How the brain networks of psychopathic criminals functions differently

A strong focus on reward combined with a lack of self-control appears to be linked to the tendency to commit an offence. Brain scans show that this combination occurs in psychopathic criminals, say researchers from Nijmegen in an article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

any criminal offenders display psychopathic traits, such as antisocial and impulsive behaviour. And yet some individuals with psychopathic traits do not commit offences for which they are convicted. As with any other form of behaviour, psychopathic behaviour has a neurobiological basis.

Researchers from the Donders Institute and the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc wanted to find out whether the way a psychopath’s brain works is visibly different from that of a non-psychopath. And whether there are differences between the brains of criminal and non-criminal psychopaths.

Reward center more strongly activated

Dirk Geurts, researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Radboudumc: “We carried out tests on 14 convicted psychopathic individuals, and 20 non-criminal individuals, half of whom had a high score on the psychopathy scale. The participants performed tests while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner. We saw that the reward centre in the brains of people with many psychopathic traits (both criminal and non-criminal) were more strongly activated than those in people without psychopathic traits. It has already been proved that the brains of non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits are triggered by the expectation of reward. This research shows that this is also the case for criminal individuals with psychopathic traits.”

Little self-control and sensitivity to reward

Another interesting difference was discovered between non-criminal people with multiple psychopathic traits and criminal people with psychopathic traits.

Geurts: “There is a difference in the communication between the reward centre and an area in the middle of the forebrain. Good communication between these areas would appear to be a condition for self-control. Our results seem to indicate that the tendency to commit an offence arises from a combination of a strong focus on reward and a lack of self-control. This is the first research project in which convicted criminals were actually examined.”

Predictors of criminal behaviour

Psychopathy consists of several elements. On the one hand, there is a lack of empathy and emotional involvement. On the other hand, we see impulsive and seriously antisocial, egocentric behaviour.

Professor of Psychiatry and coordinator of the research Robbert-Jan Verkes: “Especially the latter character traits seem to be connected with an excessively sensitive reward centre. The presence of these impulsive and antisocial traits predict criminal behaviour more accurately than a lack of empathy. The next relevant question would be: what causes these brain abnormalities? It is probably partly hereditary, but abuse and severe stress during formative years also play a significant role. Follow-up studies will provide more information.

Brain scans in courtrooms?

So what do these findings mean for the free will? If the brain plays such an important role, to what extent can an individual be held responsible for his/her crimes? Will we be seeing brain scans in the courtroom?

Verkes: “For the time being, these findings are only important at group level as they concern variations within the range of normal results. Of course if we can refine these and other types of examinations, we may well see brain scans being used in forensic psychiatric examinations of diminished responsibility in the future.”

Medication for Parkinson’s disease shown to lower morality and increase willingness to harm others

Healthy people who are given commonly prescribed mood-altering drugs see significant changes in the degree to which they are willing to tolerate harm against themselves and others, according to a study published Thursday. The research has implications for understanding human morality and decision-making.

A team of scientists from the University College London (UCL) and Oxford University found that healthy people who were given the serotonin-boosting antidepressant citalopram were willing to pay twice as much to prevent harm to themselves or others, compared to those given a placebo. By contrast, those who were given a dose of the dopamine-enhancing Parkinson’s drug levodopa made more selfish decisions, overcoming an existing tendency to prefer harming themselves over others.

The researchers said their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, provided clues to the neurological and chemical roots of common clinical disorders like psychopathy, which causes people to disregard the emotions of others.

The researchers compared how much pain subjects were willing to anonymously inflict on themselves or other people in exchange for money. Out of 175 subjects, 89 were given citalopram or a placebo and 86 were given levodopa or a placebo.

They were anonymously paired up into decision-makers and receivers, and all subjects were given shocks at their pain threshold. The decision-makers were then allowed to choose a different amount of money in exchange for a different amount of shocks, either to themselves or the receivers.

On average, people who were given a placebo were willing to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 44p per shock to prevent harm to others. Those who were given citalopram became more averse to harm, paying an average of 60p to avoid harm to themselves and 73p per shock to avoid harm to others. This meant that citalopram users, on average, delivered 30 fewer shocks to themselves and 35 fewer shocks to others.

However, those who were given levodopa became more selfish, showing no difference in the amount they were willing to pay to prevent shocks to themselves or others. On average, they were willing to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves or others, meaning that they delivered on average about 10 more shocks to others during the trial than those who took a placebo. They also showed less hesitation about shocking others than those given the placebo.

