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“Dexter” and British Psychologist Ask: Who Wants to Be a Psychopath?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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How’s this for a confluence of cultural currents? A British scientist chats about psychopaths with an American actor who plays a psychopathic serial killer on TV in front of an audience at a museum loaded with Buddhist art. A cocktail of science, show biz, art, religion, stirred by a provocative question: Would we be better off as psychopaths?

The researcher was Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at the University of Oxford (and friend since we met at a wacky science-religion powwow funded by the Templeton Foundation in Cambridge in 2005). Dutton’s new book is The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success (Scientific American/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), which is as funny and fascinating as the title suggests.

The actor was Michael Hall, star of “Dexter,” a hit show about a serial killer who kills serial killers. My two teenage kids and many of my students at Stevens Institute love “Dexter,” as do I. Dutton, who is in the U.S. promoting his book, spoke to Hall on Wednesday at the Rubin Museum of Art, which bills itself as “the premier museum of Himalayan art in the Western world” and hosts events on “the interplay of art, meditation, space and the brain.”

In his remarks as in his book, Dutton held that being a psychopath—someone who lacks the empathy, compassion and conscience that bog down us ordinary folk–ain’t so bad. Dumb, extremely impulsive psychopaths often end up dead or in prison, Dutton said, but psychopaths can thrive if they’re smart and disciplined.

Psychopaths tend to be fearless, ruthless, capable of extraordinary focus, and they are cool and decisive in high-pressure situations that make others quail. Psychopaths excel at reading other peoples’ facial expression, which comes in handy if they want to manipulate someone. (Dutton wrote about conmen and other master persuaders in a previous book.) They have a better-than-average ability to tell whether someone else is lying or is emotionally vulnerable. Psychopathy, Dutton noted, falls on a spectrum rather than being an all-or-nothing condition, and psychopathic traits are common among CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, special-forces soldiers and surgeons.

Psychopaths are often charismatic, cheery, fun to be around. In their presence, Dutton said, you feel like “anything is possible.” Dutton has never met a psychopath who regretted being a psychopath. Psychopaths tend to be happy even when locked up in prison or facing the death penalty. Rather than fearing the consequences of their actions, psychopaths focus on potential rewards, and they feel little or no regret when things go bad.

Like Dexter, who kills for its own sake, because killing serves some deep-rooted need for control, some psychopaths enjoy hurting and even killing others. But most employ violence only “instrumentally,” as a means to an end, Dutton said. His own father, a salesman, was a psychopath. “He was charming, fearless, ruthless (but never violent),” Dutton writes in Wisdom. “He didn’t kill anyone. But he certainly made a few killings.”

Hall, who let Dutton do most of the talking, came across as humble, mild-mannered, even a bit shy–in short, un-psychopathic. I suspect audiences like Dexter, the character as well as the show, because they sense Hall’s real personality. Hall noted that, playing Dexter, he is pretending to be a psychopathic killer pretending to be normal. On the other hand, at times we all have to pretend to be normal, Hall commented, adding with a sly, Dexter-ish grin, “I’m doing it right now.”

Prodded by Dutton, Hall said he envied some of Dexter’s traits, especially his capacity for stress-management. “The more the heat goes up, the cooler Dexter gets,” Hall said. Dutton suggested that we all might benefit from cultivating our latent psychopathy. For example, most of us, if we want a promotion, focus on negative potential consequences. We fear annoying our boss, or being humiliated if we’re turned down. Either we don’t ask for the promotion or we’re so nervous that we botch the job. In contrast, psychopaths “go for it,” Dutton said, consequences be damned, and their self-confidence is often self-fulfilling.

Next time you face a difficult situation, Dutton said, imagine what you’d do if you had no fear. “Psychopath up!” Another way to become more psychopathic, Dutton suggested, might be to meditate. In a study that he calls “Monks Versus Punks,” Dutton has carried out psychological tests of Buddhist monks and compared them to psychopaths. Like psychopaths, monks are often calm and decisive in the face of stress; free of anxiety, even in the face of death; and able to read others’ expressions accurately.

The big difference, Dutton said, is that monks are motivated by compassion for others, whereas psychopaths seek only their own pleasure. But maybe this difference is not so great (and this is my point, not Dutton’s). After all, many modern gurus–notably Chogyam Trungpa, who helped bring Tibetan Buddhism to the west decades ago—act like narcissistic monsters. That’s one reason why I’m so down on Buddhism.

