How psychopaths take over

Sometimes being mad is a good thing. An Oxford scientist suggests we should all learn to act a little crazy

By Kevin Dutton

Published October 13, 2012 5:00PM (EDT)

My father was a market trader in London. I used to help him when I should have been at school. “You’ll learn more on the stall than you ever will in a classroom,” he used to say. And in my case he was probably right. One evening, after shutting up shop, we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. As we were paying the bill, Dad said: “Kev, if there’s one thing I want you to remember in life, it’s this: Persuasion ain’t about getting people to do what they don’t want to do. It’s about giving people a reason to do what they do want to do. Watch and learn.”

He picked up a spoon and tinkled it against his glass. Suddenly, the room fell silent. Dad got to his feet.

“I’d just like to thank everyone for coming,” he announced. “I’m aware that some of you hail from just around the corner and that others have made the journey from much further afield. But I want you to know that you are all most welcome, and that it’s very much appreciated. Oh, and that there’s a small reception in the King’s Arms across the road after you’ve finished. Thanks once again, and see you in the pub!”

With that, he started to clap … as did everyone else – a restaurant full of strangers whom we’d never seen before, who’d never seen each other before, all applauding wildly because they didn’t want to be seen to be the gate crashers.

“We’re not really going to the pub are we?” I muttered, as we barreled out the door. “Course not," said Dad. “But they are – and my old mate Malcolm has just taken over as landlord. He’ll make a few quid tonight!”

Seems utterly incomprehensible, doesn’t it, that anyone could have the sheer – I believe the technical term is cojones - to pull off such a stunt? But that was Dad all over. The man could sell shaving cream to the Taliban: There was just something about him. He was shameless, fearless and had about as much conscience as a roulette wheel. He was, though I didn’t know it at the time, a psychopath.

Years later, when I was at university, I met another one. Paul was bright, good-looking and, like Dad, as cold as ice under pressure. One night, we were in a bar together in London when a guy pulled a knife on his girlfriend. The whole place went silent as he waved it about just inches in front of her face. Calmly, Paul rose to his feet, and, as all the other customers stood rooted to the spot, began making his way slowly and deliberately toward him. Everyone, including the guy with the knife, was transfixed. When he got to within a meter or so of the assailant Paul stopped and took out his wallet. Then, removing a £20 note, he took a couple of steps forward and pressed it against the tip of the weapon so that the blade pierced it through.

“Listen mate,” he said, in a comforting, avuncular tone. “Do yourself a favor and get me a drink, will you? Oh, and get yourself one, too.”

For what seemed like an age, the guy with the knife stood motionless. But then, as if in a trance, he slid the banknote meekly off the end and melted away to the bar. I could hardly believe my eyes.

“What the hell was that all about?” I asked him back at the table, as things slowly started getting back to normal. “You could’ve got yourself killed!”

Paul shrugged, and took a sip of his Bud. “I could’ve,” he replied, tossing a scrap of paper with a phone number on it in my direction. “But I didn’t, did I? Instead I got this. I’d been wondering how to get that girl off that prick all night – then he goes and does it for me!”

Psychopath. It’s just one of those words, isn’t it? No sooner does it roll off the tongue than images of Jack Nicholson’s chopper (you know what I mean) come crashing through the flimsy neural plasterboard of our minds. “H-e-r-e-’s Johnny!” Except these days, of course, Jack’s likely to have some company. Tyrannical testostrenous traders, catastrophically cavalier CEOs, and bonus-brained, bonkers bankers are also in the shakeup -- a seditious stampede that, several weeks ago, prompted one of my colleagues at Oxford, a professor of economics, to quip, over the High Table gazpacho, that perhaps “Off-the-Wall” Street might constitute a better moniker. So who is this person we generically call the psychopath? Is he the killer on the road whose brain is squirming like a toad, as Jim Morrison once famously put it? Or is he, like Paul and my dad, more likely to make a killing in the market?

