think it's called leadership."

"Are you OK with this list?" I asked.

"Yeah, sure. Why not?" he said.

And so the morning continued, with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives. Impulsivity was, he said, just another way of saying quick analysis. Some people spend a week weighing up the pros and cons. Me? I look at it for 10 minutes, and if the pros outweigh the cons, go. Shallow affect, an inability to feel a deep range of emotions, stops you from feeling what he called some nonsense emotions. And then there's a lack of remorse.

"A lack of remorse," Al says, "just frees you up to move forward and achieve more great things. What's the point of drowning yourself in sorrow?"

It felt great. I congratulated myself on being a genius, on cracking him open. I found one. But when I got home to London from his house, and I listened back to the tape of my interview with him, I could hear how disappointed I sounded whenever he said things to me that didn't seem psychopathic. There'd been a moment, for instance, when I'd asked him about items 12 and 18, early behavior problems and juvenile delinquency.

He'd told me, "No, I was a focused, serious kid. I was very determined. I was a good kid. In school I was always trying to achieve. I was always working hard. That saps your energy. You don't have enough time to trouble-make."

"You never got into trouble with the authorities?" I said.

"Nope," he said. "And remember, I got accepted into West Point. Listen, this psychopath thing is rubbish. You can't be successful unless you have certain," he pointed at his head, "controls. It won't happen. How do you get through school? How do you get through your first and second job, when you're formulating yourself?" It was a terribly persuasive point, and I'd felt disappointed when he said it.

Also, he denied being a liar. "If I think you're a schmuck," he said, "I'll tell you you're a schmuck." And I believed him. He denied having a parasitic lifestyle. "I'll go get my own meal," he said. And he did have a loyal wife for 41 years. There were no rumors of affairs. This would score him a zero in items 17 and 11, many short-term marital relationships, and promiscuous sexual behavior.

We'd had lunch before I left his house. Al had seemed in surprisingly high spirits for a man who had just been questioned on which psychopathic traits most applied to him. As we ate, he told me funny stories about firing people. Each was essentially the same. Someone was lazy, and he fired them with an amusing quip. For instance, one lazy Sunbeam executive mentioned to him that he'd just bought himself a fabulous sports car. "You may have a fancy sports car," Al replied, "but I'll tell you what you don't have, a job."

"You do feel good about yourself?" I asked.

"Oh, I do," he replied. "Oh, I do. "Looking back at my life is like going to a movie about a person who did all this stuff. My gosh, I did that. And through it all, I did it my way."

Suddenly, I felt a little envious of him. I am the neurological opposite of a psychopath, in that I feel anxious almost all the time. It must be great to not constantly feel like you've got someone living inside of your face, shooting you with a mini taser. Sure, I'll confess to 16 out of the 40 possible points on the checklist. And you could reasonably give him another six points, which would put him in the 20's, which is high, but not the 29 or 30, which is the clinical line in the sand for psychopathy. And wouldn't it be nice to just be a little more like him, someone with no regrets about the past, no remorse, just kind of relaxed, and happy?

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson, reading an excerpt from his new book, which is one of the inspirations for today's program, called The Psychopath Test.

[MUSIC - "IF I WERE KING OF THE FOREST" BY E.Y. HARBURG AND HAROLD ARLEN]

Act Three. The Results Are In.

Ira Glass

Act three, The Results are In.

[PSYCHO THEME MUSIC]

Who is the psycho? Thank you for that music cue. So if you heard at the beginning of today's program, you heard that I and my fellow producers here at This American Life decided to take the psychopath test ourselves for this week's program. And just to quickly repeat our caveats about that, we did this for entertainment and education purposes only, which meant that we took the short version of the test.

The doctor who administered the test didn't do the kinds of painstaking follow-ups that he normally does. For instance, he didn't look into court records to verify our stories. He took our word for all kinds of things, which he normally would not do if he was facing a real potential psychopath. That's because we assume that none of us was even close to scoring at psychopath levels on the test.

We figured that we would each score a couple points here, a couple points there. And then we wanted to see who would rack up the most points. Robyn and Jane, if you remember at the beginning of our show, were favorites because of trouble that they got into as teenagers. Teenage life is a lot of questions on the test. And then there was one more candidate for scoring points.

Man 4

I thought, if you have the ego to say, like, I'm going to start my own radio show, that somehow you just are concentrated more on yourself in a way that would mean that you would lean that way.

Woman 4

I was just going to say you just more on the like-- like on the feelings stuff.

Ira Glass

Yeah, the feeling stuff.

Yeah, the feeling stuff. OK, this is going to come as news to anybody who only knows me over the radio, but not news to anybody who knows me in real life. As you might suspect about somebody who designed and created an entire radio show built around very personal conversations and moments where people really connect with each other, the only kind of person who would go to the trouble to invent a show like that will be somebody who in real life struggles with every one of those things, which I do. I can fake my way through social situations, of course, but people who really know me, like my coworkers do, know how detached, and anxious, and awkward I can be. Which is why they said, at the top of the program--

Ira Glass

Who do you guys think is going to have the highest score.

