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According to author Kevin Dutton, psychopaths have a distinct set of personality characteristics. Pictured is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. (Photo by: Mary Evans / UNIVERSAL PICTURES / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection)

The Pros to Being a Psychopath

In a new book, Oxford research psychologist Kevin Dutton argues that psychopaths are poised to perform well under pressure

smithsonian.com

When most of us hear the word “psychopath,” we imagine Hannibal Lecter. Kevin Dutton would prefer that we think of brain surgeons, CEOs and Buddhist monks. In his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, the Oxford research psychologist argues that psychopathic personality traits—charm, confidence, ruthlessness, coolness under pressure—can, in the right doses, be a good thing. Not all psychopaths are violent, he says, and some of them are just the sort of people society can count on in a crisis.

To further his psychopathic studies, Dutton is seeking participants for his Great American Psychopath Survey, which he says will reveal the most psychopathic states, cities and professions in the United States. Try it for yourself at wisdomofpsychopaths.com.

“Psychopath” is a term that gets thrown about a lot in our culture. Are psychopaths misunderstood?

It’s true, no sooner is the word “psychopath” out than images of your classic psychopathic killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and a whole kind of discreditable raft of senior politicians come kind of creeping across our minds. But actually, being a psychopath doesn’t mean that you’re a criminal. Not by default, anyway. It doesn’t mean that you’re a serial killer, either.

One of the reasons why I wrote the book in the first place was to debunk two deep-seated myths that the general public have about psychopaths. Firstly, that they’re either all “mad or bad.” And secondly, that psychopathy is an all-or-nothing thing, that you’re either a psychopath or you’re not. 

What is a psychopath, anyway?

When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we’re referring to are people who have a distinct set of personality characteristics, which include things like ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, persuasiveness and a lack of conscience and empathy. Imagine that you tick the box for all of those characteristics. You also happen to be violent and stupid. It’s not going to be long before you smack a bottle over someone’s head in a bar and get locked up for a long time in prison. But if you tick the box for all of those characteristics, and you happen to be intelligent and not naturally violent, then it’s a different story altogether. Then you’re more likely to make a killing in the market rather than anywhere else.

How are these psychopathic traits particularly useful in modern society?

Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.

The key here is keeping it in context. Let’s think of psychopathic traits—ruthlessness, toughness, charm, focus—as the dials on a [recording] studio deck. If you were to turn all of those dials up to max, then you’re going to overload the circuit. You’re going to wind up getting 30 years inside or the electric chair or something like that. But if you have some of them up high and some of them down low, depending on the context, in certain endeavors, certain professions, you are going to be predisposed to great success. The key is to be able to turn them back down again.

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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