Science Talk

Psychopathy's Bright Side: Kevin Dutton on the Benefits of Being a Bit Psychopathic, Part 1

Kevin Dutton is a psychologist at the University of Oxford. He talks about his latest book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:            This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by, your source for audio books and more. features more than 100,000 titles including science books you’ve been meaning to check out like Kevin Dutton’s, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers can Teach Us About Success” and Richard Panek’s “The Four Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.”  Right now is offering a free audio book and a one month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details go to

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk” posted on December 28th, 2012.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  On this episode -

Kevin Dutton:            When we talk about a psychopath we’re talking about someone with a distinct set of personality characteristics and that can predispose you to great success in certain fields or professions.

Steve Mirsky:            That’s Kevin Dutton.  He’s a psychologist at the Calaveras Research Center for Evolution and Human Science at the University of Oxford and his latest book is “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers can Teach Us About Success.”  What’s coming up next is part one of a multi-part psychopathic extravaganza.  The first two parts are me talking with Dutton who recently dropped by the Scientific American offices and then we’ll hear a conversation between Dutton and everyone’s favorite psychopath, Dexter.  Actor Michael C. Hall was interrogated by Dutton in October in the Rueben Museum of Art here in New York City and the museum kindly shared the audio of that discussion with us.  Here’s part one.

                                    Can we define some terms to start out?  The word psychopath gets used a lot in the popular culture but what do we actually mean clinically?

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.  It’s true, isn’t it?  No sooner is the word psychopath out than images of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy come creeping across our minds but actually when psychologists talk about psychopaths we’re talking about someone with a distinct set of personality characteristics.  These characteristics are ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, manipulation ability, persuasiveness and of course lack of empathy and conscience.  

Now notice I didn’t say violence there and I didn’t say intelligence.  Now those kinds of variables, violence and intelligence aren’t necessarily linked with psychopathy at all so a lot of people think that if you’re violent that qualifies you to be a psychopath.  Actually a heck of a lot of psychopaths aren’t violent at all.  Now if you’ve got those kinds of characteristics that I just mentioned there and you are also violent and you are also not very intelligent then to be perfectly frank your prospects aren’t going to be that good.  You’re going to end up putting a bottle over someone’s head in a bar and you’re going to get banged up in prison for 30 years.  But if you’ve got the psychopathic characteristics and you are not naturally violent and you are also very intelligent.  You go to a good school and you get a good education then you’re more likely as the famous headline once put it to make a killing in the market rather than anywhere else.

So when we talk about a psychopath we’re talking about someone with a distinct set of personality characteristics in their personality cupboard and that can predispose you to great success in certain fields or professions, depending also on natural aggression levels and also intelligence levels.

Steve Mirsky:            And a prime example, I mean here in the United States we’re seeing some traits of psychopathy on our TV sets daily.  I mean a lot of these very successful politicians clearly have some of the constellation of traits that you would associate with psychopathy.

Kevin Dutton:            A famous British politician, quite a well known one who should obviously remain nameless for the sake of this interview summed it up really really succinctly to me when I was writing, doing my research on psychopaths.  He said, “The only way you can tell who’s stabbing you from behind, stabbing you in the back, is to see his reflection from the eyes of the person stabbing you from the front.”  And that basically sums up what UK politics is all about.  I don’t know what US politics is like but I’ve kind of got a brief impression from watching a little bit on the telly.

But those kinds of traits, the kinds of things that politicians have to do when they’re in office - I mean they have to face crisis, everything from threats from rogue dictators, rogue states to natural disasters like hurricanes and floods.  You’ve got to be pretty mentally tough.  If you’re knocked back by the simplest little thing you’re not going to make a very good head of state or a very good leader or indeed a very good politician even on a lower level.  You’ve got to be very confident in order to be able to run for office in the first place.  You’ve got to be very good at self-presentation skills.  You’ve got to be able to give the impression that you are listening to other people, that it really means something to you even when perhaps you’re working more from a self-interest point of view than anything else.

 I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The most successful politician is the person who says most loudly and most often what’s in the other’s person’s, what’s in the everyday person’s mind.”  I think actually that kind of ability to present yourself to be confident, to be mentally tough, to be not be knocked back too much by setbacks.  I think it’s very important in politics so it’s not surprising that psychopathic characteristics do show up to quite a large extent in the political sphere.

Steve Mirsky:            I mean just the willingness to send other people into battle requires a kind of cold, calculating ruthlessness that I don’t think most people have.

