The Wisdom of Psychopaths

15. 3. 2017

Kevin Dutton, “Mądrość psychopatów”, translated by Monika Wyrwas-Wiśniewska, Muza 2014 [Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012].

At the funeral of her mother a woman meets a man she once knew. She comes to the conclusion that he is wonderful, that he is her soul mate. And she immediately falls in love with him. But she does not ask him for his phone number after the funeral, so she has no idea where to look for him. A few days later she kills her sister. Why?

Consider your answer for a moment. This simple test is to show whether you think like a psychopath.

The answer worthy of a psychopath is that she killed because she hoped that at the funeral of her sister she would meet this man again.

Of course this is just for fun. The result should be treated with a grain of salt. But psychopaths should not. How seriously they should be approached is shown (in an often comical tone) by Kevin Dutton, a Ph.D. in social psychology and researcher at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the Oxford University, in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

It must be stressed at the beginning that the book is not an academic text, but an essay for the general reader; nonetheless it is a successful attempt to present the phenomenon of the psychopathic personality—especially to those who read about this subject for the first time. For a lot has been written about psychopathy since the foundations for the modern understanding of psychopathy were laid by Hervey Cleckley, who in 1941 published The Mask of Sanity. A longtime researcher of the subject Robert D. Hare wrote interestingly about it (for example in the study Psychopaths Are among Us), as did Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig in his book Emptied Soul.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton is slightly different—the author shies away from an erudite tone in order to assume a remarkable perspective in his lightly written essay on the world of psychopaths. Instead of concentrating on Ted Bundy and his clones (though they are also mentioned in the book), he focuses primarily on seemingly ordinary people with some psychopathic traits, which allow them to succeed in the modern world. He makes a speedy tour around history to show that this rare personality had its representations in virtually every age and in surprising incarnations, he shows in what areas of life the psychopathic strategy pays off and why the dark genes of psychopaths have survived to this day. Using the latest advances in neuroscience and brain imaging, he proves that a capable surgeon is separated from a serial killer only by a thin line. In addition, he analyzes (it has to be admitted that a bit hastily) contemporary culture, in which the psychopathic strategy is becoming a more frequent and more cost-effective operating mode.

How to determine that we are dealing with the psychopathic type? Kevin Dutton relies on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) developed by two researchers—Scott Lilienfield and Brian Andrews. This questionnaire consisting of 187 questions, which he calls “the most comprehensive test of psychopathy ever developed,” supposedly reveals the DNA structure of pure, uncontaminated psychopathy.

It turns out that psychopathic personality can be defined through a set of characteristic traits. What are they? Dazzling, confident, ruthless, mentally resistant, charismatic, focused, persuasive and with a pathological propensity to lie. These descriptions perfectly fit such diverse characters as the serial killer Ted Bundy, the most famous cannibal of all time, which is Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, and finally the demonic politician Frank Underwood from the great TV series House of Cards. But it also fits hundreds of stockbrokers, the most celebrated specimen being Jordan Belfort portrayed by Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street, surgeons, for whom the person lying on the operating table is not a patient, but the means to achieve another spectacular professional success, and business managers motivated exclusively by cold calculation, never empathy.

It is hard not to see and not to repeat after Dutton that the traits making up the psychopathic personality can ensure success in the twenty-first century. For they perfectly equip those who hear the call of winning, become predators and destroy everything in their path. Dutton even talks about a new breed of people very poorly comprehending social norms, characterized by lack of respect for others, indifferent to the consequences of their actions.

Moreover, contemporary culture favors them, to some extent it is because people of this kind contribute to it, which means that it is becoming more and more psychopathic. The studies cited by Dutton show that today’s college students have about 30 percent less empathy than those from twenty or thirty years before. And the level of narcissism is growing significantly—many scholars believe that contemporary twenty-year-olds are the most self-centered, narcissistic, competition-focused, confident and individualistic group in the history of mankind.

