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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

You just came back to England this week from the Himalayas. Did that trip have anything to do with your research into psychopaths?

I was running a rather odd study over there. Psychopaths and Buddhists, in terms of their performance in the lab, have certain characteristics in common. They’re good at living in the present. They’re mindful. Both are calm under pressure. They focus on the positive. But also, both are good at mind reading. They’re very good at picking up on micro-expressions, basically lightning-fast changes in facial scenery; our brain downloads onto the muscles of our face before it decides on the real picture that it wants to project to the world. These micro-expressions are invisible to most of our naked eyes. But it seems that expert Buddhist meditators are able to pick them up, probably because they are able to slow down their perception. There’s a recent study that seems to show that psychopaths are also good at picking up on micro-expressions. We don’t really know the reason for that, but it could be that psychopaths might spend more time just studying us.

What I did was I hot-footed it over the mountains of Northern India on the Tibet border with a laptop. On the laptop were 20 “pleader videos”—clips of press conferences organized by the police where you’ve got folks pleading with the general public for information as to loved ones who’ve gone missing. We know that 10 of these guys have actually done the deed themselves, and 10 people are genuine pleaders. I put them on a laptop, basically took them to the mountains, caves and remote cabins of these expert Buddhist meditator monks in the high Himalayas, and got them to tell me which of the 20 were false and which were true. I’ll be testing psychopaths very shortly, and I am going to see who gets more out of 20. Is it the Buddhist monks, or is it the psychopaths?

It was an epic journey. If you don’t like heights and you have a nervous disposition—we’re talking about foot-width edges, thousand-meter drops. Pretty dicey. I mean, you have to be a bit of a psychopath to get to these guys.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom we will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for our next interview subject?

Ask them to take my test and tell me what they score. How psychopathic do they think they are?

Our last interviewee, Alison Dagnes, a political scientist whose book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, looks at the liberal bias in political satire, asks: What is your work going to mean for the future?

There was a story in the news not too long ago in which there was a U.S. computer company that deliberately advertised for people who have Asperger’s-like traits, because they know these people are very, very good at focusing on data and seeing patterns. So perhaps one of the things that could happen in the future is that certain kinds of industries might actually deliberately screen for people whose psychopath dials are turned up more than normal.

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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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