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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Wisdom from Psychopaths?

A scientist enters a high-security psychiatric hospital to extract tips and advice from a crowd without a conscience



Niklas Asker

In Brief

Life Lessons from the Inside

  • Psychopaths have personality traits that, in moderation, can offer significant benefits. These typically terrible individuals may thus have a lot to teach the rest of us.
  • The triumvirate of charm, focus and ruthlessness that psychopaths possess can predispose a person for long-term life success.
  • A psychopath's proclivity to live in the moment can arm against anxiety and bring joy.

More In This Article

Adapted from The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success, by Kevin Dutton, by arrangement with Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC (US), Doubleday Canada (Canada), Heinemann (UK), Record (Brazil), DTV (Germany), De Bezige Bij (Netherlands), NHK (Japan), Miraebook (Korea) and Lua de Papel (Portugal). Copyright © 2012 Kevin Dutton

“Got anything sharp?” the woman at reception barks, as I deposit the entire contents of my briefcase—laptop, phone, pens—into a clear, shatter-resistant locker in the entrance hall. “Now place the index finger of your right hand here and look up at the camera.”

Once you pass through border control at Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, you are immediately ushered into a tiny air lock, a glass-walled temporary holding cell between reception and the hospital building proper, while the person you are visiting—in my case, a psychologist assigned to escort me to my destination—gets buzzed by reception and makes his way over to meet you.

It's a nervy, claustrophobic wait. As I sit flicking through magazines, I remind myself why I'm here—an e-mail I had received a couple of weeks after launching the Great British Psychopath Survey, in which I tested people in different professions for psychopathic traits. One of the survey's respondents, a barrister by trade, had written to me. He had posted a score that certainly got my attention.

“I realized from quite early on in my childhood that I saw things differently than other people,” he wrote. “But more often than not, it's helped me in my life. Psychopathy (if that's what you want to call it) is like a medicine for modern times. If you take it in moderation, it can prove extremely beneficial. It can alleviate a lot of existential ailments that we would otherwise fall victim to because our fragile psychological immune systems just aren't up to the job of protecting us. But if you take too much of it, if you overdose on it, then there can, as is the case with all medicines, be some rather unpleasant side effects.”

The e-mail had got me thinking. Might this eminent criminal defense lawyer have a point? Was psychopathy a “medicine for modern times”? The typical traits of a psychopath are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action. Who wouldn't at certain points in their lives benefit from kicking one or two of these up a notch?

I decided to put the theory to the test. As well as meeting the doctors in Broadmoor, I would talk with some of the patients. I would present them with problems from normal, everyday life, the usual stuff we moan about at happy hour, and see what their take on it was. Up until now it had seemed like a good idea.

“Professor Dutton?” I look up to see a blond guy in his mid-30s peering around the door at me. “Hi, I'm one of the clinical leads at the Paddock Center. Welcome to Broadmoor! Shall I take you over?”

The Paddock Center is an enclosed, highly specialized personality disorder directorate comprising six 12-bedded wards. Around 20 percent of the patients housed there at any one time are what you might call “pure” psychopaths. These are confined to the two Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) wards. The rest present with so-called cluster disorders: clinically significant psychopathic traits, accompanied by traits typically associated with other personality disorders—borderline, paranoid and narcissistic, for example. Or they may have symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations indicative of psychosis.

Suddenly, reality dawns. This is no drop-in center for the mocha-sipping worried well. This is the conscienceless inner sanctum of the Chianti-swilling unworried unwell—the preserve of some of the most sinister neurochemistry in the business. The Yorkshire Ripper is in here. So is the Stockwell Strangler. It's one of the most dangerous buildings on earth.

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