You’re a good person. Or at least you’re trying to be. Me too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from the bad guys.
And I mean the really bad guys — psychopaths. So let’s give the devil his due. And that’s why I gave Kevin a call.
Dr. Kevin Dutton is a researcher at Oxford and author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.
You might be wondering what good we can learn from people who have no empathy. Actually, plenty.
In fact, Kevin found out what it was like to be a psychopath — firsthand. For a brief period he actually turned himself into one, literally. (More on that below.)
Okay, let’s see what good we can take away from some very bad people.
So What Is A Psychopath Really?
First off, psychopaths are not necessarily violent. And it’s not a black and white thing.
They possess an extreme amount of a number of traits we all can exhibit at times: ruthlessness, fearlessness, charisma, focus, and a lack of empathy. Here’s Kevin:
When psychologists like myself talk about psychopaths, we’re actually referring to a specific set of individuals with a distinct subset of personality characteristics such as: ruthlessness, fearlessness, charm, charisma, coolness under pressure, focus, and of course, those signature deficits in conscious empathy. The first conclusion you can arrive at, Eric, is that psychopathy is not an “all or nothing” construct. It’s not a case that you’re either a psychopath, or you’re not. Some people clearly are; those people who are at the high end of the spectrum.
(For more on the professions that have most psychopaths, click here.)
And this is where it gets really interesting. Kevin got to feel firsthand what goes on inside the mind of a psychopath.
What Does It Feel Like To Be A Psychopath?
“Transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS) is when scientists apply a powerful magnet to a part of your brain. They don’t need to open your head to do it, either. It’s similar to an MRI.
With TMS they can “turn down” the electrical signals in particular parts of your brain with powerful results.
Target the amygdala and other specific areas and you can temporarily shut off empathy and fear, giving you a “psychopath makeover.”
Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and, as Ahmed Karim and his colleagues at the University of Tübingen did, to the brain’s morality neighborhood, and you’re well on the way to giving someone a “psychopath makeover.”
Kevin tried this in a lab, under test conditions.
He was shown horrifying images that made him recoil. Then, after the “psychopath makeover” he was shown the images again. This time he “found it difficult to suppress a smile.” They had no effect on him.
But what did it feel like in his head to briefly be a psychopath? Here’s Kevin:
It’s as if you’ve had a six pack of beer, but you don’t feel the tiredness and sluggishness that go with it. Your inhibitions are gone, but you’re very very alert… A lot of us drive around with a foot hovering over the brake pedal too much. Psychopaths drive around without any thought to the brake pedal at all, with their foot flooring the gas. It was a beautiful feeling, I must say. It was really really good.
That’s pretty scary, right? So why in the world would he think any good could come of this? Because, again, it’s all about how intensely you have those feelings and the context you are in.
At the far end of the spectrum, no doubt, these things are very very bad. But some of these traits, at the right time and in the right role, are beneficial or downright essential. Here’s Kevin:
In order to be successful, Eric, you need the requisite skill set, plus the right kind of personality traits to optimally operationalize that skill set. I’m not saying, as some of the media have pointed out, “Dutton is saying that psychopaths are brilliant.” I’m not. If you are a pure psychopath, say a Ted Bundy, and you’re unable to regulate those dials on your mixing desk, you are going to screw your life up, and the life of anybody you come into contact with. What I am saying is, at the right level, in the right combination, and in the right context, certain psychopathic characteristics can really benefit you.
(For more on how to be fearless, click here.)
Still on the fence? I don’t blame you. Wanna be convinced? For that we’ll need to look at a psychopath we all love, respect and envy…
James Bond — The Psychopath We All Love
Yes, James Bond is a psychopath. Here’s Kevin:
Confidence, charisma, ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, risk taking… that is the James Bond profile, there’s no doubt about it. That is 007. In his time, amongst other things, he’s skied off the edge of a mountain. Used crocodiles as stepping stones. Killed a man in a public lavatory and hurled another into a shark pit with a suitcase containing $2 million. He is an icon of icy ingenuity, lord of the beatifically brutal. James Bond’s brain packs some of the most psychopathic neurochemistry in cinematic history, and all, of course, for Queen and country.
And this isn’t just speculation. Academic research has been done on the psychopathic traits Bond possesses — and how they can be beneficial.
Back in 2010, Jonason (then at New Mexico State University) and his colleagues published a paper titled “Who Is James Bond? The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style,” in which they showed that men with a specific triumvirate of personality traits— the stratospheric self-esteem of narcissism; the fearlessness, ruthlessness, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking of psychopathy; and the deceitfulness and exploitativeness of Machiavellianism— can actually do pretty well for themselves out there in certain echelons of society.
Clearly, Bond isn’t always nice. But given his job, he can’t afford to be. Here’s the trailer for Casino Royale. Skip to 1:10 in and give a listen:
Vesper: It doesn’t bother you? Killing those people?
Bond: Well, I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.
Yeah, yeah, I know: Academic research or not, James Bond isn’t real. But there are plenty of other areas where we need people with those psychopathic dials turned up a bit.
