The Good Psychopath Guide makes the case that some psychopathic traits can confer advantages in life, and that non-psychopaths can learn to adopt them and become more successful, without harming others. Hence the name “good psychopath”.
- Some psychopathic traits can help you become more successful
- Some professions require the ability to switch off sympathy or to detach yourself
- You should aim to take al the good traits of psychopathy, avoid the antisocial ones, and become a “good psychopath”
About the Authors: Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist, researcher, and author. He previously published “The Wisdom of Psychopaths“.
Andy McNab is a former British Special Air Service (SAS) operator, novelist and, supposedly, a psychopath.
The Traits of Psychopathy
Kevin Dutton says that many people get psychopathy wrong.
When talking about psychopathy Ted Bundy or Hannibal Lecter come to mind. But what defines a psychopath is not necessarily a history of heinous murders, but a set of traits that can also be helpful in life.
These traits include:
- Coolness under pressure
- Mental toughness
- Reduced empathy
- Lack of conscience
Imagine these traits on a “dialing desk”, where you can push them up and down.
Having all of them cranked to the maximum at all times will lead to lots of troubles, poor performance, and self-destruction.
But at the right time, and at the right intensity, they can be helpful and they can help you achieve success.
- The most effective alignment will depend on circumstances
- Some jobs, professions, or situations, requires those traits to be cranked up a little higher than “normal” baseline
The precision-engineering psychopathy Kevin Dutton refers to is the alignment of each of the psychopathic traits in a way that will allow you to perform at the top of your abilities, within a specific environment.
Professions Where Psychopathic Traits Help Succeed
Kevin Dutton lists a few profession in which he believes that some psychopathy traits can help
- Surgeon: you need to dissociate yourself emotionally from the person you’re operating on, remain calm if something goes wrong
- Businessman: you need to be able to fire people, have the courage to take appropriate risks
- Trader: need to execute trades without getting emotional and avoiding the typical human psychological biases
- Lawyer: needs the narcissism to be at the center of the attention, belligerent self-confidence to make his case
Surgeons for example need to learn how to operate. And they learn by making mistakes. If a surgeon is too sympathetic, he might give up and never become a great and experienced surgeon.
And when it comes to business, McNab says he hopes there are more psychopaths as CEOs:
But he might not need to hope too much.
Good Psychopath VS Bad Psychopath
Kevin Dutton says we can differentiate between good and bad psychopaths.
The differences revolve around a number of key components that make up our social environment, including other people, social context, interpersonal social dynamics, and society at large.
So here are the differences:
|Bad Psychopath||Good Psychopath|
|Others||No compunction in inflicting pain onto others||Doesn’t cause undue or unnecessary harm|
|Context||He is stuck at high levels of psychopathy, in all situations||Psychologically flexible, can adapt his behavior|
|Society||Has no concern for the consequences of his actions||Leverages his traits in a way that contribute to society at large|
|Psychopathy is a curse||Psychopathy is a talent|
But this isn’t the whole story.
The authors say that it’s possible to be both of them at the same time.
And the “functional psychopath” and the “successful psychopath” are also part of the discourse.
- Functional Psychopath: the term was introduced, but not really described. The way I understood it though, it means that you have psychopathic traits, but “modulate” your traits to enhance your skills and work effectively within society
- Successful Psychopath: both good and bad psychopaths can be successful. The bad ones can threaten, cheat, lie, or manipulate their way to the top
The level of intelligence and predisposition to violence also heavily influence the trajectory that psychopaths can take.
- Violent and non-intelligent: Violent and non-intelligent psychopaths have very poor prospects, likely to hand in a gang, in prison, dead, or… All of them
- Non-violent and non-intelligent: If you remove violence, then it gets a little bit better, and the psychopaths will end up being a small timer crook, con-artist, or drug dealer. He might still end up in prison, but for smaller charges
- Non-violent and intelligent: the best combination. The authors say you’re most likely to make a killing in the market and enjoy the fruits your work
- Violent and intelligent: exotic occupations become possible, from the head of a criminal organization, to spy or special services
The authors go on with further divides among psychopaths, including “good/good guys” (James Bond), bad/good guys” (Gordon Gekko), “bad/bad guys” (Hannibal Lecter” and the “good/bad guys” (Dexter).
