An interesting book entitled The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success by Kevin Dutton, highlights some of the similarities between psychopaths and the very successful. Wikipedia defines psychopathy as “a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior.”
Read on to discover what some of these characteristics are, in addition to a few of the illuminating points shared in the book.
Not all psychopaths are violent
When many of us think of psychopaths, violent, well-known individuals such as Ivan the Terrible, Robert Maudsley (the living and breathing ‘Hannibal Lecter’), Hitler and Jack the Ripper stalk the mind. A less well-known psychopath, Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed bathed in the blood of her victims – she murdered over 600 women and young girls. But, as Dutton stresses in this excerpt of the book, not all psychopaths are violent murderers: there is a “spectrum of psychopathy” and each of us occupies different positions along that continuum. Moreover, the spectrum is one of dimension and degree, and not one of discrete differences.
The neural basis for psychopathy
Dutton refers to a number of studies conducted to highlight the differences between psychopathic and ‘normal’ behavior. MRI scans of the brain reveal that when those without the disorder are presented with moral dilemmas, significant neural activity in the amygdala of the brain, the area of the brain typically implicated in our experience of emotion, can be observed when the nature of the dilemma “crosses the border from impersonal to personal”, but a dramatically divergent picture emerges when the same, personal dilemmas are presented to psychopaths: their scans show little to no neural activity.
The psychopathic characteristics of the very successful
To successfully ‘climb up the greasy pole of success’ isn’t simply a matter of talent or ability. There are also specific attributes that are signposts for high achievement. Dutton, himself a former CEO, attests to a number of traits common to psychopaths and the very successful, which include the following:
An obvious characteristic of psychopaths, it is also one that the very successful value in themselves. By way of example, Dutton cites an interview with the hugely successful venture capitalist Jon Moulton, who revealed that insensitivity “lets you sleep when others can’t”. The very successful have little room for sentimentality when tough, often life-changing decisions have to be made.
Manipulation of others
Ever wondered why people refer to success as a ‘greasy pole’? Dutton offers a comment made to him by a successful CEO, who remarked that getting to the top is easier when you use others to help you get there – easier still if those used by you believe that it is in their interests to help you.
A nose for an opportunity
In an interesting experiment, Dutton invited a group of 30 undergraduate students to take part in an experiment to identify a ‘guilty’ associate with particular characteristics. Half of the students scored highly on a ‘Self-Report Psychopathy Scale’; the other half had low scores. The overwhelming majority of those who scored highly on the Scale correctly identified the associate, compared with roughly a third of those with low scores.
All three characteristics enable those in possession of them to not only achieve success, but also to pursue their goals unfazed by the perceptions of others. That said, the same aforementioned and phenomenally successful Jon Moulton, in his Financial Times interview, offers the following, perhaps a caveat, when asked if he would do anything differently in his life:
“I would have liked – in a general sense – to have been loved more…”
Image via Hannibalpedia