In a saying variously characterized as Bucy’s Law or as a quote from George Bernard Shaw, “nothing is ever accomplished [or achieved] by a reasonable man [or person].” In Billy Joel’s version, “I may be crazy / But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” The question at hand: is that how it works — does being crazy or unreasonable facilitate success?
I decided to write this post after encountering references to a book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton of Oxford University. Its Amazon blurb said, “Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit.” The overview at Barnes & Noble elaborated: “Dutton also puts forth the controversial argument that our society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused — qualities tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century.”
As I browsed through various materials related to Dutton’s book, I found that sources of information seemed to contradict one another. Hence, I decided to begin, here, by summarizing some of those sources. The result can be a bit confusing, but at least it conveys a sense of the discordant voices speaking on these matters. After the following presentation of information from those sources, the next section attempts to assemble a coherent understanding.
I begin with a Wall Street Journal piece by Michael Shermer. Shermer interpreted Dutton as saying that, “in many circumstances, such as in business, sports and other competitive enterprises,” one can benefit by indulging certain quasi-pathological tendencies, which Dutton called the “Seven Deadly Wins”: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action. Psychopathy becomes dangerous, in this interpretation, when those traits become amplified into “a spectrum personality disorder characterized by callousness, antisocial behavior, superficial charm, narcissism, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, poor impulse control, and a lack of empathy or remorse.” “Clearly,” Shermer said, “certain psychopathic traits can serve admirable ends.” He offered heroism as an example, when people take inordinate risks to help others in emergency situations. Shermer concluded with the suggestion that “Perhaps we need another word . . . for the side of the spectrum where psychopathic personality dimensions are put to good use and are used for good.”
3. Media (Television/Radio)
7. Police officer
8. Clergy person
10. Civil servant
whereas the following were the ten with the lowest rates of psychopathy:
1. Care aide
6. Charity worker
8. Creative artist
Not everyone shared Shermer’s enthusiasm for Dutton’s work. Notably, Martha Stout (practicing independently after 25 years at Harvard Medical School) offered a less charitable understanding:
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. . . .
[Dutton’s] 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 Seven Deadly Wins] do not represent a “dose of psychopathy” . . . . [A] touch of psychopathy would mean a malignant streak of brutality, oiliness, predatory single-mindedness, callousness, carelessness, exclusive self-involvement, and clinical impulsivity. . . .
[T]here 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 . . . . [N]arcissism varies by degree. The emotional black hole of consciencelessness does not.
Stout offered her own perspective in an earlier book, The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. Pamela Paul, reviewing that book for the New York Times, seemed to say that Stout characterized sociopathy as she characterized psychopathy in her critique of Dutton: both are evidently, at their core, an absence of conscience. Paul rejected Stout’s book as an “alarmist” exercise yielding “a new awareness of the ludicrous nature of pop psychology.” Judging from a much more positive Kirkus review, Stout considered sociopathy to be more or less the same as antisocial personality disorder, which the Mayo Clinic defined as having “no regard for right and wrong and often disregard[ing] the rights, wishes, and feelings of others.”
Pemment (2013) contended that psychopathy and sociopathy could be distinguished. Along with their points in common, he said, psychopathy involves a lack of empathy or sense of morality, whereas sociopathy involves a sense of morality differing from that of the parent culture. In a rather different direction, Yildirim and Derksen (2013, p. 1258) offered this distinction:
Psychopathic individuals primarily show heightened instrumental aggression and goal-driven antisocial behaviors that are characterized by premeditation and emotional hyporesponsivity. In contrast, sociopathic individuals primarily show heightened reactive aggression and impulse-driven antisocial behaviors that are characterized by impulsivity and emotional dysregulation.
Stout’s key point about Dutton’s book seemed to be that he confused psychopathy, whose central characteristic is, she says, “the complete absence of conscience,” with mere narcissism — which, according to the Mayo Clinic, can entail “failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings,” “fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness,” “exaggerating your achievements or talents,” “expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans,” and “appearing as tough-minded or unemotional.” PubMed described narcissistic personality disorder as “a condition in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance, an extreme preoccupation with themselves, and lack of empathy for others.”
