The Wisdom of Psychopaths (2012) is a different type of book on the dark triad. Author Kevin Dutton does not describe psychopathy in the usual tones of the dangers it poses, but in terms of the advantages it provides.
Dutton says that some psychopathic traits, in the right doses, allow people to enjoy more success in life and, shocking to some, that psychopaths can be more pro-social than neurotypicals.
- Psychopathy ranges on a scale, and is comprised of many different traits
- Too much psychopathy is harmful to the individual, and to society
- But some of those psychopathic traits, at the right time, can help you succeed, without harming others like some psychopaths do
About the Author: Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist, author, and researcher. He gained his Ph.D. from the University of Essex and worked as a research fellow at the Faraday Institute, St Edmund’s College, and the University of Cambridge.
At the time of writing, he is a research fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.
He is also the author of “The Good Psychopath’s Guide“.
Psychopathy is Good In Small Doses
The central thesis of “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is this:
“High doses” of psychopathy are unhealthy both for society and for the individual.
But, “psychopathy in smaller doses” helps individuals achieve more and get things done. And it can also be good for society.
Psychopathy is like sunlight. Overexposure can hasten one’s demise in grotesque, carcinogenic fashion. But regulated exposure at controlled and optimal levels can have a significant positive impact on well-being and quality of life.
Basically, this is nothing but the law of balance applied to psychopathy.
We agree with it and highly recommend this article understand the general concept:
#1. Walk Confidently: Psychopaths Can Spot Easy Victims By Their Gait
How you walk says a lot about you.
Apparently, it also says a lot about how likely you are to be a victim of crime.
Research by Angela Book found out that psychopaths were indeed more likely than psychopath inmates were more likely than non-psychopaths inmate to assess personal vulnerability.
The same was true for undergraduate students when divided between in high in psychopathy traits and low in psychopathy traits. The difference was that the students didn’t know why they could guess it right, while the inmates knew exactly it was because it was of the way people walked.
My Note: I wish we had videos of the study!
Studies like these are helpful to the general population. But they should share the videos.
Luckily, I found the description of what makes for a submissive walk:
- Slower walking speed
- Shorter strides
- Asynchronous movements
Raj Persaud also includes in vulnerable body language patterns of eye contact, body posture -more closed off-, and body gestures -smaller or more subtle gestures-.
15 Signs of Verbal Submissiveness
But Normal People Can Also Detect Psychopaths (?)
On the other hand, neurotypicals -as non-psychopaths are sometimes referred to-, are equally good at spotting psychopaths.
Research by Reid Meloy found out that 77% of mental health and criminal justice professionals who interviewed psychopathic subjects reported a physical reaction to the psychopath’s presence.
Female subjects were more likely to notice the difference than males.
My Note: But those people knew they were interviewing psychopaths
The study is not very telling of the general population because it seems like those interviewers knew they were interviewing psychopaths.
Dutton goes on to weave his theory that women learned to spot psychopaths more than men do because they’re more vulnerable. It might be, but I’m always skeptical of ad-hoc evolutionary psychology theories.
Psychopathy Ranges on A Scale of Different Traits
Psychopathy is a spectrum disorder.
That means that, on a psychopathy scale, you score on a continuum. There is a minimum threshold to be considered a psychopath, but you can still score high on the scale without being a “full-blown psychopath”.
Furthermore, since many traits are being measured, one can score around the middle of the psychopathy scale but still score very high on certain specific traits.
One individual, for example, may be ice-cold under pressure, and display about as much empathy as an avalanche (we’ll be meeting some like this on the trading floor later), and yet at the same time act neither violently, nor antisocially, nor without conscience. Scoring high on two psychopathic attributes, such an individual may rightly be considered further along the psychopathic spectrum than someone scoring lower on that dyad of traits, yet still not be anywhere near the Chianti-swilling danger zone of a person scoring high on all of them.
Certain Psychopath Traits Can Be Helpful In Life
Continuing on the argument that some psychopathy traits can be useful in life, Dutton says:
Think of psychopathic traits as the dials and sliders on a studio mixing desk.
