The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Kevin Dutton

I find myself strongly conflicted about the worth of this book, the latest entry in the popular press’s “psychopaths are so cool!” sweepstakes.

The main reason for the conflict is that most of the book is too good, too scholarly, to deserve such a flip characterization. But then, there is the cover, and there is the book’s self-consciously hip website. Not to mention the subtitle: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. None of these creates a traditionally academic or sober-minded first impression, does it?

That’s too bad, for The Wisdom of Psychopaths (TWOP) is more serious and informative than are such “psychology lite'” efforts as Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which I have reviewed, negatively, elsewhere.

Dutton is a psychologist at Cambridge, and throughout TWOP he supports his claims with direct and indirect evidence from prominent researchers in the field. These interviews and study summaries pile up, one atop the next, until it’s difficult to dismiss his core thesis that a moderate sprinkling of psychopathic traits can be an advantage in getting on in contemporary society.

Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused. Yet contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. And if that sounds good, well, it is. Or rather, it can be.

How prevalent is psycopathy? Dutton notes that, while 90% of subjects in the famous “trolley problem” recoil from the moral distastefulness of “direct” or “personal” homicide, there is that remaining 10%, who are more comfortable with a thoroughly utilitarian resolution to the dilemma. Dutton asks, “Could the two constructs—psychopathy and utilitarianism— possibly be linked?”

Dutton cites an analysis showing “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 ….”

Dutton spends considerable time considering ” the possibility— as profound as it is disturbing—that in twenty-first-century society they’re continuing to evolve, and that the disorder is becoming adaptive.”

Rather than their being a “switch” point, beyond which you’re a psychopath and before which you’re not, research using “The Psychopathic Personality Inventory” (PPI) suggests that there is a spectrum of personalities,

With a disconnect in response sets showing up at precisely the point on the PCL-R that things start to get clinical, the mystery as to what, precisely, psychopathy really is—whether it lies on a continuum or is a completely separate disorder—suddenly deepens. Is psychopathy just a matter of degree? Or are the big boys in a league of their own?

Dutton comes down heavily on the “matter of degree” side. In fact, he comes close in several places to promoting the view that being a psychopath may be a positive adaptation in Darwinian terms.

The e-mail had got me thinking. Might this eminent criminal defense lawyer have a point? Was psychopathy a “medicine for modern times”? Could taking it in moderation, twiddling those dials a little to the right on our respective psychopath mixing desks—at certain times, in certain specific contexts— actually be good for us?

One of the most counter-intuitive, and thus most interesting, parts of TWOP is Dutton’s extended observation that the inherent traits of the psychopath and the acquired discipline of the Eastern ascetic are provocatively similar.

Yet anchoring your thoughts unswervingly in the present, focusing exclusively, immediately, on the here and now, is a cognitive discipline that psychopathy and spiritual enlightenment have in common.

The psychopath and the Zen master, Dutton argues, share one key skill: the ability to live in each moment with perfect utility.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” elucidated Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most celebrated Buddhist teachers of recent times. “In the expert’s mind there are few.” And few would disagree. When Dickens decided to send Scrooge the ghosts of the past, present, and future, he chose the three specters that haunt all of us. But anchor your thoughts entirely in the present, screen out the chatter of the querulous, recriminative past and the elusive, importunate future, and anxiety begins to subside. Perception begins to sharpen. And the question becomes one of utility: what we do with this ‘now’, this enormous, emphatic present, once we have it. Do we “savor” the moment like a saint? Or “seize” it like a psychopath? Do we reflect on the nature of experience? Or do we focus our attention entirely on ourselves in the frenetic pursuit of instant gratification?

So, it seems to Dutton, psychopathy may be a severe mental disorder in the extreme, but in moderation psychopathic personality traits can lead to both material gain and spritual growth. Not bad for something we usually associate with serial killers!

I label the skill set the Seven Deadly Wins—seven core principles of psychopathy that, apportioned judiciously and applied with due care and attention, can help us get exactly what we want; can help us respond, rather than react, to the challenges of modern-day living; can transform our outlook from victim to victor, but without turning us into a villain:

1. Ruthlessness

2. Charm

3. Focus

4. Mental toughness

5. Fearlessness

6. Mindfulness

7. Action

One can almost hear Nietzsche, laughing from the void.


3 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Psychopaths

  1. I actually just bought this book on amazon a few hours before reading your review. You bring up some really interesting points, I’m especially keen to see how he develops the connection between psychopathy and ascetism. It does seem that people with psychopathic tendencies tend to rise to the top of organizations, especially in business. But at the same time, and I think this plays in to the notion of psychopathy as a continuum, if you go too far, if you’re too cold, and have no network within your business, all the ruthlessness and efficiency in the world won’t save your career. Nice review, has me excited for the book to arrive.

    • Glad you liked the review. Dutton certainly supports the idea of a continuum, as you point out. But as far as “if you’re too cold” goes, he speculates that some kinds of extreme psychopaths have heightened empathy rather than no empathy at all. Without empathy, he argues, they couldn’t enjoy the suffering they create. Hope you enjoy the book!

  2. The fact that earlier societies sometimes chose schizophrenics as their shamans suggests that it is possible we could be giving special status to anti social behaviour, but is there evidence that schizophrenia stayed important in the cultural groups who adopted it as would be required in group evolution of the trait? Seems a stretch.

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