Skip to main content

Oxford research psychologist Kevin Dutton argues the rest of us have something to learn from The Wisdom of Psychopaths.Noah Berger

Consider the following scene: You're out for dinner with your family when your father suddenly stands, raps his spoon against a glass and calls the restaurant patrons – all strangers – to attention.

"Many thanks," he says, "for coming tonight, especially to those who have come from out of town. I can't tell you how much it means that you could join us. We'd like to continue the celebration after dessert, with a reception down the street at the King's Arms. It would be lovely to see you all there."

The diners all applaud with enthusiasm.

Leaving soon after, you ask, "Dad, we aren't really going to the King's Arms, are we?"

"No, son," he says, "but they are. My friend Malcolm has just taken over as landlord and he'll make a few quid tonight."

That, says British research psychologist Kevin Dutton, who watched his own father once perform that – and many similar – acts of brazen tomfoolery, is classic evidence of psychopathy.

"My father was absolutely a nailed-down psychopath," he said in an interview. "Never violent, but ruthless, fearless, shameless, charming. He could have sold shaving cream to the Taliban."

As Dr. Dutton documents in his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, not every psychopath is a serial killer like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.

"There are two deep-seated myths I'm trying to debunk," explains Dr. Dutton, 45, who teaches at Oxford's Magdalen College. "The first is that they're all either mad or bad. And second, that you're either a psychopath or you're not."

On the contrary, he says, predatory violence is only one of a dozen character traits that inform the authentic psychopath. Among the others are ruthlessness, charm, focus, intel- ligence, grace under pressure, narcissism, appetite for risk, the need to control, emotional detachment and/or lack of conscience.

Only in extreme cases is sadistic cruelty added to the list. Dr. Dutton's favoured analogy is the mixing board of a recording studio: Each control represents a different characteristic, and each can be modulated to different levels, producing an infinite array of behavioural results.

"Crank all the dials to max, and you'll end up doing 30 years," he says. "But if some are up and some down, you can [adjust, and] be quite successful."

Indeed, stripped of the stereotype's lurid sensationalism, bona-fide psychopaths are walking among us in serious numbers. (Estimates range from 0.5 to 2 per cent of the population.) We elect, obey and idolize many of them.

Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Franklin Roosevelt, James Bond, John F. Kennedy, Vladimir Putin, King David, the Apostle Paul – all of these, Dr. Dutton suggests, would doubtless score well on any psychopathic test. (He is not prepared to offer judgment about Barack Obama or his Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney.) Mesmerizing chief executive officer, type-A lawyer or cardiac surgeon, charismatic clergyman, galvanic politician, seductive lead actor – all of these, he says, display psychopathic tendencies, and all the more effective because they are so carefully veiled.

The common denominator is high achievement. Their methods may not always pass the smell test. They may leave victims callously strewn in their wake. But the syndrome does have redemptive value. Functional psychopaths get things done – often, things that contribute to the broader social good.

"A Martian working at a clinic treating human sun-related conditions, everything from melanoma to dehydration, would be forgiven for thinking, 'Let's ban the sun. It's bad,' " Dr. Dutton says. "But you and I know the sun is only bad in large doses. In fact, without it, we wouldn't be here at all. It's the same with psychopaths. Exposed to one all day, you're going to get carcinoma of the personality. But regulated psychopathy can have intrinsic benefits – personality with a good tan."

Psychopaths are such brilliant actors that potential victims may not realize what they are dealing with, says Dr. Dutton, whose first book, Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion, was translated into 18 languages. But certain social cues facilitate recognition, he maintains. Is your husband deceitful (statistically, psychopaths are predominantly male)? Is your boss manipulative? Does your colleague steal your ideas or shift blame for failures to other staff members?

The key difference between a criminally minded and a functionally successfully psychopath is self-control. "The former has his impulsivity dial turned up higher," Dr. Dutton says. "The other is much better able to defer gratification."

It's not surprising that politics attracts a disproportionate number of psychopaths. "Politicians must be self-confident, fearless, very good at persuasion and manipulation, and be mentally tough to deal with crises," he says. "One senior British MP – he shall remain nameless – told me the only way to see who was stabbing you in the back was to see their reflection in the eyes of the person stabbing you in the front."

Because apples seldom fall far from their tree, I asked Dr. Dutton whether he harboured the same psychopathic instincts as his late father.

"Well, I'll tell you, Michael," he says, sounding very much like the Petticoat Lane market trader his father was. "I've got too much of a conscience."

But, in other respects, Dr. Dutton is clearly his father's son. He frames complex ideas in simple ways, demonstrates the same glib facility with words and establishes instant familiarity by dropping my name frequently into the conversation.

And, lest we forget, salesmanship: Even though he argues that psychopathic killers are just a small fraction of the psychopathic population, Dr. Dutton's website is designed like an advertisement for A Nightmare on Elm Street , with shock-horror typography.

"That's called getting the best of both worlds, my friend," he said. "You've got to reel them in somehow. And it's called marketing."

Psycho or hero?

As Kevin Dutton's new book illustrates, the same characteristics that we might use to describe society's leaders just need a little push to become traits that define full-throttle psychopathy.

Leadership traits



Ablility to influence





Ability to make hard decisions

Psychopathic traits

Superficial charm



Con artistry


Fabrication of stories


Emotional coldness

Interact with The Globe