Science Talk

Psychopathy's Bright Side: Kevin Dutton on the Benefits of Being a Bit Psychopathic, Part 2

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 Dan Ariely’s “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves” 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  Steve Mirsky here.  Welcome back for part two of my conversation with Kevin Dutton, author of “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.”

I want to talk about this fascinating ability that you discuss in the book of people who score very high on the psychopath tests to determine just by looking at other people who is a good person to victimize.

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.  Well this all stemmed from a throwaway line by Ted Bundy.  Now Ted Bundy who we’re all very familiar with staved in the skulls of 35 women over a 4 year period during the mid-1970s in the US.  He, during an interview, confided to police that he could tell a good victim simply from the way she walked.  Now a team of Canadian researchers decided to take him at his word.  This was 20 years after he’d been executed.  I think it was in 2009 they conducted this study.  Bundy had once articulated that he was the coldest son of a bitch you’ll ever meet and no one could fault him there but was he this team of researchers wondered, also one of the shrewdest.  

So to find out they set up an ingenious experiment.  First they recruited 12 women, 6 of whom had suffered a previous traumatic attack and 6 of whom hadn’t.  Secondly they video-taped these women walking along a corridor.  Thirdly they then presented these twelve video tape segments to a bunch of students on the one hand and a bunch of psychopaths housed within the confines of a super max prison on the other hand and asked them quite simply to figure out who was who.  Which is the 12 women had been attacked and which hadn’t?  Now the rationale was simple.  If Bundy’s assertion held water and he really had been able to sniff out weakness from the way victims walked them the psychopaths should be better at decoding vulnerability than the students.  That it turned out was surprising, was precisely what the study uncovered.

 Now here’s the deal.  Studies like this, findings like these are actually no flash in the pan.  In fact that study I just told you is one in a growing number of studies that in recent years have actually started to show the psychopath up in a new more complex light, a light completely different from the lurid headline, the lurid shadows cast by newspaper headlines and Hollywood script writers, a kind of adaptive light.  

Now in the same year that that experiment was published I actually decided to perform my own take on it.  So if as those researchers had found psychopaths were better or are better at zoning in on vulnerability then there has to be applications.  There has to be ways in which rather than being a drain on society it actually can serve some benefit.  So enlightenment dawned when I was meeting a friend at the airport.  Now we all get a little bit paranoid going through customs, right but even when we’re perfectly innocent.  But imagine how it would feel if we did have something to hide.

So 30 undergraduate students took part in the experiment.  Half of them scored high in psychopathic characteristics as measured by a standardized psychometric test measuring psychopathic characteristics and half of them scored low.  There are also five associates or helpers and these were my evil co-conspirators in the plot.  Now the students’ job was easy.  They had to sit in a classroom and observe the associates movements as they entered through one door and exited through another and they traversed on route a small elevated stage but that wasn’t all.  There was also a little catch.  They also had to note who was guilty, which of the five associates was concealing a scarlet handkerchief.  

Now to raise the stakes and give them something to go on the associate in question was handed 100 pounds.  If the jury decided that they were the guilty party, if when the votes were counted they came out on top then they had to give that 100 pounds back but if they got away with it, if the finger of suspicion fell more heavily on one of the others then they would in contrast stand to be rewarded.  They’d get to keep the 100 pounds.  Now as you can imagine the nerves were jangling when they made their entrance but the question was which of the students would make the better customs officials.  Would the psychopaths predatory instincts prove reliable or would their nose for vulnerability let them down?

Well the results were extraordinary.  Over 70 percents of the students scoring high in psychopathic characteristics correctly identified the handkerchief smuggling associate compared to just around 30 percent of the low scorers.  So the bottom line folks is zeroing in on weakness might well be part of the serial killers tool kit but it might also come in handy at the airport.  We might need to think about having customs officials who are a little bit higher on that psychopathic spectrum than they might otherwise be.

Steve Mirsky:            What are they picking up on?

Kevin Dutton:            We don’t know.  I don’t know.  I did ask people what they were looking at.  We don’t actually know really what they’re picking up on.  It’s like the are - I mean psychopaths are predators.  They are social predators so it’s likely that they’re picking up on subtle aspects of body language.  I’m intending to run a study now where we look at eye-tracking movements and we actually track through a specialized equipment where precisely people are looking so that’s a follow up study which I’m going to conduct sometime next year but at the moment we don’t really know.  We don’t really know but they’re definitely picking up on something.

Steve Mirsky:            And they themselves might not know consciously what they’re looking at.  They just have a feeling based on some input of the data that number three is the one with the handkerchief.

Kevin Dutton:            That’s exactly right.  I mean I did ask “Why?  What are you actually looking at?” and they didn’t know.  And it’s like any expert.  If you ask any expert at anything precisely like an expert chess grandmaster or an expert golfer precisely how - what kinds of strategy are you using?  Often experts just can’t put it onto words.  It’s kind of an intuitive thing.  But the only way we can do that - like you rightly said, they don’t know themselves but one way of looking at it is to use eye tracking equipment and to see precisely what they’re looking at when they’re presented with these images and these moving figures.

Steve Mirsky:            You talk in the book about one of the reasons you’re so interested in this subject is your own father you realized was a psychopath as was a very close friend of yours when you were a boy.

Kevin Dutton:            That’s right.  Well I mean it’s crazy to look back on it and say that my own father was a nail down psychopath but he was.  There’s absolutely no question.  I mean he wasn’t violent.  He was a market trader.  He worked in selling all sorts of things, not in a stock market thank God but -

Steve Mirsky:            Because that’s where the real psychopaths are.

