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In this engrossing journey into the lives of psychopaths and their infamously crafty behaviors, the renowned psychologist Kevin Dutton reveals 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, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry.
Dutton argues 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.
As Dutton develops his theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, he puts forward the argument that society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: after all, psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused―qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century. Provocative at every turn, The Wisdom of Psychopaths is a riveting adventure that reveals that it's our much-maligned dark side that often conceals the trump cards of success.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Great and Good are seldom the same man.
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.
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.
Talking the Walk
Fabrizio Rossi is thirty-five years old, and used to be a window cleaner. But his predilection for murder eventually got the better of him. And now, would you believe, he “does” it for a living.
As we stand next to each other on a balmy spring morning, poking uneasily around John Wayne Gacy’s bedroom, I ask him what the deal is. What is it about psychopaths that we find so irresistible? Why do they fascinate us so much?
It’s definitely not the first time he’s been asked.
“I think the main thing about psychopaths,” says Rossi, “is the fact that on the one hand they’re so normal, so much like the rest of us—but on the other, so different. I mean, Gacy used to dress up as a clown and perform at children’s parties … That’s the thing about psychopaths. On the outside they seem so ordinary. Yet scratch beneath the surface, peek inside the crawl space, as it were, and you never know what you might find.”
We are not, of course, in Gacy’s actual bedroom, But rather, in a mocked-up version of it that comprises an exhibit in what must surely be a candidate for the grisliest museum in the world: the Museum of Serial Killers in Florence. The museum is located on Via Cavour, a ritzy side street within screaming distance of the Duomo.
And Fabrizio Rossi curates it.
The museum is doing well. And why wouldn’t it? They’re all there, if you’re into that kind of thing. Everyone from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, from Charles Manson to Ted Bundy.
Bundy’s an interesting case, I tell Rossi. An eerie portent of the psychopath’s hidden powers. A tantalizing pointer to the possibility that, if you look hard enough, there might be more in the crawl space than just dark secrets.
He’s surprised, to say the least.
“But Bundy is one of the most notorious serial killers in history,” he says. “He’s one of the museum’s biggest attractions. Can there really be anything else except dark secrets?”
There can. In 2009, twenty years after his execution at Florida State Prison (at the precise time that Bundy was being led to the electric chair, local radio stations urged listeners to turn off household appliances to maximize the power supply), psychologist Angela Book and her colleagues at Brock University in Canada decided to take the icy serial killer at his word. During an interview, Bundy, who staved in the skulls of thirty-five women during a four-year period in the mid-1970s, had claimed, with that boyish, all-American smile of his, that he could tell a “good” victim simply from the way she walked.
“I’m the coldest son of a bitch you’ll ever meet,” Bundy enunciated. And no one can fault him there. But, Book wondered, might he also have been one of the shrewdest?
To find out, she set up a simple experiment. First, she handed out the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale—a questionnaire specifically designed to assess psychopathic traits within the general population, as opposed to within a prison or hospital setting—to forty-seven male undergraduate students. Then, based on the results, she divided them up into high and low scorers. Next, she videotaped the gait of twelve new participants as they walked down a corridor from one room to another, where they completed a standard demographics questionnaire. The questionnaire included two items: (1) Have you ever been victimized in the past (yes or no)? (2) If yes, how many times has such victimization occurred?
Finally, Book presented the twelve videotaped segments to the original forty-seven participants, and issued them a challenge: rate, on a scale of one to ten, how vulnerable to being mugged each of the targets was. The rationale was simple. If Bundy’s assertion held water and he really had been able to sniff out weakness from the way his victims walked, then, Book surmised, those who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale should be better at judging vulnerability than the low scorers.
That, it turned out, was exactly what she found. Moreover, when Book repeated the procedure with clinically diagnosed psychopaths from a maximum-security prison, she found something else. The high-scoring “psychopathic” undergraduates in the first study might’ve been good at identifying weakness, But the clinical psychopaths went one better. They explicitly stated it was because of the way people walked. They, like Bundy, knew precisely what they were looking for.
The Men Who Stare at Coats
Angela Book’s findings are no flash in the pan. Hers is one of a growing number of studies that have, in recent years, begun to show the psychopath in a new, more complex light: a light somewhat different from the lurid shadows cast by newspaper headlines and Hollywood scriptwriters. The news is difficult to swallow. And it goes down the same way here, in this murderous little corner of Florence, as it does nearly everywhere else: with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Do you mean,” asks Rossi, incredulous, “that there are times when it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be a psychopath?”
“Not only that,” I nod, “but there are times when it’s actually a good thing—when, by being a psychopath, you in fact have an advantage over other people.”
Rossi seems far from convinced, And looking around, it’s easy to understand why. Bundy and Gacy aren’t exactly the best crowd to fall in with. And, let’s face it, when you’ve got several dozen others knocking about in the wings, it’s difficult to see the positives. But the Museum of Serial Killers doesn’t tell the full story. In fact, it’s not the half of it. As Helen Morrison eloquently elucidated, the fate of a psychopath depends on a whole range of factors, including genes, family background, education, intelligence, and opportunity—and on how they interact.
Jim Kouri, vice president of the U.S. National Association of Chiefs of Police, makes a similar point. Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers, Kouri observes—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders: individuals running not from the police, but for office. Such a profile, notes Kouri, allows those who present with it to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral, or legal consequences of their actions.
If you are born under the right star, for example, and have as much power over the human mind as the moon has over the sea, you might order the genocide of 100,000 Kurds and shuffle to the gallows with such arcane recalcitrance as to elicit, from even your harshest detractors, perverse, unspoken deference.
“Do not be afraid, doctor,” said Saddam Hussein on the scaffold, moments before his execution. “This is for men.”
If you are violent and cunning, like real-life “Hannibal Lecter” Robert Maudsley, you might lure a fellow inmate to your cell, smash in his skull with a claw hammer, and sample his brains with a spoon as nonchalantly as if you were downing a soft-boiled egg. (Maudsley, by the way, has been cooped up in solitary confinement for the past thirty years, in a bulletproof cage in the basement of Wakefield Prison in England.)
Or if you are a brilliant neurosurgeon, ruthlessly cool and focused under pressure, you might, like the man I’ll call Dr. Geraghty, try your luck on a completely different playing field: at the remote outposts of twenty-first-century medicine, where risk blows in on hundred-mile-an-hour winds and the oxygen of deliberation is thin:
“I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,” he told me. “That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, 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.”
Geraghty is one of the U.K.’s top neurosurgeons—and though on one level his words send a chill down the spine, on another they make perfect sense. Deep in the ghettos of some of the brain’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the psychopath is glimpsed as a lone and ruthless predator, a solitary species of transient, deadly allure. No sooner is the word...
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