In my previous column, I quoted philosopher Peter Singer worrying that Americans voters are too selfish and lacking in concern for others. Sometimes I fantasize about what it would be like to live without anxiety and guilt, without caring how my actions will affect myself and others. What freedom! But does the world really need more psychopaths? Don’t we have too many already?

Photo credit: Showtime.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Archimedes 10:06 am 10/27/2012

    There have been many political, social,religious, and cultural movements which are built upon socipathy (psychopathy). NAZISM, COMMUNISM,and FEMINISM (in my opinion).
    And of course, a cursory consultation of the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic manual of professional psychology and psychiatry, reveals in the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder such character traits as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for an violation of the rights of others…[including] failure to conform to social norms…, deceitfulness.., irritability and aggressiveness.., reckless disregard for the safety of self and others, consistent irresponsibility,[and] lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.”
    Further, ” These individuals may blame their victims for being foolish, helpless, or deserving their
    fate; they may minimize the harmful consequences of their actions; or they may indicate complete indifference…. Individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder frequently lack empathy and tend to be callous,cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others. They may have an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal….These individuals may be irresponsible and exploitative in their sexual relationships. They may have a history of many sexual partners and may never have sustained a monogamous relationship. They may be irresponsible as parents….”

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  2. 2. Heteromeles 12:21 pm 10/27/2012

    Interesting. I just downloaded the Hare checklist again, and I could apply many of Hare’s points to quite a few religious people, including the stereotypical Big Church pastor, the cult leader, and, yes, monks and hermits. Since the Hare list contains everything from “parasitic lifestyle” to “criminal versatility” to “Glib and Superficial charm” it covers a broad range of sins. One could easily argue that parasitic lifestyles cover both certain CEOs and investors as much as it covers monks or any beggar. Criminal versatility is the hallmark of special forces and spies. Tony Mendez (of Argo) joked that he’d be robbing banks if he didn’t work for the CIA (in Legacy of Ashes, although his autobiography doesn’t read that way). Glib and superficial charm is on wide display in this election season, and it certainly shows up in the TV pulpit far too often.

    This is the problem I have with the Hare list. I agree that people who score very high on this list mostly seem to belong in prison, or at best performing illegal acts for a government. The problem is what to do about those who score lower. Is charm always a bad thing? Is making a living accepting charity a bad thing, for that matter? Or is lying problematic, if you are doing it only for money in the ad industry? Each of these is a negative on the Hare test, but unless they are all present, most aren’t individually problems.

    Nor are they bits of a single syndrome, either, although that’s just my opinion. Just because you lie to make a living writing ad copy or make a parasitic living off of charity, it doesn’t follow that you’re 1/20 of a psychopath.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 12:35 pm 10/27/2012

    I’ve find the link in the image between psycopaths and serial killers puzzling.

    Two million and a half pyschopaths in the USA but the FB1 claims about 20 active serial killers at any time. and…not all serial killers are psychopaths. Way less than one in a million psychopaths fit any serial killer profile but this is the image perpetuated by this article and others.

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  4. 4. alan6302 1:11 pm 10/27/2012

    My doctor told me to drink diet sodas and take cholesterol medication. That makes him a probable psychopath or at least an idiot. Another doctor I know giggled when a medical screw up happened. I later made her very angry. Her accent changed from english to pakistany. Obvious psychopath.

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  5. 5. frankblank 4:50 pm 10/27/2012

    OMFG, yet another media spawned Moronic Meme.

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  6. 6. StarCitizen 1:34 pm 10/28/2012

    I am a psychopath, and I’m laughing my ass off at you idiots. Yes, “Psychopath Up!” By all means. But when the revolution comes, don’t expect to be spared for supporting us. We are not defective, only different. We are not sheep like you, but we keep you keen. You need us, and you know it. Hitler, Sadam, Jim Jones, and the rest of us… you haven’t seen anything yet.

    Is this really an appropriate topic for the esteemed Scientific American?

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  7. 7. StarCitizen 1:43 pm 10/28/2012

    Jellyroll… you don’t understand because you aren’t one truly. You see, what separates the men from the boys, so to speak, is impulse control and intellect. Only the least of us become that which you call a serial killer. The rest of us evolve beyond to something you cannot even begin to comprehend. But have fun thinking you understand something about this life.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 4:36 pm 10/28/2012

    Starcitizen…true, you’ve evolved into trolls..the guys in their basement apartments dressed only in dirty underwear with no social life beyond the keyboard.