Kevin Dutton:            Absolutely and you’ve got to be able to distance yourself from that, to actually be able to send people into battle with the distinct possibility that they’re going to die and they’re not going to come back to see their families again and knowing that you are responsible for that.  I mean if you were in any way, if you had too much empathy, if you had too much compassion for other people then that obviously would play on your mind to such an extent that you couldn’t do that so you need to be able to compartmentalize.  You need to be able to do the job to kind of decouple those more compassionate emotions from your decision making and that’s very important in politics.

I think what one of the interesting things, one of the things that separates out functional or successful psychopaths from the unsuccessful psychopaths or criminal psychopaths should we say is impulsivity.  Now politicians also have the ability to delay gratification, to put off reward, to focus on the long term plan, especially when the whole election campaign here last here for over years.  Sometimes I think it’s nearly two years isn’t it from the word go?  So the ability to be able to delay gratification and to focus on long-term rewards is something that very good politicians do have and in the kinds of research that I do we’ve looked at what separates out functional and successful psychopaths and actually it’s that impulsivity dial on the mixing desk.  If you look at psychopathic characteristics as being the dials on a studio mixing desk which can all be turned up and down in various combinations so ruthlessness, fearlessness and all those kinds of characteristics I was telling you about.

Steve Mirsky:            As if they were bass, treble and those kinds of features on a graphic equalizer.

Kevin Dutton:            Absolutely right.  So if you crank all of those up to max then you’re going to overload the circuit, ok?  You’re going to wind up getting 30 years inside but if you turn some of them up high and some of them down low depending on the circumstances then you become as it were what I call a method psychopath, like a method actor, and you are predisposed to success in various fields of endeavor, various professions.  Now the one crucial dial on that mixing desk, on that graphic equalizer is impulsivity.

Now there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that if you have that impulsivity dial cranked up high, not necessarily on max but cranked up high, then that’s one of the things that tips you over the order between successful and unsuccessful.  If you have that impulsivity dial turned down low and you’ve got the other dials turned up high then you’re more likely to be successful with a psychopathic personality.  Impulsivity makes a hell of a difference and coming back to the politicians, politicians who are able to keep that impulsivity dial turned down low to focus on the long game rather than the short game, the immediate self interest, those are the guys that actually do make quite good politicians.

Steve Mirsky:            As opposed to not necessarily great leaders but good politicians.

Kevin Dutton:            That’s right.  I think, I mean again these psychopathic traits can predispose to great leadership.  I’ll tell you one example from the UK, Winston Churchill.  Now Winston Churchill is quite high on what I call the psychopathic spectrum.  I think one of the key things here that we need to flag up right from the beginning is the fact that being a psychopath is not a black or white matter.  It’s not an all or nothing affair.

Steve Mirsky:            In fact let’s read - you have a quote from Churchill at the beginning of one of your chapters.  Let me find that.  The Winston Churchill quote.  It’s right at the beginning of Chapter 1.  Although your preface is - I know a lot of people skip prefaces.  You shouldn’t skip the preface in this book.  “Great and good are seldom the same man” is what Winston Churchill said so he was clearly willing to not be good in order to be great in his own mind.

Kevin Dutton:            Oh absolutely.  I mean one of the things, one of the reason why I wrote the book is to debunk the myth that psychopathy is an all or nothing affair, it’s either black or white.  Now psychopathy like any other personality characteristic or set of characteristics is on a dimension and we are all at some point along that dimension so another way of looking at it is to think of psychopathy as being like the zones on a shooting target.  Ok?  So some of us - we all land somewhere on that shooting target but only a tiny minority fall within the bull’s eye.  Just to say there’s no official dividing line between someone who plays a piano and a concert pianist for instance or between someone who plays tennis and a __ or a Roger Federer.  So the front here between a kind of so called world class psychopath and someone who merely psychopathizes is similarly blurred.  

Now I think if you are too far along the psychopathic spectrum, if you are right up there in the red zone, then you’re not going to be a good leader at all but if you are quite far along on the psychopathic spectrum in certain situations like for instance in a war situation for instance and Churchill of course presided over the British troops during the second World War, you can actually have quite an effect.  You can be a great charismatic motivator.  In the heat of battles sometimes you do have to be fearless, you do have to be ruthless, so leaders that are quite high on the psychopathic spectrum are better in those kinds of conditions.

It’s interesting actually talking about leaders and war situations.  The origin of the word berserk incidentally comes from the Vikings and the Vikings had a group of elite soldiers.  I suppose you could call them the special forces of the Viking world, called the berserkers and the berserkers fought in a trance-like fury and were no doubt responsible for the Vikings fierce reputation as Norse warriors.  The problem with the berserkers was what you did with them in peacetime because during times of war they were absolutely the difference between the Viking armies and surrounding armies but they turned against their own people in peacetime.  They couldn’t assuage that bloodlust that they had and so that was the tax that you had to pay on them for being such great fighters in wartime.

