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.
We emerge from the mazy, medicinal bowels of the hospital to the right of a large, open-air enclosure, topped off with some distinctly uncooperative razor wire. “Er … I am going to be all right, aren’t I?” I squeak.
My guide grins. “You’ll be fine,” he says. “Actually trouble on the DSPD wards is relatively rare. Psychopathic violence is predominantly instrumental, a direct means to a specific end. Which means, in an environment like this, that it’s largely preventable. And in the event that something does kick off, easily contained.
“Besides,” he adds, “it’s a bit late to turn back now, isn’t it?”
Getting to Know the Locals
We enter one of Broadmoor’s ultrasequestered DSPD wards. My first impression is of an extremely well appointed student residence hall. All blond, clean-shaven wood. Voluminous, freshly squeezed light. There’s even a pool table, I notice. A man named Danny shoots me a glance from behind his Nintendo Wii. Chelsea are 2–0 up against Manchester United. “We are the evil elite,” Danny says. “Don’t glamorize us. But at the same time, don’t go the other way and start dehumanizing us, either.”
Larry, a gray, bewhiskered, roly-poly kind of guy, takes a shine to me. Dressed in a Fair Isle sweater and beige, elasticized slacks, he looks like everyone’s favorite uncle. “You know,” he says, as he shakes my hand, “they say I’m one of the most dangerous men in Broadmoor. Can you believe that? But I promise you, I won’t kill you. Here, let me show you around.”
Larry escorts me to the far end of the ward, where we stop to take a peek inside his room. It looks like a typical single-occupancy hospital room, though with a few more creature comforts such as a computer, desk space, and a raft of books and papers on the bed. Next is the garden: a sunken, gray-bricked patio affair, about the size of a tennis court, interspersed with benches and conifers. We then drop in on Jamie.
“This guy’s from Cambridge University,” announces Larry, “and he’s in the middle of writing a book on us.”
Jamie stands up and heads us off at the door. A monster of a man at around 6′2″, with char-grilled stubble and a piercing cobalt stare, he has the brooding, subsatanic presence of the lone, ultraviolent killer. The lumberjack shirt and shaven, wrecking-ball head don’t exactly help matters.
“So what’s this book about, then?” he growls, in a gangsterish Cockney whisper, arms folded in front of him, left fist jammed under his chin. “Same old bollocks, I suppose? Lock ’em up and throw away the key? You know, you’ve got no idea how vindictive that can sound at times. And, might I add, downright hurtful. Has he, Larry?”
Larry guffaws theatrically and clasps his hands to his heart in a Shakespearean display of angst. Jamie, meanwhile, dabs at imaginary tears.
“I happen to think that you guys have got something to teach us,” I say. “A certain personality style that the rest of us can learn from. In moderation, of course. That’s important. Like the way, just now, you shrugged off what people might think of you. In everyday life, there’s a level on which that’s actually quite healthy.”
Jamie seems quite amused by the idea that I might be soliciting his advice. “Are you saying that me and Larry here have just got too much of a good thing?”
Back at other end of the ward, Danny has just been named Man of the Match. “I see he hasn’t killed you, then,” he says casually. “You going soft in your old age, Larry?”
I laugh. More than a little nervously, I realize. But Larry is deadly serious.
“Hey,” he says insistently. “You don’t get it, do you, boy?” He looks at me. “I said I wouldn’t kill you. And I didn’t, right?”
And it hits me that Larry may not have been bluffing. The curtain comes down on the football game. Danny zaps it off. He leans back in his chair.
“So a book, eh?” he says.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m interested in the way you guys solve problems.”
Danny eyes me quizzically. “What kind of problems?” he asks.
“Everyday problems,” I say, and I tell him about some friends of mine who were trying to sell their house.
How to get rid of an unwanted tenant? That was the question for Don and his wife, Fran, whose elderly mother, Flo, had just moved in with them. Flo had lived in her previous house for 47 years, and now that she no longer needed it, Don and Fran had put it on the market. Being in an up-and-coming area of London, the house had drawn quite a bit of interest. But there was also a problem. The tenant. Who wasn’t exactly ecstatic at the prospect of hitting the road.
Don and Fran had already lost out on one potential sale because he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pack his bags. But how to get him out?
“I’m presuming we’re not talking violence here,” inquires Danny. “Right?”
“Right,” I say. “We wouldn’t want to end up inside now, would we?”
Danny gives me the finger. But the very fact that he asks such a question at all debunks the myth that violence, for psychopaths, is the only club in the bag.
“How about this, then?” rumbles Jamie. “With the old girl up at her in-laws, chances are the geezer’s going to be alone in the house, yeah? So you pose as some bloke from the council, turn up at the door and ask to speak to the owner. He answers and tells you the old dear ain’t in. Okay, you say. Not a problem. But have you got a forwarding contact number for her, cuz you need to speak to her urgently?
“By this stage he’s getting kind of curious. What’s up? he asks, a bit wary, like. Actually, you say, quite a lot. You’ve just been out front and taken a routine asbestos reading. And guess what? The level’s so high it makes Chernobyl look like a health spa. The owner of the property needs to be contacted immediately. A structural survey has to be carried out. And anyone currently living at the address needs to vacate the premises until the council can give the all clear.
“That should do the trick. With a bit of luck, before you can say ‘slow, tortuous death from lung cancer,’ the wanker will be straight out the door.”
Jamie’s elegant, if rather unorthodox, solution to Don and Fran’s stay-at-home tenant conundrum certainly had me beat. The idea of getting the guy out so sharpish as to render him homeless and on the streets just simply hadn’t occurred to me. And yet, as Jamie quite rightly pointed out, there are times in life when it’s a case of the “least worst option.” Interestingly, he argues that it’s actually the right thing to do.
“Why not turf the bastard out?” he asks. “I mean, think about it. You talk about ‘doing the right thing.’ But what’s worse, from a moral perspective? Beating someone up who deserves it? Or beating yourself up who doesn’t? If you’re a boxer, you do everything in your power to put the other guy away as soon as possible, right? So why are people prepared to tolerate ruthlessness in sport but not in everyday life? What’s the difference?”
Jamie’s solution to Don and Fran’s tenant problem carries undertones of ruthlessness. Yet as Danny’s initial qualification of the dilemma quite clearly demonstrates—“I’m presuming we’re not talking violence here, right?”—such ruthlessness need not be conspicuous. The dagger of hard-nosed self-interest may be concealed, rather deftly, under a benevolent cloak of opaque, obfuscatory charm.
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.
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.
“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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
KEVIN DUTTON is a research psychologist at the Calleva Research Center for Evolution and Human Sciences at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He is author of Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
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: http://www.wisdomofpsychopaths.com