Five surprising things I learned about psychopaths

Five surprising things I learned about psychopaths

From James Bond to Hannibal Lector, individuals with psychopathic tendencies continue to captivate people around the world. Lucy Hunter explores the defining aspects of psychopathy and ponders whether she risks adopting the dark and charismatic traits she obsesses over.

I wish I were a little bit more of a psychopath. I don’t mean so that I had the guts to hack people into little pieces and stuff them in the walls. I don’t want to do that. Honestly.

Some psychopaths may want to crack open your head and eat your brain like Hannibal Lector. Some may want to bludgeon you to death and rape your corpse like Ted Bundy. But the right kind of psychopath – charming, cool, manipulative, charismatic, fearless, ruthless, persuasive, and narcissistic – may not be a criminal. In fact they may be more like James Bond than Patrick Bateman.

I spent a worrying amount of my summer reading about psychopaths, and found some surprising facts about them, some of which actually make psychopathy seem quite desirable. If you take Robert Hare’s psychopath test and get over 27 out of a possible 40 marks on his “Psychopathy Checklist,” you are diagnosed as clinically psychopathic. Around one per cent of the population is estimated to be psychopathic. And only a small percentage of them are in prison. This is because ...

01. Psychopaths are freakin’ awesome at some things.

Have you ever suspected that your boss may be a psychopath? Well, there is a fair chance that they could be. If a psychopath is violent and has a low IQ, they are likely to end up in prison. But if they have a high IQ and are not violent, it is far more likely that the psychopath will live an ordinary life. They may even do very well for themselves. Many high-powered, mentally demanding jobs have a much higher percentage of psychopaths than in the general population.

An estimated four per cent of CEOs are clinically psychopathic. It is more likely that you work for a psychopath than have one as your subordinate. In his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton explores the positive aspects of psychopathy. He did a survey to find the most psychopathic occupations. As well as CEOs, surgeons, lawyers, journalists, media workers, police officers, and religious leaders also rated high on the list. “Psychopath” may be a scary word in our society, but being a functional one does appear to pay off. John Ronson calls it “The madness that makes the world go round – a preponderance of psychopaths at the heart of the political and business elites.”

What Dutton calls the “Seven Deadly Wins” are psychopathic traits that can be extremely useful in modern living, without necessarily making you a horrible person or a criminal. They are: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action.

Debate about whether psychopaths are born or created continues. But there is now evidence that psychopathy may be caused by a lack of activity in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain. This dulled amygdala means that psychopaths can remain extraordinarily cool under incredible pressure. They can work emotionally draining jobs and still sleep at night. And, yes, they can lie, manipulate, deceive, brown-nose, and backstab their way to the top of the job pile. “I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,” says a top neurosurgeon. “That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theatre I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw.” He describes a hyper-real clarity that settles over his vision when he operates. His mind goes quiet and allows him only to focus on the job at hand.

Creepy stuff. But in many ways a good attitude to have in surgery. An ice-cold psychopathic calm is preferable to an emotional, nervous surgeon. A lack of fear and emotions also means that ...

02. Psychopaths are basically incurable.

If you weren’t worried about anything, why would you want to change?

It is uncomfortable to think that a human being can simply have no conscience. Journalist Jon Ronson investigated Elliot Barker, a kind-hearted 1960s psychiatrist who really cared about criminal psychopaths. He thought they could be rehabilitated if given the right, loving environment to allow their consciences to flower. Inspiration for his therapy came from unconventional psychiatrist R. D. Laing. Laing’s son, Adrian Laing, says: “My father believed that if you allowed madness to take its natural course without intervention – without lobotomies and drugs and straitjackets and all the awful things they were doing at the time in mental hospitals – [the illness] would burn itself out, like an LSD trip working its way through the system.”

