Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test (And, If You Fail, It’s Not All Bad News)

We’ve all heard the old philo­soph­i­cal sce­nario known as the trol­ley prob­lem: as the run­away vehi­cle of the name careens out of con­trol toward the edge of a cliff, you must choose whether to pull the lever to switch it to anoth­er track. The catch: while the trol­ley would then no longer plunge off that cliff, bring­ing about the cer­tain deaths of the five peo­ple aboard, it would instead kill some­one stand­ing on the oth­er track, who will sur­vive if you don’t pull the lever. In a more fraught ver­sion of the prob­lem, you must choose not whether to pull a lever, but whether to shove a per­son of con­sid­er­able bulk onto the (sin­gle) track, stop­ping the trol­ley but killing the bulky indi­vid­ual.

In the Big Think video above, Oxford psy­chol­o­gist Kevin Dut­ton, author of The Wis­dom of Psy­chopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Ser­i­al Killers Can Teach Us About Suc­cess, uses the trol­ley prob­lem to illu­mi­nate the con­di­tion of psy­chopa­thy. While non-psy­chopaths may dither about the first ver­sion of the sce­nario, they even­tu­al­ly come to the con­clu­sion that they pre­fer one death to five. They have much more of a strug­gle with the sec­ond ver­sion, which requires them to actu­al­ly push the lone stranger to head off those five deaths. Psy­chopaths, by con­trast, expe­ri­ence no such dif­fi­cul­ty: the trol­ley prob­lem, for them, hard­ly amounts to a prob­lem at all, and Dut­ton explains, neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, why: “Imag­ine that I were to hook you up to a brain scan­ner and present you with those two dilem­mas. I would see the emo­tion cen­ter of your brain, your amyg­dala and relat­ed brain cir­cuits, the medi­al orbital frontal cor­tex for exam­ple, light up like a pin­ball machine.”

And if he’d scanned a psy­chopath? “Pre­cise­ly noth­ing.” All this assumes, of course, that you do not your­self suf­fer from psy­chopa­thy. If you don’t know whether you do, Dut­ton offers a handy mul­ti­ple-choice “psy­chopath chal­lenge” on his site that can give you an idea of the direc­tion your brain may lean. If you’ve got a touch of the old psy­chopa­thy, don’t lock your­self away; as Dut­ton explains in this Time inter­view, “you don’t need to be vio­lent,” and you can even attain greater suc­cess in cer­tain fields than non-psy­cho­pathics — espe­cial­ly if you con­sid­er vig­i­lant­ly and unhesi­tat­ing­ly min­i­miz­ing the death tolls at divert­ed cliff­side trol­ley tracks a field.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

This is Your Brain on Sex and Reli­gion: Exper­i­ments in Neu­ro­science

What Hap­pens When Your Brain is on Alfred Hitch­cock: The Neu­ro­science of Film

The Dalai Lama on the Neu­ro­science of Com­pas­sion

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

How To Think Like a Psy­chol­o­gist: A Free Online Course from Stan­ford

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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