The Wisdom of Psychopaths


If you were to hire a CEO what traits would you be looking for? Fearlessness, ruthlessness (needed when they decide to shut down a plant and layoff thousands), charisma, charm and single-minded focus is what many search firms look for when they screen potential CEOs. Some CEOs also display a singular lack of conscience when they fudge account books, siphon off funds and generally misuse power and office for their personal gain. Create a distinct cluster of the personality traits like focus, charm, fearlessness etc and then add a dash of low intelligence, violence and impulsiveness to this list and suddenly we are not describing a CEO. We are describing psychopaths who make up almost fifteen to twenty five percent of the prison population. The ingredients are the same. Just changing the amount of the ingredients is good enough to change a winning CEO to a Hannibal Lecter from the movie Silence of the Lambs. The recipe for personality may turn out to taste very different if you change the mix.

When we think of psychopaths, we always think of the serial killers, suicide bombers and the like. Kevin Dutton, a psychologist from Cambridge University tells us in his latest book, enticingly called The Wisdom of Psychopaths that some of the traits that you see in psychopaths are also present in many of us. He starts the book with the statement that his own father was a psychopath who could sell a bunch of diaries that had been accidentally printed with only eleven months in them. His father sold them at a premium as a collectors’ item in short supply. Sounds like someone you know who could snow to an Eskimo?

Always wanted to be a CEO? Leadership traits and psychopathic traits are really two sides of the same coin. Leadership traits could be defined as charisma, self-confidence, the ability to influence and be persuasive. The psychopathic traits would be superficial charm, grandiosity, manipulation and con-artistry. Psychopaths fabricate stories to achieve their goals. If you describe a leader as a visionary thinker, you are most likely describing his or her ability to be a storyteller. CEOs need to take risks, are action oriented and have the ability to make hard decisions. Psychopaths are impulsive, constantly seek thrills and are emotionally poor. Many police officers have spoken about the icy feeling going down their spine in the presence of a psychopath.

The context is what changes one into the other. The surgeon may need to display the same cold-blooded emotion while amputating a gangrenous limb of a patient. If the surgeon had too much empathy he or she would find it hard to operate. A law enforcement officer may do well to have the same sixth sense to identify which person standing in the queue at the airport is carrying contraband. Psychopaths use the same ability to identify a potential victim. They use their charm to persuade people effectively after all they are emotional predators. Psychopaths have that reptilian stare and they are good actors. The charming salesperson who sells you more than what you can afford to buy is using the same persuasion but in a different context.

What would you do if you were in a railway trolley hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who are trapped and will die for sure when the trolley hits them. But fortunately you have a switch in the trolley that can divert it down a fork to another path. Even there in that path there is a man trapped who cannot escape and will die when the trolley hits him. Would you flip the switch and kill one person and save five? Decide … the trolley is near the fork …

Now consider another situation. The railway trolley is speeding out of control down a track towards five people. You are standing behind a large, fat stranger on a footbridge above the tracks. The only way to save the five people would be to push the stranger over. While the stranger will fall to a certain death, his girth will block the trolley and save the five lives. Should you push him? The score in terms of lives is exactly the same as the previous scenario.

Like most normal people, psychopaths too flip the switch in the first case and divert the trolley. However, what makes psychopaths different is that they do the same in the second case. To them it is the mathematics of the decision that prevails.

This book is full of dilemmas like this and lets you compare your own. If you feel yourself making choices like the psychopath, look around and you will see US Presidents in that list. Kevin Dutton names them. Is James Bond a psychopath? You have to read the book to find out the answer. If you feel upto it, you could even take the test to figure out if you score low or high on the psychopath scale.

The first few chapters are not easy reads. The language and styles took me some time to get used to. Once I got used to his terminology and writing style, I started to focus on what the book excels at. The book clarifies some of the myths we have about the term “psychopath” and the psychological makeup of one. It takes examples of the serial killers, inmates of maximum-security prisons and wards to take us inside our own mind and ask ourselves if there is something that the psychopaths have that we could learn from? After all we could all do with some more confidence, charisma, single-minded focus etc – all of which help a person become successful. The average person may be sliding up or down various points of the scale on psychopathy depending on the needs we desire and the means used to achieve them.

The book is a helpful reminder that there is a very thin line between good and evil. It is the motive that changes us from one to the other. Read the book. Chances are that you will get a chill down your spine thinking of the psychopaths you have met in your life … or maybe continue to rub shoulders with somewhere. After all they are according to some estimates almost six percent of the human population.

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  1. Very nice review . I would like to read the book . Thanks a lot Sir.
    Arit .

  2. Subrata Bhaumik says:

    Good review.

  3. Great one !

  4. oh! its something like a test conducted in SSB called SRT(situation reaction test).

  5. Very Insightful review …. I would like to read the book , I hope the book will bring to light some facts that we already know … but deny to accept in the process of success oriented living at any cost- be it happiness / ethics / peace. I have felt at times the most successful / popular persons and leaders I am working with do have have some traits that has to do with mental health / pathology.

  6. Greema – every normal distribution will have its outliers. But the good news is that they are the exception. So maybe we should focus on the majority who are positive and make us happy.

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