Do you want a surgeon who is so sensitive and empathetic that he can’t cut you open to save your life? I didn’t think so. Here’s Kevin:
In the presence of the necessary skill set, certain psychopathic characteristics actually make you better at your job. Let’s say that you’ve got a skill set to be a top surgeon. You’ve got the manual dexterity, you’ve got the spacial awareness, you’ve the medical know-how, but you cannot dispassionately disengage from the person that you are operating on. If you don’t have that last personality characteristic, then you’re not going to make it as a top surgeon. A great neurosurgeon told me, rather chillingly, “As soon as you start emotionally identifying with a person that you’re operating on, you are walking a professional tightrope.” That kind of ability to dispassionately disengage in surgery, the narcissistic self-confidence in law, the ruthless streak to fire someone in business… They’re all psychopathic personality characteristics. These are three examples of how certain psychopathic characteristics can really help you.
Yes, research shows there are “good” psychopaths. Many people in positively heroic professions have strong psychopathic traits.
…Diana Falkenbach and Maria Tsoukalas, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, have recently begun studying the incidence of so-called adaptive psychopathic characteristics in what they term “hero populations”: in front-line professions such as law enforcement, the military, and the rescue services, for example.
In fact, given the right incentives, research shows that psychopaths can actually be better team players than those of us with empathy.
And guess who has a brain and perspective most similar to psychopaths?
Buddhist monks. Seriously. Here’s Kevin:
There are a number of similarities between the psychopathic brain state and the Buddhist brain state. Increased rationality, the idea of living in the present, and keeping cool under pressure. Psychopaths show significant greater activation in the left three frontal regions of their brains compared to non-psychopaths. There’s also cerebral symmetry in psychopaths associated with a lot of reduction of anxiety, enhanced positive effect, increased focus of attention, and also orientation to reward. There are elements in that kind of profile in elevated spiritual states as well. Richard Davis discovered the same kind of profile in Buddhist monks when they’re immersed in deep meditation.
(For more on the science of what makes James Bond so impressive — and how to be more like him, click here.)
So psychopaths are not always so bad. So when should we be a little bit more like them?
What We Can Learn From Psychopaths
Obviously, we don’t want to be running around like Ted Bundy. But what good can we take away from psychopaths, without the bad? Here’s what Kevin had to say.
1) Focus On The Positive And “Just Do It”
When Kevin used TMS to give himself a “psychopath makeover” he said he felt energized and confident. His foot “came off the brake.”
There are plenty of times where this type of drive can help us overcome fear, indecision and worry. Here’s Kevin:
Since going into this field, I focus on the positive a lot more. This is something that psychopaths do. People say, “I want to put in for a raise, but I’m really scared.” Why are you scared? You’re scared because you’re afraid that you’re not going to get it. You’re scared because you think that the boss is going to say “no.” You’re afraid of how embarrassing that would be, and how undervalued that would make you feel. Instead, focus on the fact that you might get it. If you think along those lines and act accordingly, you are more likely to get that thing you want.
What most people don’t know is that the famous Nike slogan “Just Do It” was actually inspired by the words of psychopath Gary Gilmore.
But then, just when Wieden was about to give up and go to sleep, he started thinking about a murderer named Gary Gilmore who had been executed in 1977. “He just popped into my mind,” Wieden says. “And so it’s the middle of the night, and I’m sitting at my desk, and I’m thinking about how Gilmore died. This was in Utah, and they dragged Gilmore out in front of the firing squad. Before they put the hood over his head, the chaplain asks Gilmore if he has any last words. And he pauses and he says: ‘Let’s do it.’ And I remember thinking, ‘That is so… courageous.’ Here’s this guy calling for his own death. And then, the next thing I know, I’m thinking about my shoe commercials. And so I start playing around with the words, and I realized that I didn’t like the way it was said, actually, so I made it a little different. I wrote ‘Just Do It’ on a piece of paper and as soon as I saw it, I knew. That was my slogan.”
(For more on how to develop confidence, click here.)
2) Live In The Moment
Remember how similar psychopaths were to Buddhist meditators?
While they’re not totally the same, both had increased rationality and kept cool under pressure.
Research shows meditation can help you get these good aspects without the psychopathic bad elements.
(For more on how to meditate and be more mindful, click here.)
3) Be Able To Uncouple Behavior From Emotion
Now you don’t want to do this all the time, but there are plenty of moments where this can really help.
Why do you procrastinate? Research shows negative emotions are a huge part.
When you can separate emotions from action you stress less and accomplish more.
Psychopaths aren’t ruled by emotions. In fact, they take a step back and surgically remove emotion from the situation. When stressing over a difficult task, ask yourself: what would I do if I didn’t feel this way? What would I do if I didn’t give a damn what other people thought? What would I do if it just didn’t matter?
How do you do that? Kevin has a simple, straightforward answer:
Next time you don’t want to do something, stop, pause, and ask yourself this, “Since when did I need to feel like doing something in order to do it?” And then just do it. It’s very very powerful. If we needed to feel like doing something in order to do it, we wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning, right? You just bear that little mantra in mind for a month, and your life really changes.
(For more on how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a few things from the dark side. Let’s pull this all together.
Here’s what Kevin said we should learn from psychopaths:
- Focus On The Positive And “Just Do It”
- Live In The Moment
- Be Able To Uncouple Behavior From Emotion
And Kevin is the guy to trust on this subject. Not only has he done the research at Oxford, but he was a psychopath after that little TMS experiment.
Of course, he’s not a psychopath anymore. Or, as Kevin told me in our interview:
It has actually worn off, Eric, although if you talk to my wife, she might tell you otherwise.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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