The Wisdom of Psychopaths


Split-Second Persuasion:
The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds

Copyright © 2012 Kevin Dutton

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Dutton, Kevin
The wisdom of psychopaths / Kevin Dutton.

eISBN: 978-0-385-67719-6

1. Psychopaths. 2. Antisocial personality disorders.
I. Title.

RC555.D88 2012      616.85′82      C2012-902425-2

An excerpt from
chapter 1
originally appeared, in slightly different form, in
Scientific American

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following previously published material:
Eysenck’s personality model: with kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media.
“The Lesson of the Moth,” from
Archy and Mehitabel
by Don Marquis, copyright 1927 by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Jacket photograph: Shutterstock

Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited


In memory of John Richard Dutton

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

1: 254–255


My father was a psychopath. It seems a bit odd saying that now, looking back. But he was. No question. He was charming, fearless, ruthless (but never violent). And he had about as much going on in the conscience department as a Jeffrey Dahmer freezer. He didn’t kill anyone. But he certainly made a few killings.

It’s a good thing genes aren’t everything, right?

My father also had an uncanny knack for getting exactly what he wanted, often with just a casual throwaway line or a single telling gesture. People used to say that he looked like the scheming Del Boy in
Only Fools and Horses
—which he did—not just acted like him, which he also did (he, too, was a market trader).

The BBC sitcom could have been a Dutton family video.

I once remember helping Dad sell a load of datebooks at Petticoat Lane Market, in London’s East End. I was ten at the time, and it was a school day. The datebooks in question were a collector’s item. They only had eleven months.

“You can’t sell these,” I protested. “There’s no January!”

“I know,” he said. “That’s why I forgot your birthday.”

“Unique opportunity to get your hands on an eleven-month diary, folks … sign up for a special two-for-one offer and get an extra month thrown in next year for free …”

We unloaded the whole damn lot.

I’ve always maintained that Dad was in possession of pretty much the ideal personality for modern living. I never once saw him panic. Never once saw him lose his cool. Never once saw him get hot under the collar about anything. And believe me, there were plenty of times when he might have.

“They say that humans developed fear as a survival mechanism to protect against predators,” he once told me. “But you don’t see too many saber-toothed tigers prowling round Elephant and Castle, now do you, boy?”

He was right. I certainly hadn’t seen any. There were a few snakes, maybe. But everyone knew who

For a long time, growing up, I used to think of Dad’s bon mot as just another of his market-stall one-liners—here today, gone tomorrow. A bit like a lot of the crap he used to sell, funnily enough. But now, years later, I realize that there was actually a deep biological truth to what the crafty old guy was saying. In fact, he anticipated the position taken by modern evolutionary psychologists with uncanny, sublime precision. We humans, it appears, did indeed develop our fear response as a survival mechanism to protect against predators.
Monkeys with lesions of the amygdala, for instance—the brain’s emotional sorting office—do very stupid things, like trying to pick up cobras.

But millions of years on, in a world where wild animals aren’t lurking around every street corner, this fear system can be oversensitive—like a nervous driver with a foot hovering constantly over the brake pedal—reacting to dangers that don’t actually exist and pushing us into making illogical, irrational decisions.

“There was no such thing as stock in the Pleistocene era,” George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, points out. “But human beings are pathologically risk averse. A lot of the mechanisms that drive our emotions aren’t really that well adapted to modern life.”

I prefer my dad’s version.

The observation that modern-day humans are pathologically risk averse does not, needless to say, mean that this has always been the case. In fact, it might even be argued that those of us today who are
risk averse—those of us, for instance, who suffer from chronic anxiety—simply have too much of a good thing. During the time of our ancestors, the existence of individuals who were hypervigilant to threat may well, evolutionary biologists suggest, have been decisive in the fight against predators—and from this point of view, anxiety would undoubtedly have served as a considerable adaptive advantage. The more sensitive you were to rustlings in the undergrowth, the more likely you’d have been to have kept yourself, your family, and your extended group members alive.
Even today, anxious individuals are better than the rest of us at detecting the presence of threat: slip an angry face in among a display of happy or neutral faces on a computer screen and anxious people are far faster at picking it out than those who are non-anxious—not a bad ability to fall back on should you happen to find yourself alone at night and wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood. Being anxious can sometimes be useful.