But I didn’t find this part to be very clear or enlightening (plus, how is Dexter “good”?).
The 7 Skills of Good Psychopaths
Dutton lists seven skills of the good psychopath, to which he dedicates a chapter each:
- Just do it: psychopaths don’t waste time, and neither should you
- Procrastination prolongs the pain in the short term, arms you in the long run, and wastes mental resources
- We overplay the risks compared to the rewards. Psychopaths are very reward-driven and don’t fall for that mental bias
- Nail it: you must learn how to switch one when it really matters, and play to win
- Be your own person: psychopaths are not afraid of not fitting and doing their own thing, no matter what others think.
- Know what you want to be, and know what you don’t want to be
- Learn to withstand social pressure, to say no when you don’t want something, and to enforce your boundaries
- Become a persuasion black belt: “getting into the minds of their preys give them a distinct advantage”
- Take it on the chin (move on): psychopaths move on. They don’t beat themselves up and don’t have regrets
- Ask yourself: “what would I do if I didn’t take this personally” and “what would I do if I didn’t feel the heat”
- Stop taking accusations personally. First of all, we over-attribute intent to what people say or do. And even if they meant it, the problem is with them, not you.
- Live in the moment: be focused when it matters. Psychopaths share this trait with elite Buddhist monks and great athletes
- Anxieties often stem not from reality, from anxieties of our own anxieties (second-order emotion)
- Uncouple behavior from emotions: take a spet back and remove emotions from the situation
Godfather: it’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business
When Michael Corleone shows he’s uncoupling emotions from the action, you know he is ready to become the godfather.
Beating Procrastination: Know Your Style
Kevin Dutton says there are three types of procrastinators:
- Ruminators: not making a decision absolves from the responsibility of the outcomes of that decision
- Avoidants: are avoiding the fear of failure (or fear of success). They fear what others think of them, and would rather people think they lack effort, than ability
- Perfectionists: they’d rather do nothing than having to measure up to their own unreachable standards
They all lie to themselves saying they will feel more like to do it on another day (they won’t), that it isn’t important (it is), and that they work best under pressure (not true).
Procrastination reduces your success in the long run, of course. But it’s also bad in the short run. People who dawdle only prolong the discomfort within themselves.
To counteract procrastination:
- Visualize yourself doing it: carrying it out successfully and overcoming the challenges
- Find out exactly what you don’t like: once you know what it is, you can start working through them (this was very helpful for me, for example finding ways to cut down on the parts I disliked the most)
- Focus on the future: the benefits it will bring, and how you will feel once you’ve done it
- Plan and ring-fence the activity
- Downsize your time: procrastinators wait for the perfect time and long stretches of free time. Instead, do whatever you can, in the little time you might have
- Destroy perfectionism
- Find out your bullying voice that demands perfection
- Talk back to it
- Take appropriate action
- Celebrate doing it rather than doing it perfectly
- Do it repeatedly
- Sometimes set out with failure as your goal, just to realize that failure and rejections aren’t such a bad thing
Life Has No Meaning: It Just Wants to See If You’re Good Enough
This was a brief passage, but very deep and philosophical.
Kevin Dutton quotes Albert Camus, who said that life has no meaning whatsoever.
That’s hard for many people to grasp, since most people need meaning in life (also see: “Man’s Search for Meaning“).
But for psychopaths and trained SAS soldiers, says Dutton, there is no need for meaning.
The Traits of Good Special Forces Soldiers
I frankly missed the connection between “meaning in life” and how that applies to psychopaths and/or to special forces.