If you push all of them to max, you’ll have a sound track that’s no use to anyone. But if the sound track is graded and some controls are turned up higher than others—such as fearlessness, focus, lack of empathy, and mental toughness, for example—you may well have a surgeon who’s a cut above the rest.
Psychopaths Are More Likely to Victimize You, But Also to Save You (???)
The second biggest thesis in Dutton’s book is this:
psychopaths are more likely to victimize you, but they are also more likely to rescue you when you’re in trouble.
I quote him:
But what if I was to paint you a different picture?
What if I was to tell you that the arsonist who burns your house down might also, in a parallel universe, be the hero most likely to brave the flaming timbers of a crumbling, blazing building to seek out, and drag out, your loved ones?
Dutton seems to have little doubt on his own thesis, adding:
Claims like these are admittedly hard to believe. But they’re true.
But I haven’t seen convincing evidence so far that they are indeed true (see the note on “criticism”).
#2. Don’t Let Empathy Stop You to Pursue Greater Good: Psychopaths Readily Kill Some, to Save Many
However, there are situations when a psychopath’s lack of conscience might more readily save people.
It seemed to me like these decisions all end up involving “collateral damage” whereby to save someone you must kill or sacrifice someone else.
For example, if you had to personally kill someone to save five, a psychopath might more readily kill that single person.
Naturally, people with a conscience will balk at killing anyone. Psychopaths, without a conscience, have fewer problems in thinking in purely utilitarian terms.
Let’s dig a bit deeper:
When Emotional Empathy “Gets in The Way”: Utilitarian Problems
Dutton says there are two types of empathy: “hot” and “cold”.
My Note: There is also emotional empathy and cognitive empathy
Emotional empathy is what allows people to form emotional bonds with others. Cognitive empathy is to simply understand what’s going on in someone’s mind. Psychopathy researcher James Fallon says that psychopaths can be good at the latter, but do not have the former.
What he is referring here is to Joshua Greene’s Dual Process Theory.
The Dual Process Theory is similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “system 1 and system 2” theory of mental processes.
The first type of empathy is immediate, easy, and automatically applied to most life situations (deontological).
The second type instead requires more conscious thinking and deliberation because it involves trade-offs and, potentially, collateral damage (utilitarian).
A typical example involving the second type of moral judgment is the trolley problem.
The first class of trolley problems says you can save 5 people but kill 1 if you pull a switch that will change the trolley’s direction:
Many people here struggle but ultimately say they would pull the lever (even though an experiment shows that in practice, few did).
In the second version though to save the 5 people the subject should push a man over the tracks:
And here it gets dicey for conscientious people. They would be killing someone with more direct action on their part, actively pushing and touching someone.
While most people would pull the lever in problem 1, most people would not push the fat man off the bridge.
Since psychopaths have no conscience and little emotions, it’s in this second variant that they, far more than neurotypicals, are willing to sacrifice one person to save many.
Thus, in trolley-like problems and purely from a utilitarian point of view, psychopaths can act for the greater good more than neurotypicals can.
Quite unlike normal people, they also make pretty short work of case 2. Psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the side
Trolley problems are processed in different parts of the brains depending on how active someone must be to save -or sacrifice- others.
Joshua Greene’s first experiment of this kind showed that “impersonal” dilemmas -such as diverting the trolley with a switch- preferentially engaged regions associated with controlled reasoning, while “personal” dilemmas -pushing a man off the footbridge- preferentially engage brain regions associated with emotion.
In the brain, neurotypicals and psychopaths react differently.
This difference in behavior is mirrored, rather distinctly, in the brain. The pattern of neural activation in both psychopaths and normal people is pretty well matched on the presentation of impersonal moral dilemmas—but dramatically diverges when things start to get a bit more personal.
But what does this tell us?
Overall, it’s true that psychopaths are more in line with utilitarian judgment ( Kahane, Guy et al., 2017).
