Jimmy Saville, psychopaths and you and me

by Oct 14, 2012Psychopaths3 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 5 minutes
The controversy surrounding Jimmy Saville raises many crucial issues, and stirs up powerful feelings, as it should.  We should be shocked and disgusted by what has happened to his victims, and appalled that he was allowed to carry on in the way he was in institutions which we have trusted and relied on, such as the BBC, hospitals and prisons. Shock, disgust, anger and blame are appropriate and expectable emotions in the face of such unthinkable behaviour, and the collusion of too many people with those behaviours.

At the same time I feel like urging a note of caution. Not in a way that will condone anything that has happened, but rather about our reactions, and particularly the inevitable braying for blood and revenge and the need to hold people to account and punish, which while it makes sense on one level, can also be a dangerous route to follow. The note of caution I want to sound is that if we put all our energy into condemning, litigation and revenge we are far less likely to be able to make sense of what has actually happened.

Jimmy Saville was it seems a paedophile with extreme psychopathic tendencies. He was what some call, rather unfortunately, a very successful psychopath. Researchers such as Raine [1]have found that successful psychopaths, those that do not get caught, seem to have slightly different brain structure to those who do. They are compelling and cleverer, and give away few warning signs. We should remember that most psychopaths can be very convincing. Another researcher Christian Keysers found that some of the worst offenders appeared to be almost innocent lambs if you took their self-reports at face value  [2].

It is easy to condemn those who did nothing about Saville or turned a blind eye, but we have to remember, and also acknowledge to ourselves, that we do not want to believe that these things are happening, and that the nice person near us might be doing them. Martha Stout, who has published on sociopathy, has argued that there are more sociopaths around that one might imagine, she suggests maybe as many as 4% of the population, certainly enough that one would expect to walk past one each time one goes shopping or goes to work [3]. It is hard to believe that others do not feel empathy in the same way as most of us, feel no remorse and do such vile acts with no second thought. Part of the problem here is the human tendency to block out what we do not want to know about. It is perfectly possible for any of us to know something and not know it at the same time.

A hallmark of many psychopaths as well is extreme confidence, charm,  charisma and the ability to get others to trust them. It is no coincidence that Saville managed this. Bob Hare, one of the most important writers about psychopaths has suggested that there are 4 times more psychopaths running large corporations than in the rest of the population  [4], as well as many (unsuccessful ones) in prison, and more successful ones in politics. Kevin Dutton in his recent book [5] suggests that society needs psychopaths to do tasks many of us could not manage, such as staying calm in battle. Indeed he found many not only in the armed forces but also consultant surgeons as well as in finance. There is a lot of research about psychopaths nowadays. Typical is a study published this week which looked at how psychopaths tend not to understand that others might be experiencing feelings like fear or distress, and they also do not get what is and is not socially unacceptable [6]. What many such as Stout suggest is that we have created a world in which it is far more possible for such people to flourish than in the past, due to the ease with which it is possible to be anonymous, as well as the way in which we are in thrall to power, strength and decisiveness. Indecisiveness and uncertainty win few votes these days, as Obama’s recent mauling demonstrated.

The other note of caution worth sounding is the condemnation of the likes of Saville as sub-human and in every way ‘different from us’. It might be easier to distance ourselves than to admit that we might be more capable of evil acts than we like to admit. One only has to think about what seemingly decent German citizens went along with in Nazi Germany. Dehumanisation is what psychopaths manage, and many paedophiles. We all have an ability to dehumanise and make some people beneath contempt, normally those not in our in-group, whether of another class, ethnicity or culture. The poor, unemployed, drug addicts or those begging on the streets often evoke responses of disgust, as recent research has shown, with a brain area called the insula very central to such processes [7].

Whether we are all capable of having paedophilic urges is a more controversial issue. Freud would have argued that we do and that these are repressed and managed in most people. The neuroscientist David Eagleman [8] reported many extraordinary cases such as Alex, a normal man who suddenly was overtaken by paedophilic desires that he could not inhibit. In his case a tumour was discovered in his frontal lobe, and on removal his paedophilic urges disappeared. Eagleman suggests that maybe he, and any of us, might have such desires lurking in us, desires which are usually inhibited by our brain areas central to executive functioning. This is harder and more controversial territory, even the more so in that of course most active paedophiles have had horrendous lives and childhoods and have all too often been subject to abuse themselves. Their acts and fantasies tend to be very different from those of most of us.

Of course we all have the potential for two kinds of aggression, the ‘hot’ reactive anger, such as we see when threatened, and a more ‘cold’ ruthless kind that all predators activate when hunting their victims. These are needed traits and thankfully for most of us the cold aggressive tendencies are balanced by a more empathic and moral side. Not so in many psychopaths it seems.

My main point though is that while we do need to condemn what has happened, we also need to be able to be self-reflective and honest. We are all capable of being misled by charismatic people, and few of us are capable of believing that those near to us are capable of such inhuman acts. Maybe more importantly, it is very hard to acknowledge that we might also be capable of acts that are distasteful and that we all too quickly condemn in others.


[1]        Y. Gao and A. Raine, ‘Successful and unsuccessful psychopaths: A neurobiological model’, Behavioral sciences & the law, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 194–210, 2010.

[2]        C. Keysers, The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press, 2011.

[3]        M. Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books (A Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc), 2007.

[4]        R. D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, 1st ed. Guilford Press, 1999.

[5]        K. Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths. London: Heineman, 2012.

[6]        A. A. Marsh and E. M. Cardinale, ‘Psychopathy and fear: Specific impairments in judging behaviors that frighten others.’, 2012.

[7]        L. T. Harris and S. T. Fiske, ‘Dehumanized perception: A psychological means to facilitate atrocities, torture, and genocide?’, Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Journal of Psychology, vol. 219, no. 3, p. 175, 2011.

[8]        D. Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain. Canongate Books Ltd, 2011.

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