But Dutton says the traits that make good special forces soldiers are:
- The ability to let things wash over them
- Not take things personally
- Not dwell on the past
- Not overthink the present
- Not worry unduly about the future
- Psychopathy might be on a scale: Kevin Dutton says the debate is still on. In the past, it was thought that you either are, or are not a psychopath. Today it seems more like it’s a matter of shades of grey in between the black and white
- Psychopaths learn more from rewards than punishment: psychopaths are slower to learn than normal people when they are taught through punishments. But they are quicker to learn when they are taught with rewards.
- Psychopaths are more drawn to rewards than punishments: and that’s why they are more concerned about winning than avoiding losses
- In the special forces, there is more respect, more emotional detachment, and less violence: special forces are more about being effective, than getting emotionally worked up. They don’t call the enemies “enemies”, but “players”
- Dutton says that psychopaths have an empathy switch which by default is on “off”. But if instructed to put themselves into other people’s shoes, they did feel empathy
- You need to learn to be comfortable with conflict: evidence shows that folks who are too agreeable (ie.: too nice) earn less than less agreeable folks
- Learn to react to respond to situations instead of reacting to people: if you find it difficult to say no, learn to de-personalize the situation and answer to the proposal or requests, instead than to the people who are asking you. That way, it will be easier to say “no”, and you will make more rational decisions
Please also see:
Is There Such A Thing As A “Good Psychopath”?
Same as for Dutton’s previous book, there is criticism regarding whether or not psychopaths can be good.
This time it’s Lilian Glass, author of “Verbal Self-Defense“, to criticize the idea of a good psychopath.
In an interview with NPR, Glass says that psychopaths are dangeorus, and to write a book inviting people to act more like psychopaths, is dangerous.
If you are a psychopath, you don’t dial up the levels of the traits. … It can’t be done. Psychopaths don’t pick and choose how ruthless or nonempathetic they will be.
They are these traits, and it is not by degree.
Personally, I am in between Dutton and Glass, but closer to Dutton when it comes to how useful his argument is to most people.
Such as, a clinical psychopath will hardly choose to be “good”. But “good” people with empathy and who don’t see others as pawns to be maneuvered, can learn to be more successful by learning to use some psychopathy traits.
And they can do so without harming others or also while largely remaining forces for good.
Some Psychopath Traits Feel Embellished or Mistakenly Applied to All Psychopaths
- Psychopaths live in the moment like Buddhist monks?
Dutton says that psychopaths and the best Buddhist monks share a mental state of mindfulness and living in the moment.
But when he put that question to Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford and founder of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy, Mark disagreed.
Mark said that psychopaths are more about “devouring” the present moment, more than savoring it. And Andy agreed -albeit he added that “savoring or devouring is better than missing it altogether”-.
Dutton himself in the book sayd of Andy McNab that he has the “attention-span of a goldish on speed” (if I remember the drug correctly).
Which does not seem do go along well with mindfulness.
- Psychopaths great at persuasion?
I’m not sure how much we can generalize on psychopaths being great at persuasion.
Sure, they like to manipulate people so you might expect they might get good at it.
But that’s far from being a given.
- Psychopaths have more sexual partners?
Albeit it’s true that dark-triad men have more sexual partners, I also wouldn’t generalize on psychopaths abilities with the ladies.
Also read: Do psychopaths get laid more?
- Psychopaths better at making rational financial decisions?
Dutton also says that the most successful brokers might “plausibly be termed” functional psychopaths, thus suggesting that decoupling emotions from decisions is a psychopath-only ability.
But based on what does he say that?
Some of the best investors, like Ray Dalio and Warren Buffet, don’t strike me as being high in psychopathy.
Quite the opposite.
McNab Contradicts The Idea of Successfully Removing Emotions From Decision-Making
As the “psychopath in house”, McNab is often used for real-life examples of the principles.
McNab says he bought a Porsche 911 not because he wanted it, but because he wanted to “show” the salesman who hadn’t taken him seriously that he could buy it.
Very funny story and well written. But contradicts this ideal of psychopaths removing emotions from decisions -at least in that situation-.
