Other studies seem to confirm the “mixing deck” picture: that the border between functional and dysfunctional psychopathy depends not on the presence of psychopathic attributes per se but rather on their levels and the way they are combined. Mehmet Mahmut and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney have recently shown that patterns of brain dysfunction (specifically, patterns in orbitofrontal cortex functioning—the area of the brain that regulates the input of the emotions in decision making) observed in both criminal and noncriminal psychopaths, exhibit dimensional rather than discrete differences. This, Mahmut suggests, means that the two groups should not be viewed as qualitatively distinct populations but rather as occupying different positions on the same continuum.
In a similar (if less high-tech) vein, I asked a class of first-year undergraduates to imagine they were managers in a job placement company. “Ruthless, fearless, charming, amoral and focused,” I told them. “Suppose you had a client with that kind of profile. To which line of work do you think they might be suited?”
Their answers couldn't have been more insightful. CEO, spy, surgeon, politician, the military … they all popped up in the mix. Amongst serial killer, assassin and bank robber.
“Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second,” one successful CEO told me. “Remember, they don't call it a greasy pole for nothing. The road to the top is hard. But it's easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others. Easier still if they think something's in it for them.”
Jon Moulton, one of London's most successful venture capitalists, agrees. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he lists determination, curiosity and insensitivity as his three most valuable character traits.
No prizes for guessing the first two. But insensitivity? The great thing about insensitivity, Moulton explains, is that “it lets you sleep when others can't.”
This article was originally published with the title The Wisdom of Psychopaths.