To begin with, let’s get one thing straight from the start: The psychopath has been around a long time. In fact, he first crops up in the musings of the ancient Greeks. The philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371–287 B.C.) delineates, in his book "The Characters," a comprehensive canon of 30 moral temperaments. One of the caseload seems way ahead of his time. “The Unscrupulous Man,” Theophrastus laments, “will go and borrow more money from a creditor he has never paid …” as if we haven’t heard that one before, Bernie Madoff. Scroll forward 2,000 years, to the turn of the 18th century, and the physician Philippe Pinel scribbles in his notebook the words "manie sans delire" as he looks on in horror, down a backstreet in central Paris, while a man boots a dog to death. Not only does the gentleman in question appear exquisitely unconcerned by his actions, he is also, notes Pinel, otherwise completely rational. He is, as present-day experts on psychopathy will attest, “mad without being mad.”

Being mad without being mad isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, manie sans delire, as we’ve already seen, can sometimes offer distinct advantages in life. I once heard a story about one of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers. In the middle of the night, around 3 a.m., he dials up his secretary and gets her out of bed.

“What’s the problem?” she mumbles, half asleep.

“I need a mouse,” he replies, casually. “Could you pop out and get one for me?”

The woman is totally gobsmacked.

“Er, I don’t wish to be rude,” she stammers. “But do you have any idea what time it is? I mean, do you really need to have one now? Can’t you just wait until the computer guys get in in the morning?”

There’s a moment of silence. And then a moment of abject horror.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” says her boss. “I’m not talking about my computer. My computer is working fine. No, when I say mouse, I mean a real mouse. You know, for my cat. She’s bored.”

Guys like the mouse-hunter are more common than you might think in big business. The reason we don’t hear more about them is because they’re relentlessly, ruthlessly successful, and terrorize those around them into blind, untrammeled obedience. One of them, funnily enough, lit the touchpaper in front of Paul, who, after he left university, got a job with a high-flying London financier notorious for his constantly "revolving door" of temporary PAs. No one, it seemed, could measure up to his steely, uncompromising drive and towering expectations. One afternoon, as he was barking out his customary orders to the latest arrival in the boardroom -- "Get me the report from the marketing sub-committee! Courier that parcel to the Guggenheim in New York! Transcribe the minutes of the accounts meeting this morning! Book me a flight and get me a hotel reservation for the conference in Tokyo ...!" -- Paul interrupted him mid-sentence.

"Tell you what," he said. "How about she shoves a broom up her ass and sweeps up as she goes along?"

Not only did the guy give Paul a raise, he hired the girl on the spot. And Paul ended up going out with her.

So how is it that some psychopaths sibilate their way through life as liver-chomping, chianti-swilling monsters, while others are high achievers? Is it simply just a matter of luck? Or does the psychopath mould come in different shapes and sizes? A recent study looking at the personality profiles of so-called “hero populations” – those who work in law enforcement, the military and the rescue services, for instance – may shed some light on this question. The study found that while the heroes exhibited high levels of some psychopathic traits -- fearlessness, stress immunity, focus and social dominance, for example -- they parted company from incarcerated criminal psychopaths in that they scored lower on the so-called “negative emotion” attributes also associated with the condition: attributes such as antisocial behaviour, narcissism and impulsivity. So it depends, it would seem, on what kind of psychopath you are: which psychopath characteristics your genes and your upbringing have added to your personality basket, and moreover, in precisely what proportion.

But that’s not all. Factors such as intelligence and one’s natural proclivity toward violence also have a say. Take a look at the following grid.

PSYCHOPATHIC High Intelligence Low Intelligence
Violent 4. Special Forces, Criminal mastermind 1. Low-level thug, Enforcer
Non-violent 3. Lawyer, surgeon, CEO 2. Petty criminal

Let’s go clockwise from the top right.

1. Let’s say you’re a psychopath, get a poor start in life, are of low intelligence and are also dispositionally violent. You’re going to end up as a low-level thug or an enforcer for a criminal gang. Something like that. Either way, you’re going to end up in prison pretty quickly.

2. Take away the violence and the outlook is little better. You’re going to be a burglar, low-level con artist, drug dealer or hooker – probably all of them put together, in fact – and again, you’re going to wind up in prison pretty sharpish.