Similar research conducted by the same team in November found that subjects were willing to spare the stranger pain twice as often as they spared themselves, indicating that they preferred harming themselves over others for profit, a behavior known as “hyper-altruism.”

“Our findings have implications for potential lines of treatment for antisocial behavior, as they help us to understand how serotonin and dopamine affect people’s willingness to harm others for personal gain,” Molly Crockett of UCL, the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “We have shown that commonly-prescribed psychiatric drugs influence moral decisions in healthy people, raising important ethical questions about the use of such drugs.

“It is important to stress, however, that these drugs may have different effects in psychiatric patients compared to healthy people. More research is needed to determine whether these drugs affect moral decisions in people who take them for medical reasons.”

LSD’s ability to make minds malleable revisited

Could taking LSD help people make peace with their neuroses?

Psychiatrists in the 1960s certainly thought so. They carried out many studies looking at the effect of LSD and other psychedelics on people undergoing psychotherapy for schizophrenia, OCD and alcoholism.

The idea was that the drug would mimic the effect of hypnotherapy, making people more suggestible and open to changing their thought patterns. The results were reportedly positive, but the experiments rarely included control groups and so don’t stand up to modern scrutiny.

The work ground to a halt when recreational use of LSD was banned in 1971 – even though using LSD for research purposes was exempt.

Several decades on and LSD research is less of a contentious issue. This has allowed a team of researchers to revisit LSD’s suggestive powers with more care.

A team at Imperial College London gave 10 healthy volunteers two injections a week apart, either a moderate dose of LSD or a placebo. The subjects acted as their own controls, and didn’t know which dose was which. Two hours after the injection, the volunteers lay down and listened to the researchers describe various scenarios often used in hypnotherapy. They were asked to “think along” with each one. These scenarios included tasting a delicious orange, re-experiencing a childhood memory, or relaxing on the shore of a lake.

“Sometimes the suggestions had a kind of irresistible quality” says team member Robin Carhart-Harris. “In a suggestion which describes heavy dictionaries in the palm of your hand, one of the volunteers said that even though they knew that I was offering a suggestion and it wasn’t real, their arm really ached, and only by letting their arm drop a little bit did the ache go away.”

Once all the scenarios had been read out, the participants had to rate the vividness of the mental experiences they triggered on a standard scale.

The volunteers rated their experiences after taking LSD as 20 per cent more vivid than when they had been injected with the placebo.

Treating neuroses with psychotherapy requires the therapist to be able to influence the patient’s way of viewing themselves and their obsession. Co-author David Nutt, also at Imperial College, says the work suggests that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy may provide a unique opportunity for the brain to enter the plastic, or malleable, state required for this to happen.

Peter Gasser, a psychiatrist working in Solothurn, Switzerland, who recently conducted the first clinical trial using LSD in over 40 years, commended the study and emphasized the importance of suggestibility for therapy. “The mind on LSD is easily able to make connections between ideas and thoughts,” he says.

Now that the team has verified the historical findings, the path is laid for them to explore the mechanisms underpinning LSD’s effect on consciousness, and the legitimacy of its use in psychotherapy.

Journal reference: Psychopharmacology, DOI: 10.1007/s00213-014-3714-z

Psychopaths: how can you spot one?

There are a few things we take for granted in social interactions with people. We presume that we see the world in roughly the same way, that we all know certain basic facts, that words mean the same things to you as they do to me. And we assume that we have pretty similar ideas of right and wrong.

But for a small – but not that small – subset of the population, things are very different. These people lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. These people are called psychopaths. Some of them are violent criminals, murderers. But by no means all.

Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist, and the creator of the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath. For decades, he has studied people with psychopathy, and worked with them, in prisons and elsewhere. “It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern,” he says.

Our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy, and it’s not so many decades since psychological disorders were seen as character failings. Slowly we are learning to think of mental illnesses as illnesses, like kidney disease or liver failure, and developmental disorders, such as autism, in a similar way. Psychopathy challenges this view. “A high-scoring psychopath views the world in a very different way,” says Hare. “It’s like colour-blind people trying to understand the colour red, but in this case ‘red’ is other people’s emotions.”

At heart, Hare’s test is simple: a list of 20 criteria, each given a score of 0 (if it doesn’t apply to the person), 1 (if it partially applies) or 2 (if it fully applies). The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour. A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy. Hare says: “A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: ‘Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.’ The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end.”

