Contrary to popular belief, psychopaths can be either angelic or devilish – or both – depending on their dispositions. Generally speaking, they are creative, impulsive, rebellious, emotionally flexible, and often very successful and productive workers. True, sometimes, they can also be troublemakers, drama queens, and completely selfish.
The question you must now be asking is: Am I a psychopath? You very well could be, and although you’d need the professional opinion of a psychiatrist or two to be sure, there are a few basic, generalized tests you can do to get a hint. In a video for YouTube series Big Think, renowned Oxford University psychologist Kevin Dutton explains what he thinks constitutes a psychopath, and it all boils down to one simple question.
Say that you’re watching a train careen forwards down a track, and in its path, five people are trapped and awaiting their doom. There is a switch, however, that could divert the train down a separate path, and although this would save these five unfortunate people, it will instead plough into one single person stuck to this alternate track.
So, would you flick the switch? If you did, and you killed just one person, that would be the utilitarian choice. You are saving more lives, but you’re actively choosing to kill someone in order to do so.
A slight variant of this situation starts with the same train hurtling towards the same five people, but this time there is no switch. Instead, you are standing beside a rather portly stranger with whom you have no connection with whatsoever. If you push them onto the train track, it will certainly kill him or her, but their blockage of the track will save the lives of the other five.
In both situations, you’re actively choosing to kill someone to save other people’s lives; however, the first situation is an “impersonal dilemma,” one that involves rational thought. The second situation involves a “personal dilemma,” one that strongly involves empathy, the active attempt within the brain to understand what someone else may think about you or your actions.
Whether you are a psychopath or not, it’s likely you would, in the train switch situation, pull the lever to end just one, not five lives. However, quite unlike most people, most psychopaths have no trouble pushing the overweight person in front of the moving train in order to stop five people dying.
Ultimately, Dutton points out that there are life-saving psychopaths as well as life-ending ones, and sometimes both aren’t mutually exclusive. But what really makes a psychopath is whether or not they can switch off their empathy – or if they simply lack any sense of it at all.