This is supported by the intuitions of other researchers. Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig, an interesting psychologist following the Jungian tradition, says in his book Emptied Soul that the most distinctive feature of our culture is the lack of Eros, or love, the ability to love connected with the concept of amor fati, acceptance of our individuality and our fate. That is an attitude of humility—towards our limitations and the human condition. These assumptions are completely alien to psychopathic individuals. Dutton (making a heroic sacrifice of himself, assuming the role of a guinea pig) shows that the way of thinking of psychopathic individuals does not differ too much from the reasoning of a person who is under the influence of cocaine. This way of thinking could be summarized as follows: I can do anything I want. If we add to this an extremely high power of persuasion and a magnetic personality, it becomes quite fearsome. Psychopathic individuals “would strangle you with their own halo and then put it back as if nothing happened,” to quote a pithy fragment of The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

Of course, only if doing that would be profitable. Psychopaths are guided by pure calculation, a simple profit and loss analysis. This is the pragmatism familiar to us from the test quoted at the beginning of this article—if your calculations show that it would be beneficial for you, you can even kill. Pragmatism in the context of something as sensitive as human life is characteristic for the personality which can be described as psychopathic. In a “normal” person (in this case meaning a poor scorer in the PPI questionnaire) emotions are involved in decision-making on an equal footing with reason. With psychopaths it is different. They are guided by the logic of a five-pack—it is better to take five cheaper beers than one at a high price. It is better to sacrifice the life of one person than of a few, end of story. As psychologists explain in the courts, psychopaths treat emotions as numbers.

This of course leads to some interesting reflections. A keen observer of social life cannot fail to notice some interesting analogies. When Barack Obama refused to pay ransom for the journalist James Foley, who was later murdered by Islamists, was he not ruled by psychopathic logic? For also in this case a calculation was involved: sacrifice an individual so that the whole community would not be affected. It is a standard principle of top politicians or police negotiators. And it is not new. The same ethics, after all, stood behind the crucifixion of Jesus (during a meeting of the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas says: “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”—J, 11, 50). Or what about Vladimir Putin and the Malaysian aircraft shot down by pro-Russian separatists? The Russian President explained: “It is not our fault; the Ukrainians provoked us to shoot.”You should not, of course, go too far in hunting (psychopathic) witches, but apparently all psychopaths serving a prison sentence for murder explain: “It is not my fault that I murdered that man, he provoked me.” Because psychopaths do not take responsibility for their actions. Coming back to Obama—Kevin Dutton proves in his book that a significant number of presidents of the United States showed distinct psychopathic traits, the top of the leaderboard supposedly occupied by John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

And this is perhaps the most evident manifestation of the eponymous (and problematic) “wisdom of psychopaths.” Dutton shows that there are areas of life where being a psychopath simply pays off. Politics is one of them. The market is another. In both success is guaranteed by the ability to control your emotions to the maximum or not experiencing them to the same degree as the rest of us. Studies by American scholars prove that people with the “warrior gene,” that is a gene mutation responsible for the production of monoamine oxidase A, hitherto associated with a dangerous, risky behavior, make optimal choices when facing risk—be it a spectacular fusion, radical restructuring, or pressing a button causing “target elimination.” And they have no problems with consequences of rapid changes, on the contrary— they thrive on them, providing themselves with appropriate stimulation. And again if we look at contemporary culture, we will notice that psychopaths are the subject of such films as Margin Call, The Hurt Locker and the series Homeland.

Dutton’s book brings a few surprising discoveries. In addition to trivia (did you know that psychopaths often remember exactly what they ate on the day of the murder? Or that they are less prone to “get infected” with yawning than the rest of society?) There are also serious matters, such as that psychopaths are not retarded in terms of recognizing emotions of others, on the contrary— they have a real talent for this. This contrasts with the image of psychopaths as being insensitive to emotional signals secreted by others. Dutton explains that the problem lies not in recognizing emotions, but in a disconnection between knowing about feelings and experiencing them. If we add to this the exceptional manipulative skills and power of persuasion, we again get a portrait of a very effective player in many disciplines, including literature. Although the table presented by Dutton features few artists, the psychopathic personality type in the book is extremely well suited to no other than Truman Capote. Anyone who knows both the story of writing his great non-fiction novel In Cold Blood and such details from his life as making friends in order to betray, stand up or manipulate them, is entitled to suppose that Capote would score very well in the PPI test.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths will not bring upon us a revelation of secret knowledge, it will not explode our opinion about saints, spies or serial killers, but we will certainly not regret the time spent with the book. Brilliant, expertly, smoothly and amusingly written, based on numerous studies in social psychology and discussions with authorities in the field, this book is a good starting point for exploring the topic and may endow autumn evenings with the series Hannibal with new meanings.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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