And so Elliot attempted to encourage a group of 12 violent psychopaths to blossom into regular people via the world’s first ever “marathon Nude Psychotherapy session.” With LSD. The therapy is exactly what it sounds like – psychotherapy done in the nude, with patient-lead activities such as “crotch eye-balling,” by a bunch of psychopathic criminals with minds saturated in psychedelic drugs. They were locked in a room called the “Total Encounter Capsule” with no distractions but each other’s naked bodies and their tripping-out drug-addled minds. They sucked food through feeding tubes sticking out of the walls. They did this for 11 day stretches. The treatment seemed to be going well. Psychopaths were opening up, talking about their feelings and listening to each other. Many who were previously thought incurable were released back into society, with some even living with Barker on his family’s farm.

Barker’s good intentions came from him not wanting to believe that a human can truly have no conscience. Under normal circumstances, criminal psychopaths have a 60 per cent re-offence rate on release from prison.

Unfortunately for Elliot Barker, the psychopaths released after undergoing his treatment at Oak Ridge Hospital had an 80 per cent re-offence rate.

They had become worse. Some even credited their therapy for helping them be even more manipulative. They had learned more devious ways of faking empathy. One psychopath, Peter Woodcock, was in prison for paedophilia and murder. He was released for three hours, during which time he killed his prison mate with a hatchet. Asked why he did it, he replied that he “wanted to see the effect that a hatchet had on a human body” and “wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone.” When reminded that he had killed other people in the past, he replied, “Yeah, but that was years and years and years and years ago.”

Poor Elliot Barker was finally obliged to abandon his noble project. He became a director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, where he specialises in counselling the children of psychopaths. He says in an interview: “I founded the society because it seemed to me clear that our ability to treat psychopaths was just about nil. We tried very hard with the treatment programs there but the results were disappointing. A psychopath is a person who has an inability to empathise with other people. I think that’s the core element of psychopathy: an inability to empathise.”

Psychopaths have been shown to actually be better at faking empathy than ordinary people. But it’s a learned response. They know what’s appropriate to show in that situation. There’s nothing inside. The feelings just aren’t there. Which seems surprising when you consider ...

03. Psychopaths have a lot in common with Buddhist monks

Do you suffer from depression? Anxiety? Do you procrastinate? Congratulations! You are not a psychopath. I have spent most of my life procrastinating. I live with a constant gnawing guilt and anxiety about my own pathetic laziness while not often doing any work to ease it. I know that the only thing that will make me feel better is to do the work, I know that I actually like the work I do, but I still often don’t do it. Someone once said that humans could achieve great things if they put up with slight discomfort, but we will go to huge lengths to avoid slight discomfort. I honestly believe most of the problems in my life would disappear if I could stop procrastinating. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate.

The reason for this seems to be that the psychopath’s naturally sluggish amygdala not only dulls “positive” emotions like conscience and empathy, but also fear, anxiety, worry about what others think of them, about the past, and about the future. Their brains are naturally anchored in the present moment. Woodcock saying his last murder was “years and years ago” is testament to this – he thrives off fresh, present experience rather than dwelling on memories. This is also why criminal psychopaths don’t respond well to punishment. They don’t dwell on it once it’s over, and so are likely to reoffend.

Who do you think this quote is from? “I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine.” The Dalai Lama? Actually, it is Leslie, a convicted murderer from Broadmoor Hospital, a high security forensic institution in the U.K.

When wired up to machines measuring their brain patterns and heart rates, the results of psychopaths and Buddhist monks who have devoted their lives to achieving presence of mind are remarkably similar. Both groups’ startled responses to loud noises or disturbing images are negligible compared to regular people. Both are largely unaffected by the anticipation or memory of fear or pain. Monks are basically psychopaths with empathy.

Meanwhile most of us are half-crippled by anxiety about the past and future, about what people think of us, and of possible dangers that may happen. Mildly unpleasant acts like calling someone to tell them bad news seems much, much worse in our minds than in the actual reality of doing it. We worry about things we can’t change or that don’t exist.

Psychopaths just don’t feel that anxiety. Which is why ...

