Now consider the following variation (Case 2), proposed by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:
As before, a railway trolley is speeding out of control down a track toward five people. But this time you are standing behind a very large stranger on a footbridge above the tracks. The only way to save the five people is to heave the stranger over. He will fall to a certain death. But his considerable girth will block the trolley, saving five lives. Question: Should you push him?
Here you might say we're faced with a “real” dilemma. Although the score in lives is precisely the same as in the first example (five to one), playing the game makes us a little more circumspect and jittery. But why?
Greene believes he has the answer. It has to do with different climatic regions in the brain.
Case 1, he proposes, is what we might call an impersonal moral dilemma and involves those areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex (in particular, the anterior paracingulate cortex, the temporal pole and the superior temporal sulcus), principally implicated in our objective experience of cold empathy: in reasoning and rational thought.
Case 2, on the other hand, is what we might call a personal moral dilemma. It hammers on the door of the brain's emotion center, known as the amygdala—the circuit of hot empathy.
Just like most normal members of the population, psychopaths make pretty short work of the dilemma presented in Case 1. Yet—and this is where the plot thickens—quite unlike normal people, they also make pretty short work of Case 2. Psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the side.
To compound matters further, this difference in behavior is mirrored, rather distinctly, in the brain. The pattern of neural activation in both psychopaths and normal people is well matched on the presentation of impersonal moral dilemmas—but dramatically diverges when things get a bit more personal.
Imagine that I were to pop you into a functional MRI machine and then present you with the two dilemmas. What would I observe as you went about negotiating their moral minefields? Just around the time that the nature of the dilemma crossed the border from impersonal to personal, I would see your amygdala and related brain circuits—your medial orbitofrontal cortex, for example—light up like a pinball machine. I would witness the moment, in other words, that emotion puts its money in the slot.
But in a psychopath, I would see only darkness. The cavernous neural casino would be boarded up and derelict—the crossing from impersonal to personal would pass without any incident.
The Psychopath Mix
The question of what it takes to succeed in a given profession, to deliver the goods and get the job done, is not all that difficult when it comes down to it. Alongside the dedicated skill set necessary to perform one's specific duties—in law, in business, in whatever field of endeavor you care to mention—exists a selection of traits that code for high achievement.
In 2005 Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon, then at the University of Surrey in England, conducted a survey to find out precisely what it was that made business leaders tick. What, they wanted to know, were the key facets of personality that separated those who turn left when boarding an airplane from those who turn right?
Board and Fritzon took three groups—business managers, psychiatric patients and hospitalized criminals (those who were psychopathic and those suffering from other psychiatric illnesses)—and compared how they fared on a psychological profiling test.
Their analysis revealed that a number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals—attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus. The main difference between the groups was in the more “antisocial” aspects of the syndrome: the criminals' lawbreaking, physical aggression and impulsivity dials (to return to our analogy of earlier) were cranked up higher.