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In Praise of Empty Souls—Can We Learn From Psychopaths?

YEARS AGO, as a student, I attended some lectures by a prominent anthropologist who regaled his listeners with odd and engaging stories about a group of indigenous people he had lived among in a far-flung corner of the planet. The tales stuck in the mind. Indeed, some of them were so amazing that I came away from his talks sure that counterintuitive but vital truths about human behavior had just been revealed. Only during the final lecture was I granted an inkling that these truths might not bear much relationship to reality. Fairly gleeful in her disdain, one of his indentured graduate assistants whispered to me that, in the field, the anthropologist had offered his subjects chocolate bars in exchange for stories about themselves—the more fantastic the stories, the more plentiful the candy. Avidly scrawling notes, his audience had become an illustration of how easily the foreign and the fascinating can assume the aura of science.           

Though I have no reason to think chocolate was involved, I am concerned that a similar phenomenon may occur among readers of The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford. Dutton’s eye-catching thesis is this: “Psychopathy is like sunlight. Overexposure can hasten one’s demise in grotesque, carcinogenic fashion. But regulated exposure at controlled and optimal levels can have a significant positive impact on well-being and quality of life.” Psychopathy, proposes Dutton, is “personality with a tan.”           

Strangely, nowhere in this book about psychopathy does Dutton accurately define psychopathy, so I will do so here. Psychopathy is a disorder of brain and behavior, the central characteristic of which is the complete absence of conscience. All of its other pathological features (such as callousness, habitual lying, and ruthlessness) emanate from this defining deficit. Yet, as a tip-off to the major fallacy in his argument, Dutton does not once discuss the concept of conscience, and, in the entire body of his book he mentions the word itself—conscience—a total of four times, and then only in passing.           

What Dutton does include are elegant metaphors, a generous number of extremely well-written personal stories, and many allusions to intriguing psychological and neuropsychological studies. Unfortunately, most of the science that he cites possesses a relationship to his thesis that is equivocal at best, and at worst downright misleading. Overall, the book leaves its reader with the impression that psychopathy consists of fearlessness, “irrepressible irreverence,” and a life unburdened by what other people think. The reality is more literal: no one matters to a psychopath.           

Dutton’s claim, if stated in language that is starker and more straightforward than he is willing to use, would be this: people who are devoid of conscience offer us some wise lessons. In particular, our leaders need to consider the mental and behavioral instruction that conscienceless people can provide. To support his argument, he asserts that Neil Armstrong’s ability to control his fear while executing a near-impossible lunar landing involved a temporary version of the psychopath’s permanent emotional detachment, which leaves the psychopath preternaturally calm. (For readers interested in how people achieve ideal performance, I recommend any of the books on the concept of flow by the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whom Dutton mentions only glancingly and inaccurately.)           

There are other surprising misunderstandings related to the ostensible lessons psychopaths can impart: Dutton confuses “mental toughness” and “turning the other cheek” with just not giving a damn, and the mental discipline of mindfulness with the psychopath’s indifference to future consequences. He conflates the permanent lack of emotion in “functional psychopaths” with the normal person’s ability to regulate emotions when decisions must be made under pressure. He seems to view normal emotional responsiveness as a maladaptive distraction. And he decides that, since the psychopath is fearlessly drawn to risks, the psychopath is better equipped to handle an emergency: a psychopath would be more likely to race into a burning building to rescue someone within. Really? Why an individual who feels neither conscience nor caring would wish to save another’s life is difficult to imagine, and Dutton’s repeated assertions that one might turn the predator’s ice-cold focus toward humane endeavors reveals an essential misunderstanding of the nature of the predator.           

Dutton’s real argument seems to be that sometimes we could all use a little of what he terms “the seven deadly wins”—ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action. Yes, I daresay we could—but those behavioral features do not represent a “dose of psychopathy,” to use Dutton’s expression. In reality, a touch of psychopathy would mean a malignant streak of brutality, oiliness, predatory single-mindedness, callousness, carelessness, exclusive self-involvement, and clinical impulsivity.            

Perhaps the most surprising obfuscation of all occurs as Dutton plays fast and loose with the definition of empathy. He blurs the distinction between cognitive empathy (knowing that someone is experiencing a feeling) and emotional empathy (the ability to experience that feeling oneself), and having created this fuzziness, he declares—despite the mountain of scientific data to the contrary—that psychopaths are emotionally empathic.           

Like so many of us who have good hearts, Dutton would like very much to demonstrate that not every psychopath is utterly heartless. (The first sentence of the book is a startling declaration that his own father was a psychopath.) He summons a conjectural subset, called “functional psychopaths,” who are somewhat warmer. As it happens, there is an existing diagnostic term for the nearly psychopathic—the self-centered, unempathic people who nonetheless, in their own way, can love. The term is narcissism; and, reading with a psychologist’s eye to the distinction, I suspect that a number of the undiagnosed individuals described by Dutton, including perhaps his charismatic father, were narcissists, rather than living beyond the boundary line in the icy wasteland of psychopathy. If Dutton had titled his book “The Wisdom of Narcissists,” he might have made a more credible case: psychologists largely agree that human beings need a certain amount of “normal” narcissism to be healthy. But narcissism varies by degree. The emotional black hole of consciencelessness does not.           

It is quite true that the majority of psychopaths are nonviolent, and that all too many “use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society.” (This fact has been emphasized by several writers before Dutton.) But—unsettling as it may be to understand—these mainstream-society-dwelling individuals do not constitute some special type of tamped-down wannabes who have retained a “functional” level of human warmth, as Dutton proposes. They are psychopaths, cold and conscienceless. We judge some of these people to be worse than others because some of them exhibit more horrific behaviors. We consider the psychopathic serial killer more terrifying than the psychopathic person who steals his employees’ pensions. But the underlying pathology is the same. Psychopathy is a profound and tragic disorder, one for which, at present, there is no cure. No matter how successful he or she may be, the psychopath is not wise. He or she is a loveless and empty individual whose life will be wasted, inexorably.           

If you are entertained by well-written tales from a research psychologist who has used himself as a subject in a questionably pertinent neurological lab procedure, has toured Italy’s Museum of Serial Killers, and has visited some actual psychopaths at Broadmoor Hospital in England; and if you have an interest in reading about famously pathological criminals—such as the serial killer who inspired Hannibal Lecter—then perhaps you will enjoy Kevin Dutton’s book. If you want a scientifically informed argument that speaks meaningfully to the arresting question raised by its title, you will be disappointed. The book neither answers that question nor validly associates psychopaths with stoic saints and contemplative Buddhist monks. As a professional who has spent decades studying the bleak disorder of consciencelessness, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that there is no wisdom in psychopathy. There is only an irredeemable emptiness that should not and cannot be served up in “doses.”

Martha Stout, Ph.D., is the author of The Myth of Sanity, The Paranoia Switch, and The Sociopath Next Door.