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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

Psychopaths' capacity for charm is, needless to say, well documented. As is their ability to focus and “get the job done.” It's a powerful, and smart, combination.

Leslie, another inmate, has joined us and has a rather nice take on charm: “The ability to roll out a red carpet for those you cannot stand in order to fast-track them, as smoothly and efficiently as possible, in the direction you want them to go.”

With his coiffured blond locks and his impeccable cut-glass accent, he looks, and sounds, like a dab hand. He also has a good take on focus, especially when it comes to getting what you want. Leslie realized from a rather young age that what went on in his head obeyed a different set of operating principles than most.

“When I was a kid at school, I tended to avoid fisticuffs,” he tells me. “You see, I figured out pretty early on that, actually, the reason why people don't get their own way is because they often don't know themselves where that way leads. They get too caught up in the heat of the moment and temporarily go off track.

“Jamie was talking about boxing there a minute ago. Well, I once heard a great quote from one of the top trainers. He said that if you climb into the ring hell-bent on knocking the other chap into the middle of next week, chances are you're going to come unstuck. But if, on the other hand, you concentrate on winning the fight, simply focus on doing your job, well, you might just knock him into the middle of next week anyway.”

The triumvirate of charm, focus and ruthlessness can predispose someone for long-term life success. Take Steve Jobs. Jobs, commented journalist John Arlidge shortly after the Apple chief's death in 2011, achieved his cult leader status “not just by being single-minded, driven, focused … perfectionistic, uncompromising, and a total ball-breaker.” In addition, Arlidge noted, he had charisma. He would, as technology writer Walt Mossberg revealed, drape a cloth over a product—some pristine creation on a shiny boardroom table—and uncover it with a flourish.

Apple isn't the world's greatest techno innovator. Far from it. It wasn't the first outfit to introduce a personal computer (IBM), nor the first to introduce a smartphone (Nokia). What Jobs brought to the table was style. Sophistication. And timeless, technological charm.

Apple's setbacks along the road to world domination serve as a cogent reminder of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that await all of us in life. Everyone, at some point or other, leaves someone on the floor, so to speak, and there's a pretty good chance that that someone, today, tomorrow or at some other auspicious juncture down the line, is going to turn out to be you.

Neural Steel

Psychopaths, lest Jamie and the boys have yet to disabuse you, have no problem whatsoever facilitating others' relationships with the floor. But they're also pretty handy when they find themselves on the receiving end. And such inner neural steel, such inestimable indifference in the face of life's misfortunes, is something that all of us, perhaps, could do with a little bit more of.

Studies of psychopaths have even revealed a brain signature for this relative indifference to setbacks. Anthropologist James Rilling of Emory University and his co-workers scanned the brains of those scoring high in psychopathy after these individuals experienced having their own attempts to cooperate unreciprocated. The scientists discovered that, compared with “nicer,” more equitable participants, the psychopaths exhibited significantly reduced activity in the brain's emotion hub, the amygdala. This diminished activity, suggestive of a muted emotional reaction, could be considered a neural trademark of “turning the other cheek,” a response that can sometimes manifest itself in rather unusual ways.

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