Can You Trust The Stories of A Psychopath?
There is another trait of psychopathy that Dutton forgets to mention: manipulation and lies.
If someone is a psychopath, what he says should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.
One of traits of psychopathy is fearlessness.
But when McNab tells the story of his first shootout in the army, he says he was “scared, really scared”.
McNab’s “Bravo to Zero” book has also been criticized by several sources for being fabricated or “embellished”. The denials of McNab’s claims also come from his own colleagues in the mission (see a short summary of the criticism in the Wikipedia entry).
Good Psychopaths Likely Make For Shitty Leaders
This is something Dutton never talks about.
A lack of conscience and a lack of empathy likely make for really bad leaders.
Here is how to make this point clear.
Dutton asked McNab if he would sacrifice a spy to feed the wrong information to the enemy. If the spy is captured, the victory will happen marginally quicker, and with slightly fewer casualties.
But here is what being captured meant for the spy:
He would be horrendesouly tortured, mutilated, and ultimately killed
To which Andy McNab replies:
Of course I would why wouldn’t I?
Because he’s loyal and brilliant, I hazard.
Then all the more reasons to use him
From a utilitarian point of view and exchanging one life for a few more lives, it might still make sense.
But, first of all, it might not make utilitarian sense from a total of pain being borne by the troops.
And second, who on their right mind would want to work for such a boss, with so little respect for his own loyal men, and with so little respect for human suffering?
Do Psychopaths Even Make For Great Warriors?
I partially agree with McNab and Dutton.
There certainly are some psychopathic traits that can make for better warriors.
The lack of fear, the drive for stimulation, the risk-taking attitude, the ability to focus and concentrate, and also the lack of empathy that makes PTSD less likely.
However, there are also psychopathic traits that make for very bad warriors.
Says neuroscientist -and psychopath himself- James Fallon ((opens in a new tab)Fallon, 2013):
The problem with inviting psychopaths to war, however, is that the military also wants soldiers to be team players who can connect with their unit and fight not only against the enemy but for their own.
Psychopaths have no allegiance, and are in only for themselves.
And says psychopath researcher Dr. Robert Hare (Hare, 1993):
When in the rare case they make the selection into high-risk fighting units, they are seen as “cowboys” and “loose cannons” and usually don’t last long
Yep, lots of psychopaths are just that: loose cannons.
Exaggerates the Incidence of Psychopathy
Says one of the authors:
Take banking and politics. The financial centers of the world and our leader are filled with psychopaths.
Totally focused, totally ruthless.
That sounds like an exaggeration. And I don’t see much “total focus” or much emotional detachment in many politicians. Starting from Donald Trump, whom many think might either be a sociopath, or a narcissist.
A brain surgeon on brain surgery:
The brain represents the high seas of modern-day medicine. And the 21st-century brain surgeon is pirates and buccaneering.
On what rises to the top:
There are two things that rises at the top: the cream, and the scum.
On not turning the other cheek:
Is turning the other cheek a legitimate strategy by which to live one’s life? Science I tell Andy has in fact come up with an answer, and it’s “no”.
Research has shown that responding to nice people by being nice, and to not nice people by being not nice, is by far the most effective way forward.
On fighting tips:
The first thing you learn when you’re taught the noble art of street fighting in the regiment is that you never go down during a fight. Hardly anyone can throw a decent punch. But everyone can kick.
On not taking things personally:
If someone is insulting, abusing you, or manipulating you, then the problem is not about you, it’s about them.
It’s about their issues, not yours. It’s about their problem, not yours. It’s about their personality, not yours.
Of course, that you think it’s all about you, and not about them, that’s about you.
- Would have preferred fewer lad-stories and more information
There are a lot of stories, all told in a “lad in a pub” style that might seem out of a place in a book written by a psychologist, and meant to be taken seriously.
That makes it a more of a pop-science book.
Nothing wrong with that. But sometimes I wished for fewer stories and deeper information or citations.
