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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

“When we were kids,” Jamie chimes in, “we'd have a competition. See who could get the most elbows (rejections) on a night out. You know, from girls, like. The bloke who'd got the most by the time the lights came on would get the next night out for free.

“Course, it was in your interest to rack up as many as possible, right? A night on the piss with everything taken care of by your mates? Sorted! But the funny thing was, soon as you started to get a few under your belt, it actually got f— harder. Soon as you realize that it actually means jack, you start getting cocky. You start mouthing off. And some of the birds start to buy it!”

The Feel-Good Emergency

Mental toughness and fearlessness often go hand in hand. Of course, to many of us lesser mortals, fearlessness may seem quite foreign. But Leslie explains the rationale behind this state—and how he maintains it. “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don't think I've ever really felt it—is that most of the time it's completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what's the point?

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything's perfectly fine.

“So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Leslie's pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath's rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial. In fact, anchoring your thoughts unswervingly in the present is a discipline that psychopathy and spiritual enlightenment have in common. Clinical psychologist Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, for example, incorporates this principle of centering in his mindfulness-based cognitive-behavior therapy program for sufferers of anxiety and depression.

“Feeling good is an emergency for me,” Danny had commented as he'd slammed in his fourth goal for Chelsea on the Wii. Living in the moment, for him and many psychopaths, takes on a kind of urgency. “I like to ride the roller coaster of life, spin the roulette wheel of fortune, to terminal possibility.”

A desire to feel good in the here and now, shrugging off the future, can be taken to an extreme, of course. But it's a goal we could all perhaps do with taking onboard just a little bit more in our lives.

“Settle in okay?” my guide inquires as we jangle back to clinical psychology suburbia. I smile.

(Further Reading)

The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. Hervey M. Cleckley. C. V. Mosby, 1941.

Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us. Robert D. Hare. Guilford Press, 1999.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Regan Books, 2006.

Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy. Jennifer L. Skeem, Devon L. L. Polaschek, Christopher Patrick and Scott O. Lilienfeld in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 12, No. 3, pages 95–162; December 2011.

Take part in the Great American Psychopath Survey and learn much more about psychopaths at Dutton's Web site: www.wisdomofpsychopaths.com

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