Steve Mirsky:            Clearly you can train somebody so that you adjust the dials on the equalizer.  I mean that’s, in many ways that’s what boot camp in the military is all about, to enable people to either get in touch with certain of these tendencies like being cold-blooded or being ruthless to get in touch with them to become used to them so what can people who read the book, what can they take away that they can apply in their own lives to access some of these traits that might be beneficial without becoming Ted Bundy?

Kevin Dutton:            Well psychopaths in everyday life, if I’m talking about what kinds of characteristics, what kind of psychopathic characteristics serve people well in everyday life, well psychopaths are assertive.  Psychopaths don’t procrastinate.  Psychopaths focus on the positives.  Psychopaths don’t take things personally.  They don’t beat themselves up when things go wrong and they’re very cool under pressure.  

So let me give you a couple of examples perhaps of how you might be able to use those traits in everyday situations.  Let’s say you’re at work and you want to put in for a raise.  Now a lot of people are frightened of putting in for a raise because they’re frightened of what happens when they don’t get it.  They’re frightened of what their boss might think of them.  They’re frightened of what their fellow employees might think of them and they get embarrassed.  Well the answer to that is if you really want to get that raise psychopath up.  Focus on the positives.  Don’t focus on the negatives.  Just think about the benefits of getting it and of course that makes you more confident and it actually makes you more likely to get that raise in the first place.

Another one, the Nike slogan "Just do it.”  That’s a very psychopathic slogan.  Psychopaths do not procrastinate.  They do not sit there thinking about “what might go wrong here, well I don’t really know if I should do this or not.”  Next time you’re putting off - I don’t know, a boring task like filing that report for instance, just stop and ask yourself a question.  “Since when did I need to feel like doing something in order to do it?”  So just do it.  A psychopath wouldn’t sit there procrastinating.  Psychopaths are very energetic.  They’re very positive.  They would just do it anyway.

So there’s a couple of examples of how you can utilize or harness a psychopathic mindset within everyday life.  I’m actually bringing out a paper very shortly called “The Psychopath Manifesto” in which there are ten commandments of psychopathy which every day people can use in their lives to make themselves a little bit more successful.

Steve Mirsky:            There’s some material in the book that’s really fascinating about the physiological state of a psychopath versus a non-psychopath in pressure situations.

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.  There’s - psychopaths we know that one of the reason why they’re extremely cool under pressure, why they’re emotionally detached is because their brains are wired up in a different way to the rest of ours, especially the emotional control center of the brain which is a little structure about the size of your thumbnail called the amygdala which is located right in the center of your brain.  

Now let me give you a little example here.  I’ll give you a little dilemma which can really tease apart the way that the psychopath thinks compared to the rest of us.  Imagine that you’ve got a train and it’s hurdling down a track.  Now in its path five people are trapped on the line who cannot escape but fortunately you can flip a switch which diverts the train down a fork in the track but at a price, away from those five people but at a price.  There is another person trapped down that line and the train will kill them instead.  Should you flip the switch?  Now most people have little trouble deciding what to do under those circumstances.  The thought of flicking the switch isn’t exactly a nice one.  The utilitarian choice killing just the one person instead of the five represents the least worst option.

But now let’s have a little variation on that.  Let’s call this case two.  Just like before you’ve got a train speeding out of control down a track towards five people but this time you are standing behind a very large stranger on a footbridge above that track.  The only way to save the people is to heave that stranger over.  He will fall to a certain death but his considerable bulk will block the train saving the five people.  Should you flick the switch?  Now what we’ve got here you might say is a real dilemma on our hands.  Just like before the score in lives is exactly the same, five to one but one’s choice of action appears far trickier.  

Now why should that be?  Well the reason is turns out all boils down to temperature.  Case one represents what we might call an impersonal dilemma.  It involves those areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, the posterior parietal cortex in particular, the anterior paracingulate cortex, the temporal pole and the superior temporal sulcus, a bit of neuro-anatomy for you there.

Steve Mirsky:            And you know this because you’ve done brain scans of people as they’re being confronted with this question.

Kevin Dutton:            That’s exactly right which we’ll come onto in a minute.  Now those centers are primarily responsible for what we call cold empathy, for reasoning and rational thought.  Case two represents what we might call a personal moral dilemma.  Now that involves the emotion center of the brain, the amygdala I was telling you about just a few moments ago, the circuitry of what we call hot empathy, the feeling of feeling what another person is feeling.  Now psychopaths just like most normal members of the population have no trouble at all with case one.  They flip the switch and the train divers accordingly, killing just the one person instead of the five but - and here’s where the plot thickens, quite unlike normal members of the population psychopaths also experience little difficulty with case two.  Psychopaths without a moment’s hesitation are perfectly happy to chuck the fat guy over the rails if that’s what the doctor orders.  