On the other hand, some of the stories did add value.
- Some self-promotional and ego-stroking stories
There are a few “ego-stroking” stories and “look at me how cool I am” self-descriptions.
For example, when Andy speaks about himself:
It didn’t matter if I was going to be number 1 through the door of an hostage rescue or going under cover with a South London accent or, these days, talking to the board members of a company that’s going tits up because they don’t know their asses from their elbows.
Fuck it, I’ll get away with it. I always have. Even as a kid…
A meme for ex-military books and memoirs come to mind:
Plus, on that Andy’s quote, he himself says that he’s been in prison.
And he got caught in Iraq, too. So he didn’t exactly “always get away” with it, as he states.
- Sometimes insensitive towards victims of abuse
There are several examples of domestic abuse, including one where a former SAS soldier killed his wife.
But there is not a word of condemnation for abuse.
Sometimes, it seems to actually make light fun of it. Talking about the incident in which Andy’s former colleagues killed his partner, he says that the argument “didn’t go well”.
- Heavy in Brit slang and culture
In the “Wisdom of Psychopaths” there was already a heavy dose of brit-centrism.
For example, the author said that “if you didn’t know Andy McNab, the most famous soldier since Henry, you have been living on the moon” (or something like that).
Well, I had no idea who that guy was, and I’ve been living on earth.
Just outside of Britain.
And the Brit-centrism kicks into higher gear here.
For example, analyzing one result, he says that you are “50% Russel Brand, and 50% Jo Brand”. Russel Brand is famous enough outside of Britain, but few know Jo Brand, so both the joke and the information are lost.
The English slang and colloquialisms also get thick. Couple it with the heavy British accent of the narrators, and some American and international listeners might.
- Sometimes, misplaced admiration for psychopathy
The author says that non-psychopaths “envy” the psychopath’s ability to break free from the shackles of societal restraint and from our own self-consciousness.
And then he says: “but you guys, you psychopaths can, and I think in that sense we envy your existential freedom”.
There is a lot of bromance between these two. And sometimes I suspected that Dutton might have been under Andy’s spell.
- The power posing effect on hormones
That “power posing” changes hormones concentration has been disputed. Everyone still talks about it, which makes a typical case of pop-psychology, but it failed replication. And it’s one of the main examples of the recent psychology replication crisis.
On the other hand, it does make people feel more powerful, so at least some elements of the study stand.
- The pick-up line that works every time?
This one, Dutton says, worked every time it was used in an experiment that I couldn’t personally check:
“My mates me bet me 20 quid that I couldn’t start up a conversation with the best looking girl in the bar. So how about we go buy some drinks and spend their money”
But the line only works if you later add a compliment, says Dutton.
But I’m unconvinced.
- Same philosophy as ThePowerMoves on “being bad”, to be good
Albeit it’s expressed somewhat differently and my version of “being bad” goes beyond psychopathy, we both embrace similar philosophies.
I wholeheartedly agree that to be good, people learn how to be bad, and to learn about the darker side of human nature.
Where more empathic and less selfish people reach the top, it’s a win for everyone.
- Good case for the usefulness of some psychopathy traits
Albeit saying that some psychopathy traits can be useful in life is bound to be controversial, I ultimately agree with Dutton.
- Some funny jokes
Sometimes the authors tried too hard to be funny.
But there were also very good lines.
If he orders liver and Chianti for lunch, I’m off
Being a good psychopath is, in a way, the goal of this website.
“Power University”, this website’s course, partially, aims at making you a good psychopath.
And that’s why I reviewed “The Good Psychopath Guide” especially hard. I had to make sure that people also didn’t misunderstand psychopathy, which the author here narrates through some rose-tinted glasses (he might have been too spellbound by McNab).
My point of view on this is that it’s unlikely that clinical psychopaths can be good psychopaths, but empathic people can and should learn to become good psychopaths.
Empaths can learn to become more like good psychopaths, and thus increase their personal power and leverage, while not harming society or potentially even contributing to it.