If you've seen the movie American Psycho, you'll know that music plays a major role in it. Patrick Bateman, cosmopolitan and ruthless serial killer, has an extensive cassette collection, and is up-to-date in his tastes. He frequently soundtracks his murders with the pop smashes of the day.
The idea is that, if you can catch a psychopath before they turn violent or commit a crime, by listening to their playlists — well, you've just potentially saved a life. That means streaming services like Spotify and Tidal (does anyone even use Tidal? A psychopath might...) can become detectives tools of choice.
Gary Oldman in Leon the Professional; Alex in A Clockwork Orange; Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. They all preferred classical music, and they were all ruthless killers. What's the connection? Likely only a fictitious one.
Dutton finds the connection between cutthroat killing spree mentality and classical music to be more an aesthetic one that a realistic. Something about the abrupt juxtaposition, the glaring incongruence, of an effortless Mozart or Beethoven strain seems to collide most cinematically with the ruthlessness of a kill. But who wants their film to be realistic, anyway?
Last year, when Phil Collins was interviewed regarding the musical version of American Psycho (that featured heavily his music), he said:
I thought the movie of American Psycho was quite funny – I don’t know if it was meant to be...I don’t think him being a psychopath and liking my music is linked – my music was just omnipresent in that era.
The authors of the study wanted to make clear that psychopaths, though unnervingly prevalent, aren't always easily detectible. They're not wielding axes, they're not skulking around corners, they're not always smelling your shoes — with you in them. Often, they can work with you, above you, under you...you could be living with one and never know it.
Pascal Wallach, the lead researcher on the team, had linked a previous study locating psychopath genes with this one, yielding the interesting results. Basically his team took 200 subjects, had them listen to 260 songs, and list them in order of preference. They were able to link psychopathic genes with the song choice.
The team's conclusions and interest in future research does raise some ethical issues. Is monitoring someone's music choices for potential criminal behavior (a) an invasion of privacy, or (b) overreactive? The answer is: yes, quite possibly, on both counts.
But did you know that the U.S. Government has already been working on something very similar? The Future Attribute Screening Technology project (FAST), developed by the Department of Homeland Security, uses physiological and physical cues — like elevated heart rate, gaze, etc. — to predict criminal behavior. And in labs, it had 70% accuracy.
Conversely, subjects who tuned into Sia's "Titanium" or The Knack's "My Sharona" were mostly cleared of psychopathic tendencies. They might have heavy doses of heartbreak or possibly even crippling nostalgia, but they're not about to go cannibalize someone. Or, at least, the likelihood of that happening is much lower.
The real takeaway to all of this, as Kevin Dutton, self-admitted psychopath and Oxford psychologist, has stressed, is that we need to start rethinking our models of psychopathy and psychopaths. They don't always come across as crazy or insane, and they're not jamming out to Vivaldi. They can blend in very well when they want to. But maybe this study will open the doors to a cultural revision of how psychopaths are portrayed...and understood.