Ron Schouten ’75
When Bad Behavior is a Sign of Something More
By Pete Croatto
(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)
Ron Schouten ’75 is one of the nation’s foremost forensic psychiatrists. An associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Law & Psychiatry Service of Massachusetts General Hospital, Schouten served on the Federal District Courtauthorized panel that interpreted the actions of alleged anthrax mastermind Bruce Ivins. And he led Mike Tyson’s 1998 psychiatric evaluation after the boxer sought to return to the ring after dining on Evander Holyfield’s ear.
Until recently, though, Schouten’s list of accomplishments lacked something: a book. Considering his background (he’s written 60 scholarly papers and book chapters) and America’s fascination with bad behavior, that omission seems unimaginable.
“I’ve been busy,” jokes Schouten, 58, the co-author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem With Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (Hazelden) with James Silver, a former federal prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney. The book is the latest entry in the Almost Effect series, which features Harvard Medical School faculty and other experts detailing the range of behavioral and emotional issues that fall between “normal and fullblown pathology.”
Almost a Psychopath employs clearly explained research and fascinating case studies to illuminate what leads people to exhibit certain psychopathic behaviors. It also includes tips on dealing with these individuals, which include bringing up concerns in a conversational but firm manner. Schouten says the goal is to raise people’s “situtational awareness” so they can deal with such behavior— in others or themselves—before it becomes destructive. The message resonated even before the book was published. Schouten now has a monthly blog (Almost a Psychopath) on Psychology Today’s website. Coauthor Silver has written about Wall Street almost-psychopaths for The Atlantic’s website.
“We’re not inventing something new,” Schouten says, “but we’re exploring the concept for the general public.”
In medical circles, a patient with a subclinical disorder exhibits a number of symptoms that point to a specific conditon—but not enough for a doctor to make an official diagnosis. That’s the “Almost Effect.” A person may keep taking credit for his or her colleagues’ work or use aggression in a calculated way. He or she is not a psychopath per se, but the behavior is troubling and needs to be addressed.
For those concerned about where they land on the psychopath scale, consider the pervasiveness of psychopathy’s major traits, egocentricity and a lack of empathy. “It’s one thing to be a cunning and sharp and clever businessperson and cut a really tough deal, even though the other party will get the short end of the stick, and be able to do that without remorse,” Schouten explains. “That’s different than being remorseless in every aspect of your life.”
The book’s serious subject matter did not dampen the writing process. Schouten says he enjoyed collaborating with Silver and relished the “chance to sit down under the pressure of a deadline and read articles and translate them and identify and survey the literature. It was great to go through an intense learning experience.”
While Schouten studied psychology at Haverford, it wasn’t his first career choice. Instead, he got a law degree from Boston University and joined the Chicago law firm Dorfman, DeKoven, Cohen & Laner, where Bill Becker ’65 was a partner.
But after six months, Schouten couldn’t envision practicing law long term. Shortly after receiving a raise, one that came with glittering talk of his prospects, Schouten left. Over the next 12 months, he took all of his pre-med courses, including two semsters of organic chemistry in seven weeks, and started medical school a year later. Though he was initially drawn to orthopedic surgery (he’s a runner and loves working with his hands), those plans evaporated when Schouten made his first psychiatry rounds.
And that led him to a distinguished career, one that finally includes credit as author of a book.
“Writing something for the general population was not something I really considered doing,” Schouten says. “But so far, it’s been immensely satisfying.”