Kevin Dutton on psychopathy: A bright side?

In a two-part podcast (Part 1 : Part 2) on the Scientific American website, Kevin Dutton, a psychologist from Oxford University in the UK discusses why psychopathic traits could be a good thing. Dutton has recently written a book entitled The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. This line of thought is obviously a little shocking, not in the least because of the immense societal and personal damage that can happen in the name of psychopathy. On the podcast, however, Dutton is clearly an expert on the subject and has clearly put an immense amount of work into this book.

So what are some of the points that get raised in the interview?

There are two points made clear that I believe are done to ease us into accepting the benefits of psychopathy, as well as to educate us about psychopathy and dispel some of the myths. Firstly, psychopathy is a dynamic scale and is far from a black and white issue, and secondly, many psychopaths are not violent. These are perfectly valid points.

Dutton also draws a distinction between successful and unsuccessful psychopaths. This distinction has been made for a while; in neurological studies of psychopaths, success is measured by determining time in prison (more time, less success), and researchers have tried to see if there are brain differences between these groups of psychopaths. Yang et al. (2005) found that unsuccessful psychopaths seem to have a reduced amount of prefrontal gray matter (less neuronal cell bodies) when compared to their successful counterparts. Dutton discusses success in terms of impulsivity; if the psychopath is too impulsive, then their actions are more likely to land them in trouble or veer them away from their ultimate goals. The neurological aspect could actually reinforce this view, because the prefrontal cortex does play a role in impulse control; a reduced amount of neurons in the prefrontal cortex could result in low impulse control.

Dutton goes on to mention that a successful psychopath, i.e. with good impulse control, could make a good politician. Impulse control, coupled with manipulation, a lack of empathy, grandiosity and charisma, could indeed make you a great politician or political leader. However, I think it must be noted that many people are likely to distrust politicians if some of those characteristics become evident, and so even if they are natural to the psychopath, exposing these true colors could mean that they will not be re-elected. The dirty deeds of politicians are also enough to give most people scruples, and I’m sure many would elect to be moral individuals rather than a heartless and two-faced politician. Having said that, I’m sure the argument could be made that these people are a necessary evil that do ultimately push progress, even if it is at the expense of others (someone has to get their hands dirty).

In fact, Dutton does allude to the necessary evil that perhaps societies have to have by mentioning the utilitarian argument, which is essentially acting in a way that will benefit the most. It turns out that non-psychopaths can actually be very bad at this, and Dutton uses a couple of moral dilemma questions to demonstrate the point. A train is hurtling out of control down a track and on course to hit 5 people. You can divert the train by pulling a switch, but by doing so the train will hurtle down another track and kill 1 person. Assuming that 1 person is a stranger to you, most people would agree that pulling the switch is the right thing to do. However, in a different scenario, what if the only way to stop the train from killing the 5 people was to push a large stranger from a footbridge in front of the train? Not many people would elect to do this, but a psychopath makes no distinction between these two scenarios, and this has been tied to a lack of cellular activity that takes place in the prefrontal lobes of psychopaths.

Using this example, clearly pushing somebody in front of a train is not something we should ‘learn’ from the psychopathic, but it does raise the interesting point that perhaps in more complex situations, where the consequences may not be quite as severe as murder, perhaps we do need people who do function and think this way. Many political leaders and CEOs often make decisions that increase the profit margin at the expense of making many workers redundant. Successful and intelligent psychopaths are clearly made for these kind of jobs. But again, is this something we should learn from psychopaths or just accept that in order for the world to work it is a necessary evil?

Dutton also mentions that psychopaths do not procrastinate, they are cool under pressure, and they do not care what people think of them. On the surface it could seem like these are great qualities, but it must be pointed out that the  reasons they do not procrastinate, are cool under pressure, and do not care what people think of them is because their brain has not developed correctly.

I would argue that the reason psychopaths do not procrastinate is actually related to Adrian Raine’s hypothesis, which is that as psychopaths also have a low-resting heart rate (something that could feel uncomfortable as it is a struggle to feel aroused), they are prone to seeking stimulation. Psychopathy is often comorbid with alcoholism and cocaine addiction, but these are clearly things we would not want to learn from them. However, with good impulse control, the psychopath will be seeking a huge physiological pay-off if they succeed in their plans -which will no doubt be experienced at the considerable expense of others.