But the trolley experiments do not lead to the conclusion that psychopaths are generally more altruistic, of course.
Probably, the opposite is true.
Continue Guy et al.:
So, while psychopaths may be more willing to push someone off a footbridge to save five others (or be less shocked by support for infanticide or euthanasia), it would be surprising if these same psychopaths signed up to join an Effective Altruism Club or showed care for the plight of strangers in the developing world.
Finally, trolley problems are certainly extremely interesting and tell us a lot about human psychology and behavior.
But… How likely are real-life situations to reproduce this scenario?
It’s an interesting thought experiment.
How often are you likely to encounter similar situations in real life?
Trolley experiments have indeed received some valid criticism about both their usefulness and predictive power in real-life situations (see here and here, for example).
#3. Polish Your Presence: The Psychopathic Traits Help to Achieve Business Success
Do some psychopathy traits help people climb the corporate ladder?
The idea is not new, and it’s already been proposed several times.
See for example Snakes in Suit, by two esteemed psychopathy experts such as Hare and Babiak.
Dutton here quotes a study by Board and Fritzon called “Disordered personalities at work“.
A number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals—attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus—and that the main difference between the groups was in the more “antisocial” aspects of the syndrome: the criminals’ lawbreaking, physical aggression, and impulsivity
The study had a small sample, just 39, but it indeed confirms Dutton’s theory that the presence of some psychopathic traits, in the right doses, can help people climb the corporate ladder.
Furthermore, there is Robert Hare’s survey.
In 2010 Robert Hare handed out the PCL-R to 203 top US business executives and compared the results with the general population.
In Dutton’s words:
Not only did the business execs come out ahead, but psychopathy was positively associated with in-house ratings of charisma and presentation style: creativity, good strategic thinking, and excellent communication skills.
However, what Dutton doesn’t say, is that those business execs high in psychopathy weren’t exactly all-around star performers.
Here is an excerpt from that same study:
Still, Dutton’s point remains: those individuals high in psychopathy did make it through the ranks.
Indeed, adds Babiak:
It is easy to mistake psychopathic traits for specific leadership traits. For example, charm and grandiosity can be mistaken for self-confidence or a charismatic leadership style; likewise, good presentation communications, and impression management skills reinforce the same picture.
The psychopath’s ability to manipulate can look like good influence and persuasion skills, the mark of an effective leader.
If you want to make it high up, read:
Also, Machiavellianism can be very helpful for your career.
- Mastering office politics
- 4 Proven strategies for career progression
- How to schmooze to your boss, the right way
And, of course:
Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics
#4. Develop Coolness Under Fire: Useful for Extreme Jobs and Situations
Coolness in stressful situations is one of the traits Sutton talks up the most.
He says Neil Armstrong in his moon landing was cool under pressure and luckily saved the moon-landing mission because of it.
But the same trait is helpful for surgeons, military operatives and, as well, bomb-disposal operatives.
Ramachan found out that the most decorated subjects maintained a lower cardiac rate when making difficult discriminations under threat of shock.
#5. Work On Total Focus and Consciousness: Great for High-Intensity Work
Dutton seems to imply that psychopaths have a stronger ability to focus 100% on a task while shutting down everything else happening around.
He draws parallels between Buddhist monks trained in meditation and mental control, and psychopaths.
This ability becomes all the more important when in the face of external danger and threats.
Going back to the study of bomb-disposal operative, he says:
Whereas the heart rates of all the operatives remained stable, something quite incredible happened with the ones who’d been decorated. Their heart rates actually went down. As soon as they entered the danger zone (or the “launch pad,” as one guy I spoke with put it), they assumed a state of cold, meditative focus: a mezzanine level of consciousness in which they became one with the device they were working on.
in general, I’m not convinced this is a trait that could be considered “psychopathic”.
What Dutton seems to be describing here is Flow, as researched but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
But he might have a point on reaching flow in extreme situations in which external threats might interrupt most people’s focus and concentration.
