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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012

From Killers to Car Dealers

‘The Wisdom of Psychopaths’ explores their strange determination

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The steely-eyed gaze. The sudden glint of a hidden blade. The hulking contours of an ominous figure. Immediately you think: psychopath, serial killer. And rightfully so.

But think again, for there exists a spectrum of psychopaths out there beyond that classic incarnation and they operate within the bright rays of day right under our noses. Obvious examples populate today’s news: CEOs, politicians, dictators and closer to home, maybe that used car salesman who somehow just sold you a wreck that you’re nervously driving back to your wife.

Some of those “functioning” psychopaths assuredly share those innate killer instincts—those Machiavellian machinations we classically ascribe to the stereotypical profile of the criminally insane—yet they are socially and very successfully operational. It’s those similarities shared, from the outlaw to the functional, that are explored in Kevin Dutton’s book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Dutton, a psychologist and research fellow at the University of Cambridge and contributor to Scientific American and Psychology Today, takes us on a compelling journey through the various lands of psychopathy, from maximum security institutions (such as the infamous Broadmoor Hospital in England, which houses sinister denizens such as the “Stockwell Strangler” and the “Yorkshire Ripper”), to the mysterious mountain tops of Japan and quite fittingly, the Museum of Serial Killers in Florence, Italy or a visit to a creepy recreation of John Wayne Gacy’s bedroom.

Amid the scientific jargon, this highly readable inquiry across the captivating firmament of psychopathy explores a variety of academic surveys, professional studies and clinical tests that provide for fascinating findings. Conferring with professionals in the field, he picks the minds of neuroscientists and hardened killers, FBI and military Special Forces operatives and even subjects himself to an intense Clockwork Orange type of treatment with interesting effects.

Dutton examines the unmistakable characteristics of the psychopath: the seductive sheen of charisma, the ability to read people like a dime-store novel and the cunning facility to live in the moment, indifferent to the prism of life’s worrisome possibilities. He explores the fascinating links between disparate existence, revealing that madmen such as Gary Gilmore and Ted Bundy possess much the same traits as star athletes and meditating monks: impenetrable concentration, control of anxiety and unfettered singular determination.

And it’s some of those very traits—the intense focus, the emotional stoicism, the steadiness under pressure—that can have a very positive payoff. I’m sure you wouldn’t want a brain surgeon with the jitters operating underneath your skull and it‘s that same kind of inimitable cool that allows an airline pilot to make a heroic landing in an emergency situation.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths
offers beneficial insight, intoning that a little bit of psychopathy just might be good for many of us, as it may help us assert ourselves in adverse situations, protect us from the ravages society can inflict and diminish our likelihood of falling prey to victimhood. After all, the best defense is a good offense.

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