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:
(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.”
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:
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:
(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:
And this isn’t just speculation. Academic research has been done on the psychopathic traits Bond possesses — and how they can be beneficial.
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:
Yes, research shows there are “good” psychopaths. Many people in positively heroic professions have strong psychopathic traits.
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:
(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:
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.
(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.
How do you do that? Kevin has a simple, straightforward answer:
(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:
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.