Book Reviews

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton

ISBN: 9780374291358
Publisher: Scientific American
Pages: 288

Psychopathy is characterized by fearlessness, ruthlessness and lack of empathy, all hidden behind a mask of superficial charm. Psychopaths cause a lot of harm. People that get in their way are ruthlessly exploited and left behind in the trails as the psychopath moves on. At the same time, given the long history of psychopathy it's reasonable to assume that its traits, at some points in our historic past, have given their carriers an evolutionary advantage.The irony is that today, in our frantic, high-paced modern society, psychopathic traits may be more of an advantage than ever. In this controversial book, Kevin Dutton gives his take on the subject in a witty, intelligent and genuinely fascinating form.

The general idea in The Wisdom of Psychopaths is that there are certain professions and situations where psychopaths excel. These are situations where traits such as fearlessness and lack of empathy actually benefit the society as large. With his talent for story telling, Kevin walks us through meetings with psychopathic neurosurgeons, soldiers in special forces and successful individuals from the world of finance. Kevin labels these individuals "functional psychopaths". His idea is that we could all benefit from adapting certain aspects of their behavior. We just have to be able to tune down when appropriate. In a way, it's all about context.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths is popular science and as such it's thin on backing empirical evidence for its main thesis. The book sure mentions plenty of experiments and studies, but these are more used to fuel the storytelling than to build a solid theory. Given the genre, I don't really see a problem with it. The book does get speculative at times, but it manages to convey the general ideas and keep the reader entertained in the process. Kevin spends the initial chapters building his hypothesis with ideas ranging from evolutionary psychology, game theory and findings from modern neuroimaging. The second part of the book, possibly the most interesting part, is more sensational in its style. Here Kevin puts himself head to head with nonetheless than Andy MacNab in a competition of coolness. Unsurprisingly, Kevin looses the first round. But in a rematch, Kevin undergoes a psychopath makeover by means of Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The results make for both an interesting read and deep philosophical reasonings about our sense of self and the idea of a free will. Finally, Kevin takes us on a visit to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital, to meet some non-functional psychopaths. The idea with the visit is to test the problem solving abilities of true psychopaths. To me this was one of the more surprising lessons in the book. I won't spoil that part for you, but it sure turned out surprising the kind of judgements you're able to make when you put emotions aside and focus intensely on the task at hand. Kevin's parallels to mindfulness and buddhism do seem relevant.

Finally some words on the controversy that this book has sparked. Kevin's view differs from the one I get by reading Robert Hare, the world renowned expert on psychopathology. Kevin presents psychopathy as an extension of "normal" human behavior, an exaggeration where certain behavioral traits are turned-up. I get the idea that Kevin proposes a model of human behavior as a continuum of traits. This model is in stark contrast with Hare. When reading Hare it's almost as if he considers psychopaths to be an entirely different, predator-like specie. In Hare's publications there's nothing desirable in psychopathy. There's nothing to gain, just a signature character we need to learn how to identify and unconditionally avoid lest we get ruthlessly consumed. It's not that Kevin takes an opposite view. The Wisdom of Psychopaths do mention all the trouble psychopaths bring to society and themselves. But those negative aspects of their personality are easily overlooked, buried beneath fascinating findings from labs and dramatic real-world experiences. I found The Wisdom of Psychopaths to be a genuinely fascinating read. And there's probably something to learn by observing people with a different mindset too, even when their moral compass is calibrated rather different than our own. For a balanced view on the subject, I do recommend one of Hare's books as reading companion. But Kevin Dutton's writings are sure more entertaining.

Reviewed August 2013