Review: The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, by Kevin Dutton

>>Published: October 2012

“I’ve always maintained that if I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do so at the stock exchange,” he enthused. “Without doubt, there’s a greater proportion of psychopathic big hitters in the corporate world than there is in the general population. You’ll find them in any organization where your position and status afford you power and control over others, and the chance of material gain.”

His coauthor on the corporate psychopathy paper, New York industrial and organizational psychologist Paul Babiak, agrees.

“The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change. In fact, he or she thrives on it,” he explains. “Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.”

Ironically, the rule-bending, risk-taking, thrill-seeking individuals who were responsible for tipping the world economy over the edge are precisely the same personalities who will come to the fore in the wreckage. Just like Frank Abagnale, they are the mice who fall into the cream, fight and fight, and churn that cream into butter.


The word “psychopath” carries with it certain unavoidable connotations: images of famous serial killers, like Ted Bundy or Henry Lee Lucas and the almost mythic stories surrounding their individual reigns of terror; thoughts of men and women filled with uncontrollable, malevolent thoughts, in many cases acting on them to the harm and detriment of others. More and more, however, the term is finding application in more readily acceptable spheres—politics and the financial markets, to name a couple of quick and obvious examples, where making a killing, as nefarious as it sounds, is a far more benign proposition than its literal alternative. Even more interesting are the misnomers surrounding genuine psychopathy and what it truly means to be psychotic—and what such personality traits mean for the probability of success.

In his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, University of Cambridge professor of social psychology Dr. Kevin Dutton deep dives the psychopathic mind in order to strip away some of the more notorious preconceptions that have dogged psychopaths for generations, and in the process to offer a better understanding of their particular, often feared psychologies.

There’s an adaptive nature to psychopaths not accurately shown in most public portrayals. It isn’t rooted in amorality or malicious intent, but in an emotional fearlessness that, when balanced with an awareness of social expectations and/or knowledge or passion towards socially acceptable ventures or professions, gives psychopaths a noticeable leg-up. On the outside this can be represented by an unconventionally high degree of personal magnetism, or confidence, or the ability to disguise oneself—to play to the crowd, so to speak, no matter the attributes of said crowd; or maybe it reveals itself as uncanny business acumen, or willingness to go into battle regardless of whether or not the odds of survival are low. The point Dutton makes is that contrary to popular belief, there are uses—indeed necessities—for a mind more prone to stereotypically psychopathic traits, especially when presented with situations where emotional vulnerabilities are potentially grave liabilities.

The portraits of psychopaths Dutton paints are not the Patrick Bateman/Hannibal Lecture-style geniuses whose penchant for murder is well hidden beneath their business and academic minds. Those certainly exist and should be feared; however, most cases of psychopathy can be presented, as strange as this might sound, as being of exquisitely analytical and sound mind:

“Language, for psychopaths, is only word deep. There’s no emotional contouring behind it. A psychopath may say something like ‘I love you,’ but in reality, it means about as much to him as if he said ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee.’… This is one of the reasons why psychopaths remain so cool, calm, and collected under conditions of extreme danger, and why they are so reward-driven and take risks. Their brains, quite literally, are less ‘switched on’ than the rest of ours.”

Because of this, a psychopathic mind (providing it does not sway too far to one extreme or the other) can be expertly employed in situations requiring planning or some sort of conflict resolution.

So what can psychopaths teach us? That, for the most part, our problems—our fears and apprehensions that cripple us daily, or cause us to procrastinate and not live our lives to the potential we so desperately want to believe is inside each of us—are problems of the heart, and that it is how we are tuned to our emotions, and the degree to which they dominate our doubts, that exemplifies our collective weaknesses. Does this mean a balanced, socially integrated functional psychopath has an advantage over the average man, woman, and hopefully non-psychopathic child? It depends on the situation: when playing the stock market, most assuredly, as one cannot ever let one’s emotions be rattled by a loss—therein lies financial death and a quick shuttling to the side for this guy over here with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a willingness to take a beating one day and come back swinging hard the next; but when, say, teaching a class in an elementary or high school setting, not likely, as the inability to sync with individuals who are by and large emotional lightning rods could be potentially exhausting for all parties involved.

A psychopath is not necessarily a killer, or a heartless machine capable of only taking advantage of others, as we’re so frequently instructed to believe (given the rampant overuse and abuse of the term). That stereotype exists for a reason, as it is sometimes accurate; but, as with all points on the psychological spectrum, there are an infinite number of shades of grey that can be used to better define psychopathy to individual standards. Dutton’s examination goes a fair distance in disproving the concreteness of the stereotype, while opening the conversation to new possibilities as to how we see our business and political leaders, and even our more successful surgeons, spies, and military personnel. These professions, and many others, cater to a certain degree of psychopathy, which can often be mistaken for simply luck or confidence, but is in fact a much more complicated matter, one contained within the physiology of a surprisingly large amount of the population.