Review: Embracing the psychopath within

November 9, 2012

By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

If you’ve ever thought your boss is a psychopath, you may be right, according to psychologist Kevin Dutton. And if you’re a top-flight markets trader, captain of industry, surgeon or soldier, you may well be one yourself. But that’s OK, says Dutton. It may even be optimal.

“The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” an exploration of serial killers, monks, spies and CEOs through the prism of personality tests and neuroscience, is a good book lurking within a bad one. In this regard it perfectly reflects its theme, which is that among the dark traits which make a person psychopathic nestle behaviors and abilities that are not only necessary, but good, for individuals and society. In the seeds of evil, he proposes, wisdom may be found.

An Oxford University research psychologist, Dutton may discomfit many readers with an almost adolescent joy in mixed metaphors and grating puns, relishing the shock value of his premise as he liberally applies the term “psychopath” to all kinds of people. It may sound like he is suggesting sadistic ax-murderers or serial rapists lurk within all men, but his point is rather more subtle. Perhaps this approach is a deliberate attempt to open the reader’s mind to new ideas. Or perhaps he needs a more restrained editor.

Still, a razor-sharp intellect with a serious academic purpose lurks behind the loose phrasing and wordiness. Dutton stacks up references to interlocking personality studies, brain scans and physiological examinations, comparing members of the general population with those behind bars and those who excel at certain sharp-end professions. His argument is that most “psychopaths” aren’t violent, and indeed most aren’t locked away. Many excel in society precisely because they possess, in a more moderate or controlled way, the same traits that land their more antisocial brethren in a world of hurt.

The key traits include: ruthlessness; intense capacity to focus, excluding all distractions such as fear; powerful reward motivation; a disposition to action; acute ability to read emotions in other people, without being moved by them; charisma; mental resilience; and mindfulness, the ability to live in the present moment.

Many people have some of these traits, he says. Those who can manage to flick them on and off according to circumstance have a powerful toolkit for doing well in life, particularly in high-risk, high-reward professions. Those with only partial control of such traits, or who have them jammed full-on all the time, may severely hurt others, ruin their own business or even damage the world economy. Those who lack any such traits should try to embrace a few, Dutton suggests.

In examining CEOs, Dutton also cites a 2005 academic study that compared business managers, psychiatric patients and hospitalized criminals in a psychological profiling test. “A number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals,” Dutton writes, listing attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus. The main difference lay in the “antisocial” traits, with the criminals’ physical aggression, impulsivity and lawbreaking dials cranked up higher.

One of Dutton’s own surveys, in which visitors to his website take a personality test called the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale and give details of their professions, found that CEOs ranked highest on the scale, followed by lawyers, TV and radio workers, salespeople, surgeons and journalists.

Dutton interviews “functional psychopath” special-forces soldiers, financial traders, lawyers and doctors, often in exotic locales, who speak of experiencing altered states of consciousness when entirely focused on their work, akin to the concept of “flow” or “optimal experience” of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. One of the most intriguing of Dutton’s insights is the similarity he relates between certain psychopathic traits and those exhibited by experts in Buddhist meditation. Both are very good, for example, at reading emotions in people’s faces, embracing new experiences, remaining in the moment and practicing detachment.

To say psychological traits required in killing and in making a killing in the markets are not dissimilar may seem trite. Yet Dutton, despite his tendency to showboat, uses that observation as a starting point for a disconcerting and intelligent exploration of the outer reaches and useful inner depths of at least some human minds.

 

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