27 Oct 2012

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Posted by jofr

The October edition of Scientific American has an article named The Wisdom of Psychopaths from Kevin Dutton [1], which is an adapted excerpt from his book of the same name [2]. Prof. Kevin Dutton is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK.

The article and the book argue that traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers – an exaggerated sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of empathy and remorse and the skilled manipulation of others – are also shared by many successful business leaders. Are psychopathic attributes like amoral behavior and zero degrees of empathy indeed helpful to be successful in business, sports and politics?

The story of Lance Armstrong comes to mind: he denied any claims of doping for years and continued to say that he is innocent, and yet used one of the most systematic forms of doping ever. He lied, cheated and doped repeatedly, for years. Although he used doping in the most sophisticated, systematic and professionalized way that sport has ever seen – the official USADA doping report talks of a systemic, sustained and highly professionalized team-run doping conspiracy – he even sued others that accused him of doping. And won. And yet after the truth was finally unearthed and the world recognized what really happened, he showed no sign of remorse or guilt, as it is common among psychopaths.

His German competitor Jan Ullrich is not better, he has done the same things: intensive doping, repeated lies and law suits against people who accused him of doping. He broke the rules to win (he cheated and doped continuously), and to hide the cheating he broke even more rules (he betrayed and lied). It looks like it was not possible to win without cheating. As we argued earlier, fraud, cheating and betrayal can be seen as an adapation to certain situations: fraud is an adaptation to domains where it is impossible to achieve a goal with honesty and truth. They happen in science as well, although honesty and truth are among the highest values here.

So what can psychopaths teach us about success? They tell us that honesty, selflessness and friendliness are not helpful if you want to be successful in business or sports. If you really want to win then psychopathic qualities can be useful and advance your career. As Dutton argues, psychopaths have a certain set of mental attributes and personality traits that gives them a crucial advantage, including complete ruthlessness, fearlessness, and shamelessness, as well as massive egocentricity, superficial charm, and surprising persuasiveness, combined with a total lack of conscience, remorse and empathy. Together with physical aggression, violence and impulsivity this leads to law-breaking criminal behavior on the one hand, together with intelligence to success in business and sports on the other hand. In the end, the truth may be unearthed, though.

So it seems like business leaders, world champions and serial killers share a mindset. If you meet someone who is spectacularly self-centered and repeatedly caught lying over and over again, then you might have encountered a successful business man, a world champion – or a serial killer.


[1] Kevin Dutton, What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed, Scientific American, October 2012

[2] Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

( The Flickr Photo is from Victor1558 )

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