It’s too simplistic to think of psychopaths as being murderers or law-breakers, says Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton.
In his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Dutton examines what we can learn from those who lack conscience but are also bold and highly resilient to stress.
What exactly is a psychopath?
No sooner is the word out of someone’s mouth than images of [serial killers] like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind. It doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a criminal or serial killer. When psychologists talk about psychopaths, what we refer to are people with a distinct set of personality characteristics including ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, a charismatic personality and lack of conscience and empathy.
You write that you think your father was a psychopath…
It sounds like a crazy thing to say, but there’s no doubt at all about it. He was a nailed down psychopath. He wasn’t violent. He was a market trader [in the U.K., a person who sells things at an open-air street market]. One of the central messages of the book is that you don’t need to be violent to be a psychopath. My dad was ruthless, fearless and also extremely charming. He could have sold shaving cream to the Taliban.
So what would be an example of his psychopathic behavior?
When I was a kid, probably about 9 or 10 [years old], we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Just as my dad was about to pay, he suddenly tinked his spoon against his glass and stood up. The whole restaurant went silent. My dad said, “I’d just like to thank you all for coming; some from just round the corner, some from much further afield. You’re all most welcome to join us for a little drinks reception across the road.’
And so an entire restaurant of strangers who had never seen us before were all applauding wildly because they didn’t want to be seen as gatecrashers. We just took off. He [told me] we’re not going to the pub really and [explained that his] old friend Malcolm had [just opened a new pub across the street].
If you think about the front you need to do that: it’s a whole different kind of personality. On a personal level, I guess I wrote the book to figure out my old man.
Were you afraid you might have gotten some of those genes?
I have some psychopathic characteristics. I’m not so ruthless. I’m pretty fearless. Not much phases me. I’ve got mental toughness; people say I’m quite persistent. But what lets me down in the psychopath stakes is that I do have a heck of a conscience and am rather empathetic. I’m high on some characteristics and low on others.
Psychopaths don’t have the caring part of empathy, but they are better than average at the “mind reading” part where they can predict other people’s behavior in order to manipulate it.
It’s a real paradox. Some years ago, I interviewed a psychopath — and I can’t work out for the life of me whether he being manipulative or telling the truth — it was probably a bit of both, but he said, ‘If you had a deaf guy standing watching a building burn down and had a child in the building screaming in pain and the deaf guy didn’t go in, you wouldn’t hold him to blame. Imagine if you’re emotionally deaf. You can hear the sound, but it doesn’t do anything for you. You don’t feel that emotional kick in the backside to go in and do something.’
That means psychopaths must miss out on some of life’s greatest pleasures, too. If the happiest moments of our lives tend to involve sharing joy with others—falling in love, having fun with people we care about— they don’t have any of that.
In a sense, they never had that so they’re not going to miss it. We think, because we have empathy, ‘Gosh how terrible it must be to not have it.’ But if you never had it to start with, you don’t miss it. I agree as an empathetic person, I find it horrendous to imagine [living a life] where you couldn’t take pleasure from others and didn’t feel love and compassion.
What do you think makes one psychopath a serial killer while the other winds up on Wall Street?
Let’s say you are a psychopath and you get a poor start in life. You’re low in intelligence and also dispositionally violent. Just due to natural biology, some people are more aggressive than others from the word go. Your prospects, to be perfectly honest, are not great. You’re going to end up as a low level thug or enforcer in a criminal gang and either way, you will wind up in prison.
Now, remove violence from the equation. You are a psychopath who is nonviolent but you don’t get a good start. Your prospects are a little better, you end up as a small time con artist or drug dealer. You’re also going to wind up in prison very quickly.
Then [consider] a psychopath who is not dispositionally violent. You get a good start in life and are intelligent. Now, it’s a different story. Now, you’re more likely to kill in the market than anywhere else. If you’re an intelligent psychopath and violent [and get a good start], there are any number of exciting occupations, anything from special forces operative to head of a criminal syndicate.
What other factors are important?
One difference tends to emerge between functional and criminal psychopaths. The successful functioning ones are able to delay gratification a bit more. They are less impulsive than the criminal ones. Recently, a study looked at the difference between criminal psychopaths in a maximum security prison and business executives.
There was a range of psychopathic traits that were more common among business executives. The charming personality, fearlessness and lack of empathy and conscience were more common in executives. The difference was when it came to more overtly antisocial behavior. Here, the criminals were higher— on criminal behavior and physical aggression and lower on discipline and self control.
What makes the difference between functioning successfully [or not] isn’t just the level of traits, it’s how they interact with [tendencies towards] violence and intelligence and also with other characteristics like sexual stuff that may be going on. You may get a kick out of inflicting pain on women if you’ve been humiliated by a woman early on. There’s a myriad of different triggers that can tip the balance one way or another.
Child abuse must surely be one of them…
Here we come onto how genes and environment interact. There’s a very famous case involving a guy called Bradley Waldroup in Utah. He committed a terrible murder in which he shot and beat to death one of his wife’s best friends whom he suspected of having an affair with her.
[At that time, researchers] had uncovered what the media described as a ‘warrior gene.’ If you got the short version of the gene you are very likely to become a violent criminal or killer— but only if you are abused as a child. That’s the trigger that sets off that gene. If you get the long version of the gene and are abused or have a violent childhood, you will not stand that much risk of become violent criminal
When Waldroup was brought to trial, his defense attorney got on [an expert on] the stand and asked whether [the defendant] had the short variant, the warrior gene and it turned out that he did. The next question was, ‘Was he abused as a child?’ and the answer was yes, he was.
Basically, the attorney made the case that could we not argue that Waldroup’s free will was in some way compromised? Maybe, if our behavior is a byproduct of the interplay between genetics and the environment and we are not free to choose either, to what extent are we free to choose at all?
Bradley Waldrop’s sentence was commuted from death to life in prison. My feeling is that this is the start of a raft of similar cases.
MORE: My Brain Made Me Do It: Psychopaths and Free Will
But should psychopaths get longer or shorter sentences when we aren’t talking about death vs. life in prison? You could argue they should be in prison longer because they are clearly dangerous— or you could make the reverse argument for shorter sentences because it’s not really their fault?
If they are wired differently, then maybe we should rethink it: it’s not their fault that they are wired like that. But we cannot allow people to murder and rape so there is an argument for locking them up for longer.
Would you agree that without psychopathic traits, we might lose a lot of leaders and heroes?
There’s always been a need for risk-takers in society and a need for ruthlessness, charm, charisma and a need for mental toughness and emotional detachment.
All of these traits are on a spectrum, just as there exists no official division between someone who plays the piano well and a concert pianist. One individual might be ruthless and fearless, but not have a lack of conscience.
If you’ve got loads of these traits all turned up to max, you’re going to overload the circuits [and be a dangerous psychopath].
But you wouldn’t be anywhere near dangerous if some were high and some low. Depending on context, you’re talking different proportions that might be quite functionally adapted to whatever professional field of endeavor you might be working in. [At extremely high levels], you might have problems but if turn those down, you might find people who are better than normal in certain aspects.