But is psychopathy a disorder – or a different way of being? Anyone reading the list above will spot a few criteria familiar from people they know. On average, someone with no criminal convictions scores 5. “It’s dimensional,” says Hare. “There are people who are part-way up the scale, high enough to warrant an assessment for psychopathy, but not high enough up to cause problems. Often they’re our friends, they’re fun to be around. They might take advantage of us now and then, but usually it’s subtle and they’re able to talk their way around it.” Like autism, a condition which we think of as a spectrum, “psycho­pathy”, the diagnosis, bleeds into normalcy.

We think of psychopaths as killers, criminals, outside society. People such as Joanna Dennehy, a 31-year-old British woman who killed three men in 2013 and who the year before had been diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder, or Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who is believed to have murdered at least 30 people and who said of himself: “I’m the most cold-blooded son of a bitch you’ll ever meet. I just liked to kill.” But many psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily disadvantages – and might, in certain circumstances, be an advantage. For their co-authored book, “Snakes in suits: When Psychopaths go to work”, Hare and another researcher, Paul Babiak, looked at 203 corporate professionals and found about four per cent scored sufficiently highly on the PCL-R to be evaluated for psychopathy. Hare says that this wasn’t a proper random sample (claims that “10 per cent of financial executives” are psychopaths are certainly false) but it’s easy to see how a lack of moral scruples and indifference to other people’s suffering could be beneficial if you want to get ahead in business.

“There are two kinds of empathy,” says James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to know what other people are feeling, and emotional empathy is the kind where you feel what they’re feeling.” Autistic people can be very empathetic – they feel other people’s pain – but are less able to recognise the cues we read easily, the smiles and frowns that tell us what someone is thinking. Psychopaths are often the opposite: they know what you’re feeling, but don’t feel it themselves. “This all gives certain psychopaths a great advantage, because they can understand what you’re thinking, it’s just that they don’t care, so they can use you against yourself.” (Chillingly, psychopaths are particularly adept at detecting vulnerability. A 2008 study that asked participants to remember virtual characters found that those who scored highly for psychopathy had a near perfect recognition for sad, unsuccessful females, but impaired memory for other characters.)

Fallon himself is a case in point. In 2005, he was looking at brain scans of psychopathic murderers, while on another study, of Alzheimer’s, he was using scans of his own family’s brains as controls. In the latter pile, he found something strange. “You can’t tell just from a brain scan whether someone’s a psychopath,” he says, “but you can make a good guess at the personality traits they’ll have.” He describes a great loop that starts in the front of the brain including the parahippocampal gyrus and the amygdala and other regions tied to emotion and impulse control and empathy. Under certain circumstances they would light up dramatically on a normal person’s MRI scan, but would be darker on a psychopath’s.

“I saw one that was extremely abnormal, and I thought this is someone who’s way off. It looked like the murderers I’d been looking at,” he says. He broke the anonymisation code in case it had been put into the wrong pile. When he did, he discovered it was his own brain. “I kind of blew it off,” he says. “But later, some psychiatrist friends of mine went through my behaviours, and they said, actually, you’re probably a borderline psychopath.”

Speaking to him is a strange experience; he barely draws breath in an hour, in which I ask perhaps three questions. He explains how he has frequently put his family in danger, exposing his brother to the deadly Marburg virus and taking his son trout-fishing in the African countryside knowing there were lions around. And in his youth, “if I was confronted by authority – if I stole a car, made pipe bombs, started fires – when we got caught by the police I showed no emotion, no anxiety”. Yet he is highly successful, driven to win. He tells me things most people would be uncomfortable saying: that his wife says she’s married to a “fun-loving, happy-go-lucky nice guy” on the one hand, and a “very dark character who she does not like” on the other. He’s pleasant, and funny, if self-absorbed, but I can’t help but think about the criteria in Hare’s PCL-R: superficial charm, lack of emotional depth, grandiose sense of self-worth. “I look like hell now, Tom,” he says – he’s 66 – “but growing up I was good-looking, six foot, 180lb, athletic, smart, funny, popular.” (Hare warns against non-professionals trying to diagnose people using his test, by the way.)

“Psychopaths do think they’re more rational than other people, that this isn’t a deficit,” says Hare. “I met one offender who was certainly a psychopath who said ‘My problem is that according to psychiatrists I think more with my head than my heart. What am I supposed to do about that? Am I supposed to get all teary-eyed?’ ” Another, asked if he had any regrets about stabbing a robbery victim, replied: “Get real! He spends a few months in hospital and I rot here. If I wanted to kill him I would have slit his throat. That’s the kind of guy I am; I gave him a break.”

