BOOK REVIEW: 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths': Psychopaths Aren't All Bad; Some of the Most Successful People in Business, Medicine, Many Fields Are Psychopaths

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths':  Psychopaths Aren't All Bad; Some of the Most Successful People in Business, Medicine, Many Fields  Are Psychopaths
Great and Good are seldom the same man. -- Winston Churchill

It's a shame that the word psychopath is all too often shortened to "psycho" because -- as Dr. Kevin Dutton writes in "The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success" (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, notes, index, 288 pages, $26.00) -- some of the most successful people in many fields are functioning, non-violent psychopaths -- in contrast to violent ones like serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

People like the late Steve Jobs, whose standing as a successful psychopath is discussed by Dutton on Page 174: "Jobs, commented the journalist John Arlidge shortly after Jobs's death, achieved his cult leader status 'not just by being single minded, driven, focused (he exuded, according to one former colleague, a 'blast-furnace' intensity), perfectionistic, uncompromising, and a total ball-breaker. All successful business leaders are like that, however much their highly paid PR honeys might try to tell us they are just laid back fellas, just like the rest of us....'"

(This aspect of Jobs comes through loud and clear in Walter Jacobson's best-selling biography of Jobs, which I reviewed on this site a year ago (Link:

Or people like the brilliant neurosurgeon that Dutton calls "Dr. Geraghty" who told Dutton (pages 10-11): "I have no compassion for those whom I operate on. That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with a scapel, drill and saw. When you're cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren't fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy, and seriously bad for business. I've hunted it down to extinction over the years."

Dr. Kevin Dutton
Dr. Kevin Dutton

Dutton says on pages 189-192 that there is even a patron saint of psychopaths, St. Paul, AKA Saul of Tarsus, a tough Jew who --- in the view of many scholars more than any other biblical figure was responsible for the survival and success of Christianity. (My use of the phrase "tough Jew" comes from a wonderful book by Rich Cohen about Jewish mobsters called "Tough Jews": From the 1999 book description: "In an L.A. delicatessen, a group of Brooklyn natives gets together to discuss basketball, boxing, the weather back east, and the Jewish gangsters of yesteryear. Meyer Lansky. Bugsy Siegel. Louis Lepke, the self-effacing mastermind of Murder, Inc. Red Levine, the Orthodox hit man who refused to kill on the Sabbath. Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, who looked like a mama's boy but once buried a rival alive. These are just some of the vibrant, vicious characters Rich Cohen's father reminisced about and the author evokes so pungently in 'Tough Jews'. Tracing a generation of Jewish gangsters from the candy stores of Brownsville to the clubhouses of the Lower East Side--and, occasionally, to suites at the Waldorf--Cohen creates a densely anecdotal and gruesomely funny history of muscle, moxie, and money. Filled with fixers and schlammers, the squeal of tires and the rattle of gunfire, his book shatters stereotypes as deftly as its subjects once shattered kneecaps.")

Don't be offended if I compare Saul of Tarsus -- the future revered Saint Paul -- with Bugsy Siegel or Abe Reles, because Dutton goes beyond that -- writing on Page 189 that "Two thousand years ago a certain Saul of Tarsus sanctioned the deaths of countless numbers of Christians following the public execution of their leader -- and could today, under the dictates of the Geneva Convention, have been indicted on charges of genocide."

What Dutton does in this astoundingly readable book that takes the reader on an engrossing journey into the lives of psychopaths and their infamously crafty behaviors is to show us that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit.

Dutton says that there are indeed “functional psychopaths” among us — different from their murderous counterparts — who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.

Dutton on the Chicago serial killer, Gacy: "During his trial in 1980, John Wayne Gacy declared with a sigh that all he was really guilty of was 'running a cemetery without a license.' It was quite a cemetery. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy had raped and murdered at least thirty-three young men and boys (with an average age of about eighteen) before stuffing them into a crawl space beneath his house. One of his victims, Robert Donnelly, survived Gacy’s attentions, but was tortured so mercilessly by his captor that, at several points during his ordeal, he begged him to “get it over with” and kill him.
Gacy was bemused. “I’m getting around to it,” he replied.

"I have cradled John Wayne Gacy’s brain in my hands. Following his execution in 1994 by lethal injection, Dr. Helen Morrison—a witness for the defense at his trial and one of the world’s leading experts on serial killers—had assisted in his autopsy in a Chicago hospital, and then driven back home with his brain jiggling around in a glass jar on the passenger seat of her Buick. She’d wanted to find out whether there was anything about it—lesions, tumors, disease—that made it different from the brains of normal people.

"Tests revealed nothing unusual.

"Several years later, over coffee in her office in Chicago, I got to chatting with Dr. Morrison about the significance of her findings, the significance of finding … nothing.