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  9. 9. Von Stupidtz 2:08 pm 10/30/2012

    Thanks for keeping us abreast with the latest science. Personally I would prefer a feminazi with Hitlery qualities over a psycopath.

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  10. 10. GhostMan 7:30 pm 10/30/2012

    “but psychopaths can thrive if they’re smart and disciplined.”

    And yet are still a massive danger to society. Banking psychopaths helped blow the world’s economy for half a decade. So useful aren’t they? Psychopaths don’t make good decisions. They make quick decisions that benefit themselves in the short run and kill in the long run, and just try to take advantage of other people’s unwillingness to take them down. A psychopath is a social parasite, a dead end that remains from a more brutal human past that should be kicked out of the gene pool.

    “Psychopaths tend to be fearless, ruthless, capable of extraordinary focus, and they are cool and decisive in high-pressure situations that make others quail. ”

    Personality traits anyone can have a psychopath do not make.

    “Psychopathy, Dutton noted, falls on a spectrum rather than being an all-or-nothing condition, and psychopathic traits are common among CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, special-forces soldiers and surgeons.”

    Is anyone aware of how much half of this is just made up on the spot? Dutton even noted his Dad was psychopathic. No conflict of interest there, eh?

    That and no, Feminism isn’t psychopathy.

    Good day gentlemen

    And for God’s sake get rid of the psychos stopping amazing things happening.

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  11. 11. dubina 4:39 am 11/1/2012

    @ StarCitizen,

    My impression of the LSRP is that most who volunteer are unusual, not of the mainstream, and all are included after the fact to the cumulative distribution of LSRP psychopaths. Not all LSRP test takers would eat your brain and praise you for its texture and taste, but some of “you” (“we”/”us”… real psychopaths, not pretenders) probably take the test (for recreation, amusement, etc.).

    You wrote: “Only the least of us become that which you call a serial killer. The rest of us evolve beyond to something you cannot even begin to comprehend.”

    Fair enough, but let’s be real; the condition is graduated and dimensional, is it not?

    “Psychopathy, Dutton noted, falls on a spectrum rather than being an all-or-nothing condition, and psychopathic traits are common among CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, special-forces soldiers and surgeons.”

    The LSRP gives back two scores, a primary and secondary measure of a person’s psychopathic nature based on his or her answers to 26 declarative statements. A two axis numeric measure is more interesting than a pass-fail, and a numeric radar chart based on multiple traits would be more interesting still.

    How else is the LSRP or other measures deficient, would you say? What could be done to sort “you” out, something to separate “the least of you” from the rest of you and grade the rest of you in a meaningful way?

    Are real psychopaths…”the rest of you”, at least…up for more disclosure? The stakes are high.

    “As Dutton develops his theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, he puts forward the argument that society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: after all, psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused—qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century.”

    Hold forth, please, if you not afraid and are still lurking around.

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  12. 12. Synja 12:34 am 01/10/2013

    Interesting article, yet misleading. Due to the anonymity, I’ll let you readers in on a secret. I’m a psychopath, too.

    I find fictional Dexter’s actions media-hyped; meaning, it’s inaccurate. I suppose unless you’re a psychopath, you don’t know how to act. It’s hilarious how people idolize our attributes based on a false representation. The author’s description is accurate, but I suspect his conclusions are catered toward the imagination of thrill seekers (or he’s an idiot).

    Real psychopaths hide because they’re hunted. None of us want to be exposed for who we’re, or else we won’t have an edge on the rest of society. Truth is, I hate people; would rather live with a pack of wolves than converse at a cafe. Albeit, the rest of society is the means toward a result. We hide in plain sight and attack when you least suspect it. Granted, not all of us are serial killers. Most are just evolved hedonistic predators, trying to survive.

    @StarCitizen: Hi.

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  13. 13. Synja 12:37 am 01/10/2013

    We’re the chill that runs down your spine.

    @Dubina – Is that good enough for you?

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  14. 14. the hexx 2:11 pm 08/17/2013

    Hide? Sounds fearful to me. Cant understand them? Can understand manipulative brats easily enough. Evolved? Totally skipped developing a conscience and respect for others, sounds degenerate to me.

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