The reason they are cool under pressure is because their amygdala is either under-active or/and maldeveloped. One of the things the amygdala is responsible for is fear conditioning – things that shock and scare us cause the amygdala to become active and it increases the saliency of memory at that moment, which helps us remember in the future what in the past caused us to be scared. Psychopaths do not feel fear, at all, meaning they cannot be fear conditioned. I would argue that this is actually a bad thing and is likely to cause more problems than advantages. For one, you cannot grow up and assimilate into society with a sense of morality if you are a psychopath; however you can completely fake it. To be a successful psychopath, therefore, and go unnoticed and unchallenged, you had better also be very intelligent.

Having no empathy will of course lead you to not give a damn about what other people think. However, surely the merits of this are situational? You should always care about what your loved ones and friends think about you, because that helps you to grow and mature, and opens you up to certain kinds of wisdom. So while it is important that you know who and what to ignore, you also need to know when to pay attention.

These qualities are not decidedly psychopathic and can be learned from life experience. It’s almost accidental that psychopaths show those traits – given their neuronal deficits, they don’t have a choice.

Personally, I think that Dutton has raised some great points about the role of psychopathy and how culturally we do seem to have a niche where these people can flourish – this probably tells us a lot about human nature and society. But from this cursory introduction to his work, I would be careful of blurring the line between taking life lessons from a psychopath and accepting that our culture needs/rewards them.

I do, however, look forward to adding his book to my collection, and benefiting from his wealth of knowledge on the subject of psychopathy.

Copyright Jack Pemment, 2013

6 thoughts on “Kevin Dutton on psychopathy: A bright side?

  1. Paula

    Uuuggghhh! Yeah. I’m not inclined to reward this behavior/traits. As you allude to, these traits of a psychopath are the very reasons they do not grow, learn, and evolve. Politicians? We need more informed and intelligent politicians who know how to relinquish control not wield more. And the impulse control and low-resting heart rate? Cocaine use is not the only way a psychopath can be stimulated. My X (who I believe is a sociopath) was a perpetual speeder. When alone in his car, he couldn’t control himself. Upwards of 95 mph. He often would be pulled over. The tickets were my clue. And he always swore he wouldn’t do it again but he did. There was zero trust. I hope this guy discusses the trust issue. No one is worthy of a person’s support if there is no trust. I’ll be listening to this and taking notes. I’ll be back to you, I’m sure, with questions. And I thought of a 4th scenario for the train disaster: d. Allow the train to run its course. Sometimes there are situations out of our control. 🙂

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    1. Jack Pemment Post author

      Paula, I hadn’t even thought about speeding as something psychopaths could get hooked on, but yeah, that makes perfect sense (and sorry that you had to deal with that). I’m still yet to pick up Dutton’s book, because life has an annoying habit of getting in the way 🙂

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      1. Psychopathy Writings

        I agree. One of the reasons people can come to envy the psychopath is that, when you’re in an unhealthy and sometimes painful environment, not caring can seem very desirable. But again, to me this should wake us up that we need changes in the environment so there isn’t such a desperation to not care.

        In the book The Sociopath Next Door, the author, if I recall, has a whole section about this question of whether it’s worth having empathy and conscience when it can be so painful or whether it would be better for us to just not care like the sociopath.

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  2. Psychopathy Writings

    I think Dutton is accurate in pointing out that, given the environment we have, psychopaths have some advantages. But the message should be that this is a dangerous sign about our environment, not that we should look to psychopaths for lessons.

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    1. Jack Pemment Post author

      I’m sure the clarity is sharper in Dutton’s book. I have come across a few people, and this has happened to myself at times, where psychopaths are in the enviable position of not caring, and this is perhaps one dimension of why they can become heroes to some. Clearly, it would be irresponsible to say, “Learn to be a psychopath.” I just found Dutton to be slightly too ambiguous.

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