"“Does this mean,” I asked her, “that we’re basically all psychopaths deep down? That each of us harbors the propensity to rape, kill, and torture? If there’s no difference between my brain and the brain of John Wayne Gacy, then where, precisely, does the difference lie?”

"Morrison hesitated for a moment before highlighting one of the most fundamental truths in neuroscience.

“A dead brain is very different from a living one,” she said. “Outwardly, one brain may look very similar to another, but function completely differently. It’s what happens when the lights are on, not off, that tips the balance. Gacy was such an extreme case that I wondered whether there might be something else contributing to his actions—some injury or damage to his brain, or some anatomical anomaly. But there wasn’t. It was normal. Which just goes to show how complex and impenetrable the brain can sometimes be, how reluctant it is to give up its secrets. How differences in upbringing, say, or other random experiences can cause subtle changes in internal wiring and chemistry which then later account for tectonic shifts in behavior.”

"Morrison’s talk that day of lights and tectonic shifts reminded me of a rumor I once heard about Robert Hare, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and one of the world’s leading authorities on psychopaths. Back in the 1990s, Hare submitted a research paper to an academic journal that included the EEG responses of both psychopaths and non-psychopaths as they performed what’s known as a lexical decision task. Hare and his team of coauthors showed volunteers a series of letter strings, and then got them to decide as quickly as possible whether or not those strings comprised a word.
What they found was astonishing. Whereas normal participants identified emotionally charged words like “c-a-n-c-e-r” or “r-a-p-e” more quickly than neutral words like “t-r-e-e” or “p-l-a-t-e,” this wasn’t the case with psychopaths. To the psychopaths, emotion was irrelevant. The journal rejected the paper. Not it turned out, for its conclusions, but for something even more extraordinary. Some of the EEG patterns, reviewers alleged, were so abnormal they couldn’t possibly have come from real people. But of course they had.

"Intrigued by my talk with Morrison in Chicago about the mysteries and enigmas of the psychopathic mind—indeed, about neural recalcitrance in general—I visited Hare in Vancouver. Was the rumor true? I asked him. Had the paper really been rejected? If so, what was going on?

“There are four different kinds of brain waves,” he told me, “ranging from beta waves during periods of high alertness, through alpha and theta waves, to delta waves, which accompany deep sleep. These waves reflect the fluctuating levels of electrical activity in the brain at various times. In normal members of the population, theta waves are associated with drowsy, meditative, or sleeping states. Yet in psychopaths they occur during normal waking states—even sometimes during states of increased arousal …

“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.”
I thought back to Gacy and what I’d learned from Dr. Morrison.

"“Kiss my ass,” he’d said as he entered the death chamber.

"Normal on the outside (Gacy was a pillar of his local community, and on one occasion was even photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter), he camouflaged his inner scorpion with an endearing cloak of charm. But it was entirely in his nature to sting you—as much as it was to convince you that he wouldn’t."


Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter, Scorpio Rising:

A scorpion and a frog are sitting on the bank of a river, and both need to get to the other side.
“Hello, Mr. Frog!” calls the scorpion through the reeds. “Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the water? I have important business to conduct on the other side. And I cannot swim in such a strong current.”
The frog immediately becomes suspicious.
“Well, Mr. Scorpion,” he replies, “I appreciate the fact that you have important business to conduct on the other side of the river. But just take a moment to consider your request. You are a scorpion. You have a large stinger at the end of your tail. As soon as I let you onto my back, it is entirely within your nature to sting me.”
The scorpion, who has anticipated the frog’s objections, counters thus:
“My dear Mr. Frog, your reservations are perfectly reasonable. But it is clearly not in my interest to sting you. I really do need to get to the other side of the river. And I give you my word that no harm will come to you.”
The frog agrees, reluctantly, that the scorpion has a point. So he allows the fast-talking arthropod to scramble atop his back and hops, without further ado, into the water.
At first all is well. Everything goes exactly according to plan. But halfway across, the frog suddenly feels a sharp pain in his back—and sees, out of the corner of his eye, the scorpion withdraw his stinger from his hide. A deadening numbness begins to creep into his limbs.
“You fool!” croaks the frog. “You said you needed to get to the other side to conduct your business. Now we are both going to die!”
The scorpion shrugs and does a little jig on the drowning frog’s back.
“Mr. Frog,” he replies casually, “you said it yourself. I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting you.”
With that, the scorpion and the frog both disappear beneath the murky, muddy waters of the swiftly flowing current.
And neither of them is seen again.

Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Dutton

About the Author

Dr. Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist at the Calleva Research Centre for Evolution and Human Science, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. Dutton is the author of "Split-Second Persuasion". His writing and research have been featured in Scientific American Mind, New Scientist, The Guardian, Psychology Today, and USA Today. He lives in Oxford, England.
For a YouTube video of Dr. Dutton discussing "The Wisdom of Psychopaths":


Convicted bank robber Steve Baer on the Hare test:

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