Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

My Brain Made Me Carry Out a Ponzi Scheme

Researchers want to find biomarkers for violent criminals. But what about white-collar offenders?

Back in 2000, a man known only as Mr. Oft began to grapple with an unwanted realization: He was becoming a pedophile. In fact, it wasn’t long before he was charged with child molestation. But the day before his prison sentence, his head felt like it was about to burst, and a few brain scans later, an egg-size tumor was found burrowing through his brain.

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The tumor was removed, and with that, his unwanted sexual urges faded. A year later, however, they resurfaced, except new brain scans revealed his tumor had as well. Extracted once more, these urges departed for good, according to a case study published in 2003 in JAMA Neurology.

Mr. Oft’s story epitomizes the my-brain-made-me-do-it plea. It is a defense that has been deployed in recent decades by convicted murders ranging from wife-strangling accountants to prison-escaping psychopaths, all of whom used images of brain abnormalities in the hope of softer punishment. This hasn’t been limited to faulty brain circuits, either: In 2009, an Italian court knocked a year off a murderer’s sentence because he carries genes associated with having a violent streak.

The legitimacy of such appeals to “bad biology” is controversial, to say the least. But it raises another, perhaps eerie-sounding prospect: If quirks in our biology can act as alibis, can those same quirks also be used to predict someone’s likelihood of committing a crime—that is, before they ever commit one?

This is the idea behind using “bioprediction” to improve crime-prevention efforts. If you have a biomarker—some indicator in your brain or genes, say—that is associated with certain dispositions that make you more likely to commit a crime, we can try to take steps to keep you on the straight and narrow.

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For instance, imagine your son has been found to carry a particular variant of a gene called MAOA. On its own, this is unremarkable, but if he is abused during childhood, there is mounting evidence that his chances of growing up violent and reckless are significantly higher than average. Because of that, a pediatrician might encourage preventative psychotherapy or, more draconically, perhaps child services will check in to ensure he’s not being maltreated.

But bioprediction could also be used more bluntly. Suppose you are a prison inmate up for parole. In line with a previous study, you are presented with a screen that repeatedly flashes the letter X but occasionally the letter K. You are asked to press a button when you see an X, but not a K. You do this while your brain is being scanned to look for a particular pattern. If your brain exhibits it, bad news: You are twice as likely as other inmates to reoffend within four years. Parole rejected.

As with all such technologies, it’s easy to see how bioprediction can be hijacked for nefarious political ends. But if the science is solid—and these are still very early days—it could also lead to far fairer and more efficient crime prevention. After all, how we currently decide who gets parole seems in part determined by how hungry a judge is. In comparison, using psychotherapy or child services to protect kids particularly disposed to grow up violent if abused is not exactly Black Mirror material.

Still, there is something about the current scientific hunt for these biological risk factors that is a little boneheaded: It assumes, mistakenly, that the criminals we should be most worried about are murderers, rapists, and the generally deranged and out of control. It is no surprise, then, that the biomarkers being researched in this domain consistently relate in some way to aggression, impulsivity, sexual deviance, and drug abuse. It ignores the criminals who tend to be wearing suits and are very much in control—of themselves, and often of large and powerful organizations. These are the so-called white-collar criminals and, unlike murderers and pedophiles, they typically make for fine neighbors.

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But white-collar crime—whether it’s drug companies suppressing worrying findings about their products, car companies cheating on emissions tests, or kleptocratic regimes embezzling billions of dollars of public money—is far more costly than conventional crime in money, health, and lives lost. Just how much more costly is notoriously difficult to calculate, but on some authoritative measures it is 50 times more costly and 13 times more deadly. In the U.K. for instance, while violent crimes cost an estimated 124 billion pounds a year, including the costs of police investigations, courts, prison expenditures, and loss in productivity, fraud on its own is estimated to cost 190 billion pounds annually.

Preventing these types of crimes isn’t easy—it requires changing the incentive structures and bureaucratic processes of institutions, not conducting some biological analyses of those working in them. Still, bioprediction has a chance to play a particularly useful role here, namely, helping us vet those vying for the most powerful, and therefore potentially most dangerous, positions in society.

Consider the “corporate psychopath.” This is an individual who lacks feelings like empathy, guilt, and remorse, yet who can also manipulate others through charm and persuasion to further his own egocentric interests. Unlike the clinical psychopath, this individual is not necessarily impulsive or prone to violent, anti-social outbursts. In fact, in interviews designed to test for psychopathy, these types of relatively intelligent psychopaths are pretty good at hiding their nature.

What’s more, there’s evidence these individuals are particularly attracted to large, powerful organizations and are indeed overrepresented among corporate professionals. And while there is little research on this, we can expect similar findings in politics for the same reasons: Once the corporate psychopath reaches the top of a powerful organization, he is in a prime position to pursue his egoistic goals unimpeded, all the while manipulating the moral climate around him to normalize shady behaviors that their nonpsychopathic colleagues might otherwise be wary of.

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Might there be biological indicators that can help identify such individuals? The neurological correlations for psychopathy are slowly being mapped, as are the genetic underpinnings of so-called callous-unemotional individuals. Even traits like extreme narcissism may have some hormonal correlations.

Put together, identifying these otherwise beguiling characters via certain biological indicators is certainly not impossible, but the science first needs to become more interested in white-collar criminals, and better understand the relevant risk factors.

Of course, we ought to question how this would be implemented, and by whom. It’s hard to imagine a board of directors demanding that CEO candidates undergo a brain scan or genetic test. Nevertheless, it might be corporations themselves that push for this change in their vetting criteria: For one thing, leaders with psychopathic traits seem to predictably reduce future shareholder wealth.

While this will probably entail some corresponding cultural shift in how we evaluate prospective managers and leaders, it’s worth noting that some states already use (poor) measures of psychopathy to screen individuals for positions critical to public safety, such as police and fire departments as well as nuclear-power-plant operators. Individuals at the highest levels of powerful political and corporate organizations are, like nuclear-power-plant operators, in positions that can inflict massive harm. As we further understand the biological underpinnings of insidious personality traits, it will increasingly appear idiotic not to screen candidates scrambling for the most powerful positions.

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Deploying bioprediction at this level will also raise less concerns about injustice. Conventional crimes are typically committed by people who are already disadvantaged: the homeless, the learning-disabled, and members of marginalized groups are overrepresented in prison populations. Adding potentially stigmatizing biopredictive labels and other intrusive measures to their lives may well only compound their disadvantage.

But for the already-privileged elites vying for CEO or president? Not so much. In fact, since it is precisely elites who are best positioned to potentially seize this emerging technology toward some dystopian end, it is only prudent they become its first subjects—not the homeless burglar with a learning disability. Combine this with the fact that the strongman leader seems back in vogue, and an improved ability to distinguish the merely charming leader from the closeted psychopath would come in handy about now.