Kevin Dutton:            That’s right.  But he worked in a London street market where he was selling all kinds of goods and he was - as I say he wasn’t violent but he was very charming.  He was - he was certainly ruthless, he was fearless.  He was a brilliant sales person.  I mean this guy - he really could sell anything to anybody and some of the stunts he used to get up to were incredible.  I’ll give you an example.  I mean I remember one time when I must have been about nine or ten.  We were having dinner in an Indian restaurant in London and at the end of the dinner as he was paying the bill my dad suddenly tinkled a spoon against a glass and stood up and started to make an impromptu speech.  

The whole restaurant went quiet and he said, “I’d just like to thank everyone from coming.  I know that some of you didn’t come from just around the corner and I know that some of you have come from a little bit further afield but you’re all equally welcome.  Oh and there’s a little drinks reception across the road in the King’s Arm Pub and you’re most welcome.  It would be great to see you over there” and with that he started to clap as indeed the entire restaurant so we’ve now got an entire restaurant of strangers who’ve never seen each other before, who’ve never seen us before all applauding wildly because they of course didn’t want to be seen as the gate crashers to the party so I remember as we were going out the door and I remember saying to my dad and I’m only about nine or ten and I said, “Dad we’re not really going to the pub are we?” and he said, “No of course we’re not son but that lot are and my mate Malcolm has just taken over as landlord. He’ll make a few quid tonight” and that was it.  We just disappeared.  Now if you imagine the kind of the balls that you need to get up and do something like that.  I could pay you $1000.00 and you wouldn’t get up and do that but this is something which he would just do without turning a head.  The man was utterly shameless, utterly fearless.

Steve Mirsky:            And your friend, your little friend on New Year’s Eve.

Kevin Dutton:            Oh that’s right.  My friend on New Year’s Eve.  I’d been friends with this guy ever since high school.  He ended up getting - ever since junior school in fact.  He ended up getting a job with the British secret service and he was one of the most persuasive guys that I ever met and he was just a natural born persuader.  He was a natural manipulator and when I was - one year he stayed over at my house for New Year’s eve and it got to about ten o’clock or so and my mom said “It’s time to go to bed” and we didn’t want to go to bed and I put up a bit of fight and came up with all kinds of excuses why we should stay up like New Year comes round only once a year which is a pretty original kind of argument.  Didn’t work.  And anyway just as we thought the game was up, my friend - couldn’t have been more than eight or nine said “Well Mrs. Dutton you don’t want us running around at the crack of dawn while you’re laying in bed with a headache do you?”  Instantly that was it.  It worked.  He had even at that young age he had an innate sense of playing on other people’s self interest rather than his own, exactly the same kinds of talent that top politicians use and I think we were the last in bed that night actually.  I think we turned the lights off in fact.

Steve Mirsky:            In the book you say you stayed up till three in the morning.

Kevin Dutton:            Yeah.  It would have been something like that.  Yeah, it would have been very late.

Steve Mirsky:            One last thing.  Why is this predominantly something we see in men rather than women?

Kevin Dutton:            There’s a number of reasons for that.  We don’t really know but we can speculate.  One of the reasons might be that there are different parental socialization processes when you bring up boys and girls.  Boys tend to be brought up the kind of aggression stereotype.  Aggression is more tolerated in boys than it is in girls and as I say socialization parental practices might bring that out, might nurture that more in boys than in girls.  Also -

Steve Mirsky:            They’re also taught to tamp down their emotional states.

Kevin Dutton:            Exactly right but also girls tend to develop socio-emotional and linguistic skills at an earlier stage than boys.  This is quite a well known finding which might give them a better kind of behavior inhibition strategy earlier on so that’s the developmental theory behind it.  There’s also a neurological theory why  psychopathy might be more prevalent in the male community than the female community.  When females, when women are presented with negative aversive stimuli they tend to show behavioral withdrawal.  Things such as characteristics such as anxiety.  Whereas where males are confronted with negative aversive stimuli they tend to show evidence of behavioral activation, angry, anger and aggression so there’s a kind of a dichotomy there between males and females.

There might also be a sociological reason.  There might also be a reticence for women for females to report accurately on questionnaires anti-social feelings, anti-social tendencies and there might be a bias in clinicians to interpret female behavior as anti-social rather than say histrionic so it’s more likely than not a confluence of all three.  It’s more likely than not a confluence of the sociological, the developmental and the hardwired neuropsychological but it’s probably a combination of all three but the statistics definitely stand up.  I mean roughly about one to two percent of men are psychopathic.  Probably about half to three quarters of a percent of the female population.

Steve Mirsky:            And you undoubtedly have taken the various tests for psychopathy and how do you score?

Kevin Dutton:            I have some of the dials turned up pretty high.  I’m pretty fearless.  Not much scares me.  I’m pretty physically fearless, pretty socially fearless.  I don’t really get anxious that much.  I’m pretty mentally tough.  I’m very focused.  What lets me down is the conscience.  I - things play on my conscience and I think that’s where I thank my mother for that actually.  I think if I just had my dad’s genes I might not be sitting here right now but it’s lucky - genes aren’t everything of course but yeah, I’ve got some of those dials turned up high but I’m kind of let down by my conscience a little bit.

Steve Mirsky:            Well as you and I are sitting here in a small room together I’m glad that your conscience is keeping you from killing me.

Kevin Dutton:            Well I wouldn’t kill you until after the interview comes out and that’s my self interest but if you don’t do a good job you better watch your back mate.

Steve Mirsky:            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  In the next episode coming up soon Dutton talks to Dexter actor Michael C Hall.  In the meantime get your science news at our website www.Scientific where you can find Citizen Science which describes big research efforts that need the eyes, ears and computers of interested people like you and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get a Tweet whenever a new article hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @sciam.  For Scientific American Science Talk I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

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