The Dark Side of “Coolness”: Profiling The Batterers
Famed relationship researcher John Gottman profiled two types of batterers.
One gets more excited and emotional while battering (pit bulls), while the other becomes cooler before assaulting (cobras).
He calls them “cobras” and “pit bulls”.
The way Sutton describes them, the cobras are the psychopaths.
Here are the differences:
|Displays violence toward others||Usually only violent toward partner|
|Feels little remorse||Shows some level of guilt|
|Motivated by immediate gratification||Motivated by fear of abandonment|
|Able to let go and move on||Obsessive; often stalks victim|
|Feels superior||Adopts the role of “victim”|
|Fast talker; spins a story for police||Greater emotional lability|
|Charming and charismatic||Depressed and introverted|
|Control means “not being told what to do”||Control means “constant monitoring of partner” (see: too jealous boyfriend)|
|Traumatic upbringing; violence prevalent in family||Some degree of violence in family background|
|Impermeable to therapeutic intervention||Sometimes benefits from treatment programs|
|Manipulative: partner less likely to leave||Partner more likely to leave|
|Antisocial: 90%||Antisocial: 33%|
And this is how they differ in the use of violence:
|Violence: more severe||Violence: less severe|
|Use of closed-fist / strangling: 91%||Use of closed-fist / strangling: 62%|
|Threatened partner with knife or gun: 38%||Threatened partner with knife or gun: 4%|
|Actual use of knife or gun: 9%||Actual use of knife or gun: 0%|
|Violence outisde relationship: 44%||Violence outside the relationship: 3%|
This is also the type of information that makes Dutton’s position on the “good” in psychopathy more difficult to sustain.
Psychopathy Is Extreme, And Cuts Both Ways
Dutton says that psychopathy is about excesses.
It can be helpful in reaching higher highs, both in terms of personal success and pro-sociality, and it can drag you to lower lows, both in terms of personal success and pro-sociality.
Through an analogy with sports cars, he says:
A powerful sports car is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in and of itself, but depends on the person who’s sitting behind the wheel. It may, for instance, permit a skilled and experienced motorist to get his wife to the hospital in time to give birth to their child. Or, in a parallel universe, run an eighteen-year-old and his girlfriend off a cliff.
Psychopathy really is like a high-performance sports car. It’s a double-edged sword that inevitably cuts both ways.
I’m not contending that some of the psychopathic traits can be used for good.
Of course, they can.
My question though is:
What’s the likelihood of either those options happening, when we’re talking about an actual psychopath?
What’s the likelihood that the “psychopathic sports car” will be used for pro-social acts, and what’s the likelihood that it will be used to trample on others?
That’s the question that Dutton never answers.
#6. Learn to Be Emotionless for Your Investment Decisions: Psychopath’s Make Good Traders
On this website, we saw several times than humans can behave irrationally in ultimatum games.
Such as, when one player offers to split a sum of money “unfairly” many players will reject the offer even when rejecting the offer means they will get nothing.
Instead, as shown by Ohira’s research at Nagoya University, psychopaths are not bothered by small offers and accept them anyway.
Dutton also interviews some hedge fund managers high in psychopathy. One of them says that they can only beat the market during crashes, because everyone else is panicking.
Another one says that the most important trait of a good trader is coolness and detachment. The great traders, at the end of the day, you wouldn’t be able to say if they made a billion or if they lost it all.
#7. Develop a Ruthless Reputation: Psychopathic Traits Can Be Helpful in Jail…
In a title reminiscent of one of the 48 Laws of Power, Dutton writes:
To Get to the Top, Send Your Reputation Up Ahead of You
Using the “Aryan Brotherhood” as an example, he describes how in prison a reputation for ruthlessness can pay off.
As Baumeister also said in “Evil“, a reputation for being a ruthless fighter will lead to fewer challengers -and fights-.
… And Moderate Psychopathy Can Be Helpful Not to Get Caught At All
Aharoni and Kiehl asked 307 incarcerated psychopaths to confidentially report the crimes for which they were caught and the ones for which they were not caught.