And yet, as Hare points out, when you’re talking about people who aren’t criminals, who might be successful in life, it’s difficult to categorise it as a disorder. “It’d be pretty hard for me to go into high-level political or economic or academic context and pick out all the most successful people and say, ‘Look, I think you’ve got some brain deficit.’ One of my inmates said that his problem was that he’s a cat in a world of mice. If you compare the brainwave activity of a cat and a mouse, you’d find they were quite different.”

It would, says Hare, probably have been an evolutionarily successful strategy for many of our ancestors, and can be successful today; adept at manipulating people, a psychopath can enter a community, “like a church or a cultural organisation, saying, ‘I believe the same things you do’, but of course what we have is really a cat pretending to be a mouse, and suddenly all the money’s gone”. At this point he floats the name Bernie Madoff.

This brings up the issue of treatment. “Psychopathy is probably the most pleasant-feeling of all the mental disorders,” says the journalist Jon Ronson, whose book, The Psychopath Test, explored the concept of psychopathy and the mental health industry in general. “All of the things that keep you good, morally good, are painful things: guilt, remorse, empathy.” Fallon agrees: “Psychopaths can work very quickly, and can have an apparent IQ higher than it really is, because they’re not inhibited by moral concerns.”

So psychopaths often welcome their condition, and “treating” them becomes complicated. “How many psychopaths go to a psychiatrist for mental distress, unless they’re in prison? It doesn’t happen,” says Hare. The ones in prison, of course, are often required to go to “talk therapy, empathy training, or talk to the family of the victims” – but since psychopaths don’t have any empathy, it doesn’t work. “What you want to do is say, ‘Look, it’s in your own self-interest to change your behaviour, otherwise you’ll stay in prison for quite a while.’ ”

It seems Hare’s message has got through to the UK Department of Justice: in its guidelines for working with personality-disordered inmates, it advises that while “highly psychopathic individuals” are likely to be “highly treatment resistant”, the “interventions most likely to be effective are those which focus on ‘self-interest’ – what the offender wants out of life – and work with them to develop the skills to get those things in a pro-social rather than anti-social way.”

If someone’s brain lacks the moral niceties the rest of us take for granted, they obviously can’t do anything about that, any more than a colour-blind person can start seeing colour. So where does this leave the concept of moral responsibility? “The legal system traditionally asserts that all people standing in front of the judge’s bench are equal. That’s demonstrably false,” says the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He suggests that instead of thinking in terms of blameworthiness, the law should deal with the likelihood that someone will reoffend, and issue sentences accordingly, with rehabilitation for those likely to benefit and long sentences for those likely to be long-term dangers. The PCL-R is already used as part of algorithms which categorise people in terms of their recidivism risk. “Life insurance companies do exactly this sort of thing, in actuarial tables, where they ask: ‘What age do we think he’s going to die?’ No one’s pretending they know exactly when we’re going to die. But they can make rough guesses which make for an enormously more efficient system.”

What this doesn’t mean, he says, is a situation like the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which people who are likely to commit crimes are locked up before they actually do. “Here’s why,” he says. “It’s because many people in the population have high levels of psychopathy – about 1 per cent. But not all of them become criminals. In fact many of them, because of their glibness and charm and willingness to ride roughshod over the people in their way, become quite successful. They become CEOs, professional athletes, soldiers. These people are revered for their courage and their straight talk and their willingness to crush obstacles in their way. Merely having psychopathy doesn’t tell us that a person will go off and commit a crime.” It is central to the justice system, both in Britain and America, that you can’t pre-emptively punish someone. And that won’t ever change, says Eagleman, not just for moral, philosophical reasons, but for practical ones. The Minority Report scenario is a fantasy, because “it’s impossible to predict what somebody will do, even given their personality type and everything, because life is complicated and crime is conceptual. Once someone has committed a crime, once someone has stepped over a societal boundary, then there’s a lot more statistical power about what they’re likely to do in future. But until that’s happened, you can’t ever know.”

Speaking to all these experts, I notice they all talk about psychopaths as “them”, almost as a different species, although they make conscious efforts not to. There’s something uniquely troubling about a person who lacks emotion and empathy; it’s the stuff of changeling stories, the Midwich Cuckoos, Hannibal Lecter. “You know kids who use a magnifying glass to burn ants, thinking, this is interesting,” says Hare. “Translate that to an adult psychopath who treats a person that way. It is chilling.” At one stage Ronson suggests I speak to another well-known self-described psychopath, a woman, but I can’t bring myself to. I find the idea unsettling, as if he’d suggested I commune with the dead.

Thanks to Steven Weihing for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Wisdom from psychopaths?


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.

Ruthless People

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?”
Winning Smiles

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.

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.

“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.


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).

(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: