The Pros to Being a Psychopath- page 2 | Science | Smithsonian
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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

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(Continued from page 1)

You’ve found that some professions rate higher than others when it comes to psychopathic traits. Which jobs attract psychopaths?

I ran a survey in 2011, “The Great British Psychopath Survey,” in which I got people to fill out a questionnaire online to find out how psychopathic they were. I also got people to enter their occupations, what they did for a living, and how much money they earned over the course of a year. We found a whole range of professions cropping up—no serial killers among them, although no one would admit to it. The results made very interesting reading, especially if you’re partial to a sermon or two on a Sunday, because the clergy cropped up there at number eight. You had the usual suspects at the top; you had your CEOs, lawyers, media—TV and radio. Journalists were a bit down the list. We also had civil servants. There were several police officers, actually, so as opposed to being criminals, some psychopaths are actually out there locking other people up. Any situation where you’ve a got a power structure, a hierarchy, the ability to manipulate or wield control over people, you get psychopaths doing very well.

What would be a bad career choice for a psychopath? Which professions scored low?

No real surprises, actually. There were craftsmen, care workers. Nurses were in there. Accountants were pretty low on psychopathy. One of the interesting ones: doctors. Doctors were low on psychopathy, but surgeons were actually in the top ten, so there’s kind of a dividing line between surgeons and doctors.

Can psychopaths have a positive impact on society, as opposed to just using their advantages to get ahead?

I’ve interviewed a lot of special forces troops, especially the British Special Air Service. They’re like Navy Seals. That’s a very good example of people who are pretty high on those psychopathic traits who are actually in a perfect occupation. Also, I interview in the book a top neurosurgeon—this was a surgeon who takes on operations that are especially risky—who said to me, “The most important thing when you’re conducting a dangerous operation, a risky operation, is you’ve got to be very cool under pressure, you’ve got to be focused. You can’t have too much empathy for the person that you’re operating on, because you wouldn’t be able to conduct that operation.” Surgeons do very nasty things to people when they’re on the operating table. If things do go wrong, the most important facet in a surgeon’s arsenal is decisiveness. You cannot freeze.

You noted in the book that you’re not a psychopath yourself. Despite my profession, I scored pretty low on your survey as well. Can “normals” like you and me learn to develop these psychopathic traits, even if we don’t have them naturally?

Absolutely. Normal people can work out their psychopath muscles. It’s kind of like going to the gym in a way, to develop these attributes. It’s just like training.

Psychopaths don’t think, should I do this or shouldn’t I do this? They just go ahead and do stuff. So next time you find yourself putting off that chore or filing that report or something, unchain your inner psychopath and ask yourself this: “Since when did I need to feel like something in order to do it?”

Another way you can take a leaf out of a psychopath’s book: Psychopaths are very reward-driven. If they see a benefit in something, they zone in on it and they go for it 100 percent. Let’s take an example of someone who is kind of scared of putting in for a raise at work. You might be scared about what the boss might think of you. You might think if you’d don’t get it you’re going to get fired. Forget it. Cut all that stuff off. “Psychopath up,” and overwhelm your negative feelings by concentrating on the benefits of getting it. The bottom line here is, a bit of localized psychopathy is good for all of us.

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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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