The result was that “the greatest criminal success was associated with moderate to high psychopathy scores, particularly for violent crimes”.
However, adds Dutton:
A very high dose of psychopathy (all the dials turned up to max) is as bad as a very low one. Instead, it’s moderate levels that code for greater “accomplishment.”
The survey seems to sustain Dutton’s hypothesis.
Personally, though I wouldn’t lend too much credibility to a survey based on self-reported data, from a relatively small sample size.
The Formula to Become a “Functional Psychopaths”
Dutton interviews James Blair and asks him if “it pays to be a psychopath”.
It’s a dangerous road to go down. “It’s true that if bad things are happening the individual with psychopathy might be less worried about it.
However, it’s not so clear that their decision making in such situations would be particularly good. By not analyzing levels of threat appropriately, they might walk into danger, rather than away from it.
So Dutton chances his equation to:
Functional Psychopath = Psychopath – Poor Decision Making
Then asks the same question to Kent Kiehl, author of “The Psychopath Whisperer“, who replies:
It makes sense that psychopathic traits are normally distributed across the general population.
But the difference with those at the high end of the spectrum is that they can’t switch off [the fearlessness] in situations where it might be appropriate. A CEO might be non-risk-averse in certain areas of business, but probably wouldn’t want to walk around a rough neighborhood at night. A psychopath isn’t able to make that distinction. With a psychopath, it’s all or nothing.
So Dutton further adjusts his equation:
Functional Psychopath = (Psychopath – Poor Decision Making) / Context
The 7 Traits to Borrow From Psychopaths
Dutton calls these the “seven deadly wins”:
- Mental toughness
But you can’t just borrow them or work to increase them and expect success.
The usefulness of each one of them lays deeply in the context.
The power in each one of them is context and modularity, using them when needed, and then reverting back to a more “normal” you.
- Go for collaboration over win-lose (& occasional defection for amoral Machiavellian)
The high-risk, high-reward strategy can seem attractive to many men.
And that’ why this website section on dark triad books is very popular.
And high doses of the dark triad can lead to some momentary and spectacular successes -see the case study for Scarface, as an example-.
On the other hand, there are many more early deaths and long-term failures locked in prison that you will never hear of.
In a society where most interactions resemble repeated games, success is achieved more consistently with a collaborative approach strategy.
From a purely Machiavellian point of view, the occasional strategic cheating can further increase the odds of success. This doesn’t mean I am recommending it, but there are a few times in life when conning a conner can be a win-win for you, and for society -and the conman pays for all-.
Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator
- Psychopathic “high-risk/high-reward” leads to many losers and some winners. and that’s why they’re stable: some experiments of game theory, which in truth were very simplified versions of reality, show that a strategy of “risking it all” and cheating produces lots of failures and deaths, but also some successful survivors which keeps the population stable at around 1-2%
- Dark triad traits can lead to more sexual partners: men with dark triad traits tend to have more sexual partners. But that’s also because they seek more sexual partners, while more secure men are happy to eventually stop with one partner. Also see: the psychopath’s sexual strategies, and: do psychopaths get laid more?
- Make them share something personal, then interrupt them right away, and tell them later what they’ve just told you: a technique of dark psychology is to make you open up and share something, then quickly change the subject, then, later on, tell you what you told them as if it also happened to them. Also see: Machiavellian fake self-disclosure
- Psychopaths can be good at faking emotions and very good at lying
- Psychopaths are extremely drawn to rewards: it’s not just that psychopaths aren’t afraid of punishment. That doesn’t predict violence. The other side of the coin is also true: psychopaths are particularly attracted to (immediate) pleasure and rewards
- Psychopaths have “cognitive empathy” and can recognize emotions (and might be good at it): Dutton says that one experiment shows that psychopaths don’t feel what it’s like to have a certain emotion, but recognize it when they see it. This is cognitive empathy as opposed to emotional empathy, which allows to bond and connect with others
- In prisons psychopaths are less unpredictable than psychotics: Psychopathic violence is predominantly instrumental, a direct means to a specific end. It’s on the psychotic wards that things are less predictable. I once went out with a psychotic woman
This is a great video where Dutton explains his own book and theory:
I loved “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”, and it’s one of the most important books for this website’s philosophy (ie.: to be good, you must know how to be bad).