Woman 2

You.

Woman 1

You.

Ira Glass

Really?

Woman 1

Yeah.

Man 1

Yes.

Robyn Semien

I-- it's a toss up for me.

Ira Glass

This is Robyn.

Robyn Semien

As I was answering the questions, I kept thinking Jane's going to have such better answers than I am.

Julie Snyder

That's what I thought, too. Because Jane had more rough and tumble.

Robyn Semien

Yeah, and like attendance in school.

Julie Snyder

Yeah, I think my money's gone on to Jane, now.

Ira Glass

This, by the way, is our show's senior producer, Julie Snyder.

Julie Snyder

So now, I know more about Jane's run-ins. I don't know so much about Robyn.

(SUBJECT) IRA GLASS: Robyn, what do you got?

Julie Snyder

So now I guess I got it between the two of you.

Ira Glass

Problems with the law? Let's have a rundown.

Robyn Semien

No, I had no problems with the law. I have none. I had, like, one cheating story, which who didn't?

Man 1

One--?

Robyn Semien

Cheating story.

Ira Glass

Cheating, you mean, on a test?

Robyn Semien

In school. Like stealing a teacher's manual and lying about it. What, you guys didn't do that?

Ira Glass

OK, so let's go around and make our votes.

Jane Feltes

Oh, my God. Do we have to?

Ira Glass

That's Jane, who didn't want to be number one.

Man 1

I'm going to go Robyn.

Ira Glass

Julie?

Julie Snyder

Jane.

Robyn Semien

I'm going to go with Jane.

Ira Glass

I think I'm going with Jane.

Jane Feltes

If I start crying while you guys are doing this, does that mean I'm not a psychopath?

Julie Snyder

Yes.

Ira Glass

In the end, the final tally was Robyn with four votes, Jane with three, I had one. And Nancy, in a surprise move, I have to say, voted for herself.

Nancy Updike

I'm in this to win it. I just want to tell you all that. I don't know what game we're playing here, but I'm going to win.

Ira Glass

Then, our forensic psychologist, David Bernstein, joined us. He had actually heard us talking about how worried we were about our scores from the other room.

Ira Glass

So you have there a stack of, actually, very official looking papers, and your notes, with all of our scores. Before we get to the actual scores, are there any patterns that you feel like you noticed in the group?

David Bernstein

Yeah, see, you guys are way too neurotic to really be psychopaths.

[LAUGHTER]

Interestingly, half of you almost cried as I was asking some of the questions, by the way. That probably disqualified you from being a psychopath right there.

Ira Glass

Dr. Bernstein explained to us that the way that the test is scored, for each of the possible psychopathic traits that you could have, you could get a zero, a one, or a two.

David Bernstein

Two means you really have it. One means you have it, it's there, but maybe not to the same magnitude. And zero means it might have been something that occurred, but it's not nearly enough to reach the level of being scored. It doesn't reach that level. You guys want to know what your scores were?

Ira Glass

Yeah, maybe we should start with the lowest scores first, and then go to the highest.

David Bernstein

Well, this will be very easy, because you all scored a zero. Every one of you.

?] Wow, even Robyn?

David Bernstein

Even Robyn. And this is because none of you really did anything maliciously. You never set out to predate, to hurt anyone. And even those of you who've done things, when I asked how do you feel about it? Most of you thought back on it with regret, and remorse. You're empathic, is what you all are, which is the opposite of psychopathy.

Ira Glass

This is the thing I think we wouldn't have understood as well if we hadn't actually gone through the trouble of taking the test ourselves, is just how categorically different psychopaths are from the rest of us. Dr. Bernstein joked that it's a lifelong commitment. Even the person who we thought would be the most likely to score a few points in the psychopath test, Robyn, at her most antisocial moment, stealing the teacher's manual in junior high school, apparently failed to do what any self-respecting, lacking-in-empathy psychopath would do. This next recording is from when Robyn took the test.

David Bernstein

So here's a question. Now, you said you stole the manual.

Robyn Semien

Yeah.

David Bernstein

And you gave out the answers?

Robyn Semien

Yeah.

David Bernstein

Did you sell the answers?

Robyn Semien

No

David Bernstein

Why'd you give them away?

Robyn Semien

Just because we wanted everyone to do well.

David Bernstein

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

That is the mm-hm of I am bored. That's the mm-hm that you say when you're thinking, you people are not psychopaths.

[MUSIC - "IF I ONLY HAD THE NERVE" BY E.Y. HARBURG AND HAROLD ARLEN]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes, with the zero-scoring staff of Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Eric Mennel. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Jen Berman is filling in as our west coast producer.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who wants to move the show-- can you believe it?-- to Louisiana, for just one reason.

Jon Ronson

Alligators, alligators, more alligators.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week, with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.