The notion that a mental disorder can occasionally come in handy—conferring extraordinary, outlandish advantages, as well as inordinate distress, on its sufferers—is hardly new, of course. As the philosopher Aristotle observed more than 2,400 years ago, “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.” In most people’s minds, this link between “genius” and “madness” is probably most apparent, thanks to the box-office success of the films
Rain Man
A Beautiful Mind
, when it comes to autism and schizophrenia.
In his book
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
, the neurologist and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks reports a famous encounter with “the twins.” Profoundly autistic, John and Michael, then twenty-six, were living in an institution. When a box of matches spilled onto the floor, both of them simultaneously called out “111.” As Sacks gathered up the matches, he started counting …

On a similar note, the well-worn stereotype of the brilliant “tortured artist” is also not without foundation. The painter Vincent van Gogh, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and the father of “game theory” (of which more later) John Nash were all psychotic. Coincidence? Not according to Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, who appears to have uncovered a genetic polymorphism associated with both schizophrenia and creativity.
Kéri has found that people with two copies of a particular single-letter DNA variation in a gene called
neuregulin 1
, a variation that has been previously linked to psychosis—as well as poor memory and sensitivity to criticism—tend to score significantly higher on measures of creativity compared with individuals who have one or no copy of the variation. Those with one copy also tend to be more creative, on average, than those without.

Even depression has its advantages. Recent research suggests that despondency helps us think better—and contributes to increased attentiveness and enhanced problem-solving ability.
In an ingenious experiment, Joe Forgas, professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales, placed a variety of trinkets, such as toy soldiers, plastic animals, and miniature cars, near the checkout counter of a small stationery store in Sydney. As shoppers made their way out, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. But there was a catch. On some days the weather was rainy, and Forgas piped Verdi’s
through the store; on other days it was sunny, and shoppers were treated to a blast of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The results couldn’t have been clearer: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the knickknacks. The rain made them sad, and their sadness made them pay more attention. Moral of the story? When the weather’s nice, be sure to check your change.

When you go down the road of disorders conferring advantages, of clouds, silver linings, and psychological consolation prizes, it’s difficult to conceive of a condition that
pay off—at least in some form or another. Obsessive-compulsive? You’re never going to leave the gas on. Paranoid? You’ll never fall afoul of the small print. In fact, fear and sadness—anxiety and depression—constitute two of the five basic emotions
that are found universally across cultures, and that, as such, virtually all of us experience at some point in our lives. But there’s one group of people who are the exception to the rule, who don’t experience either—even under the most difficult and trying of circumstances. Psychopaths.
A psychopath wouldn’t worry even if he
left the gas on.
Any silver linings there?

Put this question to a psychopath and, more often than not, he’ll look at you as if
the one who’s crazy. To a psychopath, you see, there are no such things as clouds. There are
silver linings. The fiendish observation that a year consists of twelve months, not eleven, might well have put one hell of a kibosh on selling those datebooks, you’d think. But not to my dad, it didn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. He saw it as a selling point.

He’s certainly not alone. Nor, some might argue, is he too far off the mark. During the course of my research I’ve met a great many psychopaths from all walks of life—not just within my own family. Sure, behind closed doors I’ve encountered my fair share of Hannibal Lecters and Ted Bundys: remorseless, unconscionable A-listers who could dine at any psychopath table you care to mention without even picking up the phone—by just showing up. But I’ve also met psychopaths who, far from devouring society from within, serve, through nerveless poise and hard-as-nails decision making, to protect and enrich it instead: surgeons, soldiers, spies, entrepreneurs—dare I say, even lawyers. “Don’t get too cocky. No matter how good you are. Don’t let them see you coming,” counseled Al Pacino as the head attorney of a top law firm in the film
The Devil’s Advocate
. “That’s the gaff, my friend—make yourself small. Be the hick. The cripple. The nerd. The leper. The freak. Look at me—I’ve been underestimated from day one.” Pacino was playing the Devil. And—not surprisingly, perhaps—he hit the nail right on the head. If there’s one thing that psychopaths have in common, it’s the consummate ability to pass themselves off as normal everyday folk, while behind the facade—the brutal, brilliant disguise—beats the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.

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