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


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.

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

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