At the same time, there are some important issues one needs to discuss.
1. Lack of Conscience: The Big Defining Trait That Slipped Through
Conscience is the main trait that differentiates psychopaths from neurotypicals.
So conscience should feature heavily on a book on psychopaths.
But, as Martha Stout critical review highlights, it’s somewhat missing in “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”.
I quote her:
Nowhere in this book about psychopathy does Dutton accurately define psychopathy, so I will do so here.
Psychopathy is a disorder of brain and behavior, the central characteristic of which is the complete absence of conscience. All of its other pathological featuresemanate from this defining deficit (including callousness, habitual lying, and ruthlessness).
I admire Martha Stout after going through her work in “The Sociopath Next Door“, and I am glad she shared her opinion on “The Wisdom of Psychopath”.
I went through her review more than once.
Stout goes on saying:
Dutton does not once discuss the concept of conscience, and, in the entire body of his book he mentions the word itself—conscience—a total of four times, and then only in passing.
I’m not sure if Stout was reading a different version of the book.
In mine, to be fair, Dutton does mention conscience as a defining trait of psychopathy.
I quote Dutton verbatim:
I suddenly get a flash of insight.
But the most fundamental difference between one individual and another must surely be that of the presence, or absence, of conscience. Conscience is what hurts when everything else feels good.
So, yes, Dutton does acknowledge that conscience is the main difference between psychopaths and non-psychopaths -albeit it feels strange that an expert on psychopathy says it dawned on him as a “sudden flash of insight”-.
Still, Stout’s criticism is fair.
Conscience as a defining trait is a crucial aspect that Dutton should have probably expanded more on.
For a book showing us what good psychopaths can do, maybe he could have also dwelled more on the challenges that their inner moral vacuousness present (he does talk more about that in the video above discussing the book, but not in the book itself).
2. Can You Get a “Dose” of Psychopathy?
Martha Stout goes on saying:
Dutton’s argument seems to be that sometimes we could use a little of what he terms “the seven deadly wins”.
Yes, I daresay we could—but those behavioral features do not represent a “dose of psychopathy,” to use Dutton’s expression. In reality, a touch of psychopathy would mean a malignant streak of brutality, predatory single-mindedness, callousness, carelessness, exclusive self-involvement, and clinical impulsivity.
As a professional who has spent decades studying the bleak disorder of consciencelessness, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that there is no wisdom in psychopathy.
There is only an irredeemable emptiness that should not and cannot be served up in “doses.”
Stout seems to be saying that you either are a psychopath, in which case you are a vacuous, conscienceless individual, or you’re not.
Yet, I do not fully agree with Stout’s black and white view.
As Psychology Today writes, psychopathy is a spectrum disorder.
To be considered a psychopath, you must score above a certain threshold, usually 30.
So if you score 29, you’re not technically a psychopath, but you’re also somewhat close.
Going back to Stout’s point on conscience being the major defining trait. OK, but if you do have a conscience, maybe a weak-ish one, and you still manipulate and cheat, aren’t you behaving more like a psychopath, even without technically being one?
And then, keeping on the same train of thought, it would also be possible to be high on the more positive traits, like remaining calm under stress, focused and, when needed to be, act resolutely (or ruthlessly, when it’s called for).
In that case, then yes, we would someone high on some psychopathy traits.
I still also agree with Stout: that person would not be anything like a clinical psychopath. But that doesn’t make Dutton wrong: some of the psychopath traits can be helpful, and even used for good.
For example, they could be used to ruthlessly dispatch threats, including potentially dangerous psychopaths. Which is a mantra of this website: to be good, you need to know how to be bad.
