Over a 28-year-old single-malt scotch at the Scientific Study of Psychopathy’s biennial bash in Montreal in 2011, I asked Bob Hare, “When you look around you at modern-day society, do you think, in general, that we’re becoming more psychopathic?”
The eminent criminal psychologist and creator of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist paused before answering. “I think, in general, yes, society is becoming more psychopathic,” he said. “I mean, there’s stuff going on nowadays that we wouldn’t have seen 20, even 10 years ago. Kids are becoming anesthetized to normal sexual behavior by early exposure to pornography on the Internet. Rent-a-friend sites are getting more popular on the Web, because folks are either too busy or too techy to make real ones. … The recent hike in female criminality is particularly revealing. And don’t even get me started on Wall Street.”
He’s got a point. In Japan in 2011, a 17-year-old boy parted with one of his own kidneys so he could go out and buy an iPad. In China, following an incident in which a 2-year-old baby was left stranded in the middle of a marketplace and run over, not once but twice, as passersby went casually about their business, an appalled electorate has petitioned the government to pass a good-Samaritan law to prevent such a thing from happening again.
And the new millennium has seemingly ushered in a wave of corporate criminality like no other. Investment scams, conflicts of interest, lapses of judgment, and those evergreen entrepreneurial party tricks of good old fraud and embezzlement are now utterly unprecedented in magnitude. Who’s to blame? In an issue of theJournal of Business Ethics, Clive R. Boddy, a former professor at the Nottingham Business School, contends that it’s psychopaths, pure and simple, who are at the root of all the trouble.
The law itself has gotten in on the act. At the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping trial, in Salt Lake City, the attorney representing Brian David Mitchell—the homeless street preacher and self-proclaimed prophet who abducted, raped, and kept the 14-year-old Elizabeth captive for nine months (according to Smart’s testimony, he raped her pretty much every day over that period)—urged the sentencing judge to go easy on his client, on the grounds that “Ms. Smart overcame it. Survived it. Triumphed over it.” When the lawyers start whipping up that kind of tune, the dance could wind up anywhere.
Of course, it’s not just the lawyers. In a recent study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, in London, 120 convicted street robbers were asked why they did it. The answers were revealing. Kicks. Spur-of-the-moment impulses. Status. And financial gain. In that order. Exactly the kind of casual, callous behavior patterns one often sees in psychopaths.
In fact, in a survey that has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has found that college students’ self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision”) have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago,” Konrath reports.
More worrisome still, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is that, during this same period, students’ self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof. “Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called ‘Generation Me,’ ” Konrath continues, “as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history.”
Precisely why this downturn in social values has come about is not entirely clear. A complex concatenation of environment, role models, and education is, as usual, under suspicion. But the beginnings of an even more fundamental answer may lie in a study conducted by Jeffrey Zacks and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, at Washington University in St. Louis. With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters’ locations (e.g., “went out of the house into the street”) were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., “picked up a pencil”) produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character’s goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action.