Moreover this difference in behavior has a distinct neural signature.  The pattern of brain activation in normal people and psychopaths is precisely the same on the presentation of the impersonal moral dilemma but radically different when things start to get a bit more personal.  Now imagine if I were to hook you up to a brain scanner, functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and were to then present you with the two dilemmas.  What would I observe as you went about trying to solve them?  Well at the precise moment that the nature of the dilemma switches from impersonal to personal I would see the emotion center of your brain and related circuits, the immediate orbital front cortex for example light up like a pinball machine but in psychopaths I would see nothing.  The passage from impersonal to personal would slip by unnoticed.  There is no one at home.  There is a neural curfew in those emotion neighborhoods in the brain surrounding the amygdala.

Steve Mirsky:            How do we know that such theoretical, hypothetical situations really translate into the real world though?  If these same people who are being studied in the brain scan situation were really faced with a question like that do we know that what we’ve learned in the clinic is actually going to be the same thing that we see in real life?

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.  I think when we look in terms of - it’s a good question.  I think when we look in terms of things that we find in the brain and when we give people lab tests I mean we have to have faith that actually the same kind of brain states would actually translate into everyday life.  We have no absolute proof of course because FMRI machines of course are very big bulky pieces of equipment and we can’t wheel them around to scenes of impending disaster.

It’s very interesting actually, slightly off topic but to answer that question, one psychopath who I interviewed posed a very very interesting dilemma and I did say that psychopaths were manipulative and this guy said, “imagine if you’ve got a deaf person and you’ve got a child in a burning building and you’ve got that child screaming out but the deaf person can’t hear the screams.  You wouldn’t necessarily blame, you wouldn’t hold that deaf person culpable for that child’s deaf if the child died.”  He said, “By the same token if you are emotionally deaf, if you can physically hear the screams but emotionally you just don’t have that kind of neural kick up the back side to go in and save that child isn’t that the same thing?” and when you start thinking about that there’s whole kind of moral conundrum that starts coming out of that because damage to the ear is damage to a physical structure.  Damage to the brain is also damage to a physical structure so both have impacts on the behavior that the person conducts but obviously with different ramifications.

Steve Mirsky:            Yeah.  You’ve opened up the gigantic can of worms that’s going to be confronting legal proceedings in coming years as brain scans become more and more present in courtrooms.  The whole question of culpability and intent is really going to get even hairier than it is now.

Kevin Dutton:            Well there’s a whole new sub-discipline which is beginning to emerge as a result of the courts taking more interest in the findings of cognitive neuroscience and it’s called neuro-law and it’s a real cross section between neuroscience and forensic science.  Now the test case occurred a few years ago.  I think it was in Utah with a guy called Bradley Waldrop who committed an atrocious murder.  He killed his wife’s friend and also attempted to kill his wife but she survived and in Utah you have the death penalty so this becomes a matter of quite grave importance now.

Now Waldrop was indicted obviously on a count of murder and attempted murder and his defense attorney put him on the stand and asked him whether he had a particular variation of a gene, a MAOI inhibitor gene, which the media now term the warrior gene which short versions of this genetic polymorphism actually make you quite, give you quite a high probability of turning into a violent criminal but only if you are abused or suffer a violent childhood.  Long versions of the gene protect you against becoming a violent criminal even when you are subjected to abuse as a child.

So anyway Bradley Waldrop’s standing there in the courtroom and his defense attorney says, “do you have the short version of the MAOI inhibitor gene?”  “Yes, I do” replied Waldrop.  Obviously the defense attorney had obviously done the test before hand.  He then asked Waldrop whether he had been abused as a child.  The answer was yes.  So the argument then became “Well my client has the genetic polymorphism responsible for turning him into a violent criminal if he’s abused as a child.  He was abused as a child.  Therefore isn’t his free will eroded relative to people that don’t have that gene and weren’t abused as a child?”  Well the argument was enough to commute a death sentence to a life sentence and the basic argument in a nutshell is if you’re not free to choose your genes and you’re not free to choose your environment are we free to choose at all?  Now I predict a raft of cases just like this one now beginning to emerge as a result of this emerging sub-discipline of neuro-law.  It should be very interesting to see how the courts decide and how they rule on these kinds of situations.

Steve Mirsky:            That’s it for part one.  Kevin Dutton’s book is called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers can Teach Us About Success.”  You can get it as your free audio book by taking advantage of the offer at  We’ll be right back with part two.

[End of Audio]

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