Some time back I put up a post about how a lot of financiers fit the psychological profile of psychopaths. Now a British psychology professor named Kevin Dutton has published a book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths (which I haven’t read), and written an article in Scientific American (which I have) about how this can be a good thing, not a bad thing.
The traits of a psychopath, Dutton said, are egotism, persuasiveness, ruthlessness, fearlessness, lack of empathy, lack of remorse and the ability to stay focused on a goal. These are characteristic of both what he called dysfunctional psychopaths (serial killers, professional assassins, swindlers) and functional psychopaths (CEOs, spies, surgeons, politicians, military commanders). The difference is that dysfunctional psychopaths lack the ability to control their impulses, especially impulses toward aggression and violence.
How can psychopathic traits be a good thing? Well, wrote Dutton, take a surgeon as an example. Do you want to be operated on by someone who feels squeamish about cutting people up? He quoted a famous brain surgeon.
I have no compassion for those whom I operate on. This is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you’re cutting loose and cheating death, feelings aren’t fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy—and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.
A military commander, or even a soldier in the field, has to put aside normal human feelings, and to kill and send people to their deaths for the sake of victory. Great statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were able to act with coldblooded ruthlessness when necessary. And studies have shown a correlation of traits of criminal psychopaths and of successful business executives. Dutton quoted a successful CEO:
Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second. Remember, they don’t call it a greasy pole for nothing. The road to the top is hard. But it’s easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others. Easier still if they think something’s in it for them.
I can how the psychopathic traits can be harnessed in a socially beneficial way within a framework of law and ethics. A surgeon may or may not enjoy cutting people up, but has a mission to be a healer and is subject to medical ethics. A military commander may or may not be indifferent to human life, but operates within a military code of honor. Statesmen and business executives are—or at least should be—subject to the law and accountable to the public.
Fascism, Marxism-Leninism and other totalitarian ideologies give free rein to psychopaths. Lack of empathy, lack of remorse and relentless focus on a goal are the admired qualities of a Mussolini or a Lenin. These values are rejected, or should be rejected, by a democratic society.
The current discipline of economics in a certain sense assumes psychopathic behavior. Economics is the study of how human beings respond to material incentives. While this has great explanatory power, economists sometimes assume that material incentives plus a free market make ordinary morality and ethics unnecessary. The argument of the Freakonomics books is an argument for people disregarding their moral intuitions and acting on material incentives.
Psychopathic traits may have value under certain circumstances, as Dutton claims. The problem is keeping the psychopaths under control of people with normal moral intuition.
Click on What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed for Kevin Dutton’s full article in the October issue of Scientific American.
Click on The Great British Psychopath Survey for Dutton’s self-test to determine whether you have psychopathic traits.
Click on The psychopathic 1 percent for my earlier post on psychopaths in business and finance.