3. Are Psychopaths Really More Likely to Help, and Be Heroes?
Dutton makes the case that psychopaths are more likely to perform heroic actions.
Martha Stout instead says:
Why an individual who feels neither conscience nor caring would wish to save another’s life is difficult to imagine, (…) and reveals an essential misunderstanding of the nature of the predator
I tend to agree with Stout here.
In my previous research on “good and evil“, I also convened that psychopaths are not more likely to be heroes.
Yes, heroes are more likely to have a few traits that differentiate them from the general population and that might overlap with some psychopathic traits, but they are not psychopaths.
Back then I asked a psychopath if they would engender their lives to save someone else, and the answer was a resounding “no”.
Because I’m curious and I like getting to the bottom of things, I asked again on Quora though, and this time the answers were more mixed, ranging from “yes, it’s more likely”, to “it depends”, to “it’s laughable, I’d never risk my life to save others”.
So, to answer the question, are psychopaths more likely to be heroes?
Overall, I am definitely not convinced that a psychopath would be more likely to act as a hero.
Neither am I convinced of the contrary, though.
I’d much rather reach more definitive conclusions, but it seems like there is no definitive proof or study on this.
For a sobering read on what the mix of egotism, power-craving, and amorality can lead to, please read here:
Psychopaths’ Sexual Strategy: Marauders of Sex
4. Some Researches Were Good, Some Not So Much
Here are some notes on some of the researches I found to be less solid:
- The “Great British Psychopath Survey”
This is a survey Dutton hosted on his personal website, and it was anonymous.
Lindsay Abrams over at The Atlantic asked Dutton about it, and Dutton said
he received about 5,500 respondents.
No information about it and no data is retrievable. The website “Wisdomofpscychopaths.com”, which also later hosted a “Great American Psychopath Survey”, redirects to Dutton’s website.
Edit: I later found a picture from web.archieve (thanks to Richard Smith):
An interesting survey with some interesting, if quirky results. But more for fun, it’s not scientific.
The analyses of the psychopathy level of US presidents are based on what the biographers of those presidents answered.
It’s still an interesting result, for sure, but not a very scientific one.
Also see: is Trump a sociopath?
- Dutton’s research psychopath’s ability to identify guilty individuals
Some other studies had small samples.
Dutton’s own study, for example, had just 30 students. He goes on analyzing that study saying:
The results were extraordinary. Over 70 percent of those who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale correctly picked out the handkerchief-smuggling associate, compared to just 30 percent of the low scorers.
But if you take “those who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale”, which is a subset of the total, then you come up with an even smaller number.
So saying that “over 70% of those who…” was probably the equivalent of saying “4 or 5 of them”.
Dutton never mentions that this was a low-powered study, which does not help to lend credibility to the book.
Some Researches Twisted to Fit The Narrative
As we reviewed above, “The Wisdom of Psychopath” makes it seem as if psychopaths are more prone to act in a utilitarian way and for the greater good.
But, as we reviewed, in practical life those utilitarian situations rarely if ever emerge.
And high-psychopathy individuals in business weren’t exactly all-around star performers one might glean by just reading “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”.
Similarly, a study that purposefully “proves” that psychopaths make better financial decisions under certain circumstances did in a situation that’s unlikely to take place in real life.
The game concocted for the experiment provided a gain of $2.5 for each coin toss win against a loss of just $1.
Psychopaths played more and won more.
But… How likely are you to see those a house consistently stacked on your side in real life?
5. Psychopathic Traits Can Be Used For Good, But Will Psychopaths Do So? Let’s Not Be Naive…
There are no doubts that one can use some traits common among psychopaths for good causes.
Fearlessness, calmness under stress, and the ability to move on can be used for a successful life and for helping others.
Of course they can.
But Dutton seems to suggest that psychopaths are as likely to use them for good, as they are of using them for bad.
And I don’t think that’s true at all.
Actual psychopaths are far more likely to use their signature traits for their personal good only. And they are probably far more likely to use their skills for harming others, than for helping them.
