Psychopaths: not all bad?

Dear colleagues,

Psychopaths - who would want to work with one? The normal idea of psychopaths is that they lack a conscience and lack empathy, and go through life looking only for what is in their self-interest. Many end up in prison.

Over the years I've read quite a lot about psychopaths, including the classic study by Hervey Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity, and more recent treatments such as Paul Babiak and Robert Hare's Snakes in Suits. Because I advise whistleblowers, I hear about some of the corrupt operators they're up against, who have no compunction about cheating, stealing and bare-faced lying.

For those with a more sociological bent, there is The Corporation, a book and film, which analyses the characteristic traits of the modern corporation, treated as a person, and finds they perfectly match the traits of psychopaths.

Browsing through Abbey's bookshop in Sydney, I was therefore surprised to see a book titled The Wisdom of Psychopaths. After checking that it was indeed intended as a serious treatment, how could I resist? The author, Professor Kevin Dutton, is a research psychologist at Oxford University. His book has a serious message, packaged in an engaging style.

The traditional idea is that psychopaths are antisocial, and indeed are classified in the psychiatrist's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), as having antisocial personality disorder. Lacking the self-control to contain their selfish impulses, many end up in trouble with authorities. The most famous psychopaths are serial killers.

However, there has been a re-evaluation of psychopaths. Those who are not impulsive can rise up in the system, using their personal charm and lack of fear to get ahead. Dutton says psychopaths do not have the same profile as the antisocial personality disorder as specified in the DSM.

The first point in defence of psychopaths is that their special traits can be used for socially beneficial purposes. Studies have shown that people high in psychopathic traits have superior capacities to detect how emotionally vulnerable others are. This is obviously useful for someone who wants to assault or exploit others: picking a suitable target is a survival skill. However, this emotional radar could be useful at airport security, to detect passengers who, carrying illicit materials, are worried about being found out.

That psychopaths have an emotional sensitivity goes against the usual idea of their being emotionless. This can be reconciled: they can detect others' emotions but are totally focused on their own goals.

The next step in rethinking the role of psychopaths is to note that nearly everyone has some psychopathic traits - and they can be useful in some situations. Imagine a skilled surgeon about to undertake a major operation, opening up your body for hours of careful work. For this delicate work, it is highly useful to set aside emotional reactions and concentrate entirely on the task.

If you're making an investment, you can be rely on both intellect and emotion. Buying a house, you might be swayed by the kitchen decor when it would be better to concentrate on the price and the potential for flooding. A cool calculating approach can be helpful in an auction.

Studies have been done about levels of psychopathy in different occupations. Chief executive officers and lawyers rate highly; care workers and nurses are at the other end of the scale.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths provides an engaging tour through the latest research in the field. Dutton interviewed leading researchers and witnessed some of their tests, including brain imaging. As Dutton experienced himself, with the right sort of brain stimulation it is possible to accentuate psychopathic traits for a period.

Dutton also sought insights from psychopaths themselves. He entered Broadmoor Hospital, a British psychiatric institution housing some of the most ruthless convicted criminals in the country, and had a stimulating and occasionally harrowing conversation with several of the most extreme psychopaths. He wanted to know how they would deal with various dilemmas. If you had to personally kill someone in order to save five others from certain death, would you do it? And how quickly and effortlessly would you make your choice?

Dutton also interviewed members of special forces units, who perform incredibly dangerous missions during which the slightest hesitation can increase the risk of failure. Psychopathic traits can also be helpful for spies.

The biggest surprise is the overlap in traits between psychopaths and saints, in particular those who have achieved enlightenment. In Buddhist meditation, the goal is mindfulness, a mental state of being in the present, without distracting thoughts about the past or future. Psychopaths have the capacity to be mentally only in the here and now but, unlike great meditators, have not had to spend years in training: psychopaths seem born with this ability.

In the modern world, despite material wealth, many people are stressed and distracted, worrying about the future and regretting the past: they cannot relax for even a minute without disturbing or distracting thoughts entering their minds. It seems that psychopaths have something to offer in terms of how to live in the moment.

Dutton is not saying saints are psychopaths, but rather that there's an overlap in some of the characteristic traits of spirituality and psychopathy. A key one is openness to experience.

Dutton invites a reconsideration of psychopaths and their characteristics. As he says, "Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused - qualities tailor-made for success in twenty-first-century society."

In academic life, psychopathic traits can have advantages, especially in getting ahead in the system. It can be tempting to label people you don't like as psychopaths, but this is just a type of put-down.

More useful is to examine your own behaviour, and think how to develop and harness traits for worthwhile purposes. This might be a monomaniacal focus on completing a project, a sensitivity to students who feel insecure (in order to help them), or an ability to make tough decisions about your career and life. You may not need or want these capacities, but if you do, you can learn from psychopaths. And what better way than by reading Dutton's wonderfully entertaining book?

6 November 2012

Thanks to Kathy Flynn and Xiaoping Gao for useful feedback on a draft.


Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial Killers (London: Heinemann, 2012)

Quote from pp. 145-146

So are we witnessing the rise of a sub-psychopathic minority, for whom society doesn't exist? A new breed of individual with little or no conception of social norms, no respect for the feelings of others and scant regard for the consequences of their actions? ... If the results of a recent study by Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research are anything to go by, then the answer to these questions is yes.

In a survey which has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Konrath has found that college students' self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) have actually been in steady decline over the previous three decades - since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. And that a particularly pronounced slump has, it turns out, been observed over the past 10 years.

"College kids today are about 40 per cent lower in empathy than their counterparts of twenty or thirty years ago," Konrath reports.

More worrying still, according to Jean Twenge professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is that, during this same period, students' self-reported narcissism levels have, in contrast, gone in the other direction. They've shot through the roof.

"Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called 'Generation Me'," Konrath continues, "as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history."

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