3. But now let's say that you’re a psychopath, that you’re nonviolent, but that you do get a good start in life, and are intelligent. Now it’s a different story. Now you’re more likely to be locking other people up than being locked up yourself!

4. Finally, if you’re a psychopath, intelligent and violent: well, any number of interesting occupations might await you – anything from Special Forces soldier, perhaps, to the head of a criminal syndicate.

Which begs the obvious question: Should we all be adding a few more psychopath items to our personality baskets? And if so, which ones? There is evidence to suggest that the answer to this question is yes – and that a judicious combination of ruthlessness, fearlessness and mindfulness can help us get ahead. Last year, for instance, in a study entitled “Do Nice Guys — and Gals — Really Finish Last?” researchers came up with a resounding, if rather unpalatable, answer to that question: yes! Male employees who scored below average on the personality trait “agreeableness” earned around 18 percent more per annum than those chilling out at the smilier end of the scale. Tougher-minded women, on the other hand, fared a little worse, but still came out on top: earning around 5 percent more. One of the reasons for this differential, according to the lead author of the study, was surprisingly simple. Ball-breakers are more likely to secure higher salaries for themselves across the negotiating table -- either to start with or when getting a raise.

Bottom line? Tone up that psychopath muscle by having one day a week when you leave Mr. Nice Guy at home. Give up feeling bad about feeling bad. If it’s up for grabs, grab it.

Then there’s fearlessness. Several years ago, I interviewed the employees of a TV production company about their bosses. One was an affable socializer who was uncomfortable with giving appraisals and was forever putting them off, while the other was a no-nonsense tough guy who would tell it as it is. Who was the most popular? It was difficult to tell. The former was liked more, but the latter (who was aptly nicknamed Spock) got more respect. When I asked him about his approach, he had this to say: “When you’ve got a difficult decision to make, just imagine you’re advising someone else. When you’re advising someone else you don’t feel the heat of the decision – you just see the light.” Take-home message? Fear is good, but if you experience too much of it you risk becoming emotionally obese. So go on a psychopath diet and cut down on the worry calories. Got a call to make? Make it. Got a risk to take? Take it.

And if you do come unstuck, move on. Take it in your stride. Research has shown that psychopaths are far better at getting over rejection and recovering from setbacks than the rest of us. Reason? Because, just like expert mindfulness meditators, they live predominantly in the present: unencumbered by regret or sullied by expectation. One psychopath I interviewed sported a tattoo that said: “Die and Let Live.” That just about says it all. “Let go – or get dragged” as the ancient Zen masters used to put it.

The hero and psychopath, opined David Lykken, one of the founding fathers of modern psychopathy research, “are twigs on the same genetic branch.” The science has proven him right.  It’s just lucky, in my case, that genes aren’t everything.

Once, Dad and I were heading up to central London on the tube. We were running late for something (can’t remember what) and the train pulled in packed like a can of sardines. Most normal people would’ve just bitten the bullet and waited for the next one. But not Dad. Instead, he was straight on the intercom:

“All change, please!”

As hundreds of disgruntled passengers filed out onto the platform, cursing and muttering under their breath, we filed on. And with mystical, magical, timing, the train doors closed.

“Give ‘em a wave!” said Dad, as shrugs of acceptance turned slowly to frowns of confusion -- and then, as light bulbs went on, and pennies started to drop, to snarls of ungovernable fury. And he did. He actually gave them a wave! It just didn’t seem to bother him that I happened to have my school uniform on at the time. And caught that train every day. Twice a day, in fact: to and from school.

I mean, don’t be silly. No one was going to recognize me, right? It wasn’t as if we were conspicuous, this little kid with his school uniform and satchel, and his dad in a sheepskin coat and a cloth cap, nodding, and smiling, and waving at a platform-load of apoplectic commuters.

But just to be on the safe side, I gave the train a miss for the next six months. I took the bus to school.

Kevin Dutton

Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist at the University of Oxford. His most recent book, "The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success" will be published by Scientific American / FSG on Oct. 16. 

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