Based on the preceding definitions, it seems that a psychopath deliberately uses the available means to achieve his/her desired outcomes without modulation from empathy or conscience. In other words, psychopaths take a cool and premeditated approach to achieve relatively clear goals. By contrast, a sociopath follows potentially powerful emotion and impulse in service of a twisted morality. In this understanding, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder could apply to psychopaths, but not to sociopaths: the latter cannot be accused, in the Mayo Clinic’s words (above), of having “no regard for right and wrong.” This distinction of psychopathy and sociopathy would find error in Stout’s remarks (above): psychopathy would not include carelessness and impulsivity, and sociopathy does not include an absence of conscience.
Short of what Stout called “the emotional black hole of consciencelessness” characteristic of psychopathy, she cited narcissism; but it appears that Dutton’s “Seven Deadly Wins” need not imply mental illness at all. There is not necessarily something wrong with a person who is charming, focused, or fearless. Even ruthlessness may have its place in the lives of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.
On this basis, it appears that Dutton may not have conceptualized his notion of psychopathy very clearly before assigning various professions to it. There is, to be sure, some plausibility to the impression that the ranks of kleptocratic CEOs, pathological attorneys, lying salespeople, and brutal police officers share an inordinate tendency toward psychopathy. But clergy? Yes, they may structure their mental worlds in ways that put them at the pinnacle of salvation, serving a super-God; they may sneer at the unwashed, even if they couch their disdain in false compassion. By the foregoing definitions, however, mere philosophical arrogance does not carry far toward narcissism, let alone psychopathy. And civil servants? Journalists? Yes, the lady at the DMV may be irritating. But psychopathic?
I found Stout’s remarks about narcissism intriguing. Those symptoms — fantasizing about power, and so forth — do sound very much like what motivates a lot of people in certain professions. There are people out there, sometimes in very powerful positions, who are confused if not psychopathic about the meaning of determination, of doing “whatever it takes” to succeed. Some who have that kind of drive are willing to work all night, go without food, and otherwise sacrifice their time, comfort, and even health to succeed. That is completely different from a willingness to go to any limits, to exploit and harm any person or thing that they might use or run over for the sake of personal success.
If we dispense with the sensationalist language of psychopathy, and look simply at the question of psychological maladjustment, Dutton seems to be conveying a valid message. Traits that advance personal success (e.g., charm, ruthlessness, inordinate confidence) can coexist with mental illness of various forms. It is not clear, though, that such traits generally translate into success. A Mayo Clinic definition of narcissistic personality disorder emphasizes that the disorder causes problems in many areas of life and drives people away.
The trick seems to be to master self-centeredness so as to use it to one’s advantage. What is psychopathic about some leaders is not, perhaps, that they are genuinely narcissistic; it is, rather, that they share Dutton’s realization that many admire the person who is able to personify and transmit a god complex, a sense of destiny or other specialness. People often want their leaders to be above mundane human reality. The ability to shape and communicate that view of oneself may require a Hitler-like cynical if not psychopathic skill in putting on politically useful narcissistic traits, with or without actual narcissism.
It is hard to dispute Billy Joel’s suggestion. Sometimes people really are looking for a certain kind of maladjustment. If you want to achieve things that will please one person or group of people, you may indeed have to behave unreasonably; you may have to hurt or even kill others. The mere signal that you are capable of such behavior, never mind that you might actually enjoy it, may be sufficient to force people to back down and accept your preferences.
Dutton seems to be correct: the 21st century places inordinate priority upon that sort of ability. We tend to value the person who is the right kind of crazy. We laugh at the spoof of Unitarian Jihad, with its threat to “take over television studios, kidnap so-called commentators and broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day.” Our society as a whole seems to be past the point of firm commitment to reasonable behavior. That sort of thing is boring. It is not in sync with our times.
Reflecting implicitly on the legacy of Nazi Germany, Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15) observed, “[T]he fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” In his time, it was possible to say that it is “pathological” to seek “to attain power and fame” (p. 17). Again, we are beyond that, especially but not only in what we permit and even applaud in our CEOs and salespeople, our lawyers and police officers. We have been living through times that reward the strategically unreasonable individual: not the sociopath, not the mere narcissist, but yes, to some extent, the psychopath.