Contrary to popular opinion, psychopaths aren’t all violent murderers – in fact, a lot of them are very successful professionals with exceptional charm and confidence. Kevin Dutton, an Oxford research psychologist and author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success argues that psychopathic personality traits can actually be pretty beneficial:
Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.
The key here is keeping it in context. Let’s think of psychopathic traits—ruthlessness, toughness, charm, focus—as the dials on a [recording] studio deck. If you were to turn all of those dials up to max, then you’re going to overload the circuit. You’re going to wind up getting 30 years inside or the electric chair or something like that. But if you have some of them up high and some of them down low, depending on the context, in certain endeavors, certain professions, you are going to be predisposed to great success. The key is to be able to turn them back down again.
I’m pretty sure I’ve known, and got (relatively) close to a couple of psychopaths, and they were not all violent sadists. All of them were, or at least could be, exceptionally charming, but the closer I got, the more I realized they didn’t process human empathy the same way I did. They were unnerving experiences to say the least and I got away as quickly as possible, but it did expose a fascinating aspect of the human spectrum that I didn’t know existed. I think most people have come across psychopaths at one point in their lives – the kid at school who bullied others without feeling, the colleague at work able to navigate the hierarchy dispassionately, or the love interest who could turn emotions off at the flick of a switch. All are psychopathic traits that give them huge advantages when it comes to handling work and personal relationships. If you simply don’t care, there aren’t any wasted emotions and you can get on with succeeding while everyone else frets about offending people or behaving badly.
I’m not sure I’d trade it in though – empathy, and an understanding of how others might feel can often be painful, but it also defines what it means to be human. The thought of living without genuine love seems pretty bleak to me, and although it might further my career or allow me to deal with relationship trauma more easily, I’d rather go through the pain to experience the high.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.