04. Being psychopathic can make you a hero

If you’ve ever wanted to put a badly hurt animal out of its misery by killing it quickly but not been able to bring yourself to do it out of horror or squeamishness, you’ve had a struggle of conscience that a psychopath would not feel. You want to kill the animal to stop its suffering, but the thought of causing it further injury is horrific. In a similar vein, psychopaths are often better at making truly altruistic decisions than non-psychopaths. Would you go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby if you had the chance? A psychopath probably would.

They may also be more likely to save your life. Psychopaths make tough, utilitarian decisions faster and with less anxiety than regular people. They are also much happier to put themselves in danger or high-risk situations than ordinary people.

If a psychopath knew there was someone inside a burning building, their extraordinary presence of mind may cause them to go “why the fuck not?” and run inside to save them. They may genuinely want to save the person, or they may do it for kicks, or for the praise they will get. Who cares?

Some top SAS soldiers are psychopaths. So are some very good bomb deactivators. Kevin Dutton thinks that Neil Armstrong was perhaps one, judging by his incredible cool while landing on the moon with just a few seconds’ worth of fuel remaining. He says for a psychopath, heroic feats are not so much about keeping your head in the heat of the moment as not feeling the heat at all.

But, of course, the lack of anxiety when it comes to the preservation of human life also means psychopaths can make the most terrifying, cold-hearted killers. Psychopaths are simultaneously appealing and appalling. This is what makes them so fascinating. But be warned, because ...

05. Obsessing about psychopathy can make you psychopathic

While reading about this stuff, my own obsession began to freak me out. I was also talking about psychopaths far too much. I was thinking about them too much. I started watching serial-killer documentaries late at night. I found John Wayne Gacy particularly nasty. He is called “The Killer Clown” because he used to dress up as a clown for children’s parties. He also enjoyed torturing young men and boys to death and burying them under his house. After falling asleep I had a nightmare about him, and was woken abruptly by my cat doing an eerily deep, human-sounding cough. After three seconds of terror and panic I thought enough, I have to stop looking at this shit. But it’s creepily exciting. I was back on the Dennis Nilson Wikipedia page in the morning. But worse than that, I started to fancy myself as a bit of a psychopath spotter. After smugly giving myself a 2/40 mark for psychopathy, I set out, armed with Bob Hare’s “Psychopathy Checklist,” and started diagnosing everyone around me. It’s a dangerous thing to do. You will begin to see psychopaths everywhere. Any behaviour that seems un-psychopathic is exactly what a real psychopath would do to convince you they are normal, empathetic human beings. I started chewing on the wackiest extremities of a friend’s personality in order to mush her into a psychopath-shaped spitball to flick like a schoolyard bully at my feature. I was thinking, “she’s so charming and funny, but she cheated on her boyfriend and didn’t seem to care about it. And she’s persuasive. Psychopath!”

I, who am not even a psychology student, let alone a psychologist, was going to label my friend a psychopath and print it in public. After reading a couple of shitty books. I was ignoring all the good aspects of my friend’s personality and focusing on the worst bits. What a horrible, fucked-up, psychopathic thing to do. A person having two or three psychopathic characteristics is not enough. You need a cluster of them which hang together to form a psychopathic personality.

Jon Ronson warns of the “corrosive danger of judging someone by their maddest edges.” If you start psychopath spotting, you will see them everywhere, and become a power –crazed psychopath yourself.

So would you exchange some of your empathy for an equal loss of anxiety, sadness, and tendency to procrastinate? Do you sometimes wish that decisions in life were more black-and-white than you perceive them to be? Think of those desirable, psychopathic traits: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action. A wuss like me could do with some more of the whole lot. I really think my life would be better if I spent less time worrying and procrastinating.

Of course, I could start meditating and try to become some kind of Buddhist monk. But seriously, that sounds quite hard and boring. If there were an easier way to dampen my amygdala a little bit in exchange for some more of these traits, I’d take it in a second. As long as I didn’t turn into more of an arsehole than I already am. And, no, I wouldn’t want to end up blocking up the plumbing with human meat either.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2014.
Posted 2:59pm Sunday 16th March 2014 by Lucy Hunter.