It’s this crucial and basic understanding of psychopaths that’s missing in Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths”.
And this is what irked many reviewers.
6. Some Typical “Psychopaths’ Stories” (BS?)
If you research some psychopath writers as I’ve done, you will notice that they often have some crazy stories in which they often turn out to be the heroes.
Whether that story was true or not, well… Who can say?
Here is one such story Dutton shares in “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” from one of this interviewees:
Tom tells me a story. One night, a few years ago, he’s heading back to his apartment after watching Saw.
Suddenly, out of a doorway, a guy with a blade appears. His girlfriend is terrified and starts hyperventilating. But Tom, ahem, calmly disarms the guy and sends him packing.
Sounds strange like a scene of a movie, doesn’t it?
And it strangely seems to happen to psychopaths fare more often than to most normal people…
Nonsense “Preparation” for War With Slagging: Another Psycho Story
Interviewing a supposed psychopath in the British special force soldier, he says:
“So, in the regiment, everything’s fair game. The slagging is purely functional. It’s an efficient way of building up psychological immunity. It inoculates you against the kind of shit they can throw at you if you’re captured.
How does that help?
He keeps going:
if [your captors are] any good, they’ll start to look for weaknesses. They’ll look for the tiniest of reactions that might give away your true mental state. And if they find anything, then take it from me: that’s that, mate. It’s game over. Put it this way. If you’ve got a problem with the size of your dick, an Iraqi interrogation suite probably isn’t the best place to find out.
I don’t see how banter in the regiment can prepare you for being a captive, frankly. And if the captors decide to extract secrets, they probably won’t do it by teasing you on the size of your member.
7. Some Random Evolutionary Psychology
Dutton engages in some evolutionary psychology across the book.
Some of it was OK or even good. But some other times I felt it was a bit like the “ad-hoc post-facts theorizing”.
8. A Note on Those Who Supported Dutton
Psychopathy is not good.
Violent psychopaths with poor impulse control are dangerous to society. And non-violent psychopaths aren’t much better. They’re good at getting things done for themselves, and rarely for those around.
That being said, some famous names provided their names for public positive reviews.
Neuro-scientist Ramachandran, for example.
And, even more important, Robert Hare, author of “Without a Conscience” and “Snake in Suits“, and widely recognized as one of the world experts on psychopathy.
Reading Hare, you get a very different feeling. Hare sounds very critical of psychopaths and seems to consider them as very different from neurotypicals.
Yet, he provided a public review and praise of Dutton’s book.
On heroism, quoting Philip Zimbardo:
The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in our lives.
It means not being afraid of what others might think. It means not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves. It means not being afraid of putting our necks on the line. The question is: Are we going to make that decision?”
- A wake-up call on success?
In the face of some self-help books who only see success as the realm of “good people” who “help others”, this book can be an eye-opener.
- Spoke with a who’s who of the academic’s world
Dutton has spoken with an impressive number of academic heavy-weights for this book.
I suppose that having a big-name university in your resume can help, but it’s still impressive the people he’s spoken to, which include Steven Pinker, psychopathy expert Kent Kiehl, Robert Hare, and Philip Zimbardo, just to name a few.
“The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is one of those difficult books for me to review.
On the negative side, there are some scientific fallacies. And it’s not that the Dutton misquotes studies, as some online negative reviews accuse him of.
For this review, I checked many of the studies he quotes, and they checked out.
But it’s the main theory of psychopaths being bad half of the times and good the other half of the times that is fallacious.
It feels like the author has a rosy, and sometimes naive and misguided view of psychopaths.
On the plus side, this book has already become a classic for me.
And it’s a fundamental book for this website.
It reinforces this website’s notion that “to be good, you have to know how to be bad“.
We agree that some psychopathic traits can be useful for personal success, without necessarily harming others. And sometimes, those traits might also be used for the greater good.
It’s exactly what the tagline of this website once was:
We need fundamentally good people, who know how to be bad. And, sometimes, that might mean borrowing some typically psychopathic traits, and put them in service of better causes.