“There were a billion lights out there on the horizon and I knew that all of them put together weren’t enough to light the darkness in the hearts of some men.”
― Michael Connelly, The Scarecrow
“Never has there been born a genius, without a touch of madness.” – Aristotle
Psychopath: This word conjures up images of serial killers for most people. Those are valid examples, but don’t be fooled. There’s much more to the story than that.
Trying to know the world without understanding their influence, would be like trying to explain a beehive without ever seeing the queen. She’s at the center of events. Her influence is powerful and wide. Yet, she’s rarely seen. You could watch the outside of the hive for a long time, and never steal a glimpse of what’s underneath…
In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson illustrates one of the major differences in their thinking:
You are standing at a railroad track, next to a switch. A train is speeding towards five people who are tied to the track. There is no time to untie them. If you throw the switch, the train will switch to a track with only one person instead of five. Do you flip the switch?
You are standing on a bridge over a railroad track. Again, a train is speeding towards five people, tied up. This time, instead of a switch, a colleague from work is standing next to you. You’ve known this person for a few years and met his family. The only way to stop the train would be to shove him off the bridge, into the path of the train. In response, the train’s engineer will throw on the brakes, saving the five. Do you shove your friend off the bridge?
Most normal people would say yes to scenario 1, but no to scenario 2.
But every now and then a subject will laugh and say that they see no difference between the scenarios. That’s how they think.
This test, by design, evaluates the subject’s empathy. The first example is impersonal. We’re talking about victims as numbers. Which is why most of us can make a cold decision to save those lives. But the second example introduces a victim we know. We’re dealing with this person in a very close and personal sense. Shoving a living, breathing person off a bridge is very different. For most of us.
It’s an important distinction to understand. For now, take this at face value. I’ll discuss in-depth the reasons why in a future article.
So if you remove all empathy from the human mind, what do you end up with?
In The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Dr. Kevin Dutton describes his own psychopathic father. Here was a man who never panicked, never lost his cool, never got overly emotional, was ruthlessly competitive, and never backed down from a confrontation. The man always found his way on top of a business deal. These are traits most of us would love to have.
Fear is an emotion all organisms use to avoid danger. With the right chemical triggers removed, the fear disappears. Monkeys with tumors on their amygdala will forget all about danger and play with cobras. Whether you see this as good or bad, depends on what you want out of life. If you want a fearless reputation, you’d rather be known as the guy that handles cobras without breaking a sweat. If you want to live as long as possible, you probably want the opposite.
Humans as a species are very risk averse. Mutual funds are by far the worst investment, with the lowest returns, and the highest management fees, yet they are the most popular. Most of us just don’t have the stomach for anything riskier.
Psychopathy traits, like all aspects of human personality, vary in degree. In Wisdom, these are likened to a series of dials. If you crank them all up to max settings, you may end up with an out-of-control serial killer. In more reasonable doses, you end up with a talented surgeon who saves thousands of people’s lives over the course of his own. It’s surprising to most people that these two share anything in common, but they do. It’s merely a matter of degree.
•Fearless and Confident.
•Charming and Charismatic.
•Ruthless and Focused.
•Immunity to Anxiety and Depression.
•Risk-Taking and Reward-driven. Punishment has little effect on them.
•Risk addiction. Constantly trying to “re-live the first hit” of risk, just like a drug addict.
•Often taken to delusions of grandeur and big, important ideas.
•Can tell the boldest of lies with a straight face.
•Easily bounce back from failure, rejection, and criticism, demonstrating renewed confidence.
•Psychopaths “get on a roll” by starting out with small actions, and become increasingly more bold as they get away with things.
•They fall in love with ideas, rather than people.
•Studies have shown them to have dream brainwaves during waking hours. Their imagination is always running wild.
•They easily read the emotions of others. They have been shown in studies to be more sensitive to small, subtle vocal and behavioral cues. They almost always know when others are lying.
•Psychopaths understand the mechanics of emotions, but they do not empathize with the emotion itself.
•Normal people, through empathy, assume the emotional state of the group. The psychopath does not, though he may fake it to fit in.
•They often describe their actions as arising from a need to rebel against the typical human life.
I’m intrigued. I’d like to meet my local, neighborhood psychopath. Where can I find him?
You probably already know one. Since they’re 3% of us, for every 100 people you know, you should know about 3 of them. Statistically speaking. Though, that’s not to say that they’re all evenly distributed.
Women are rarely psychopathic, it’s an almost exclusively male trait, but they are most likely to fall for his charms. If you read off this list of traits to some female friends, several will probably tell you they “once slept with a guy like that.” Psychopaths aren’t all serial killers. Some are just prone to sleep with a lot of women and never call them again. Among other pursuits.
How can women fall for this, even intelligent ones? Naturally driven by empathy, most have a hard time reconciling its absence. They perceive his charms as genuine and meaningful, when they are anything but…
So what? They sound like a bunch of jerks, and they’ll do themselves in. No one like that would ever get ahead in life!
Actually, research has proven the opposite.
Many of them are are immensely successful. A number of professions are statistically dominated by them. Go back and read the list again. Doesn’t this sound like every Politician you’ve ever listened to? CEO? Wall Street Banker? Some Hollywood celebrities, even?
I am Fishhead is an in-depth documentary on this topic. Leading researchers, in collaboration, find a startling prevalence of ruthless, charismatic, risk-taking individuals at the apex of both corporate and government pyramids.
Why? Fierce competition. Only the ruthless can make it to the top. Ask anyone with a long-term corporate career about the backstabbing they deal with on a daily basis…
Social groups tend to gravitate like-minded individuals. Psychopaths are no different. They often end up in the proximity of their own kind.
Psychopaths In Society:
The May 2011 British National Survey confirmed exactly what many already suspected. Psychopaths comprise the membership of many respectable professions, and they especially dominate the upper echelons of some of these.
Scored Highest On Psychopathic Traits:
•Police/Military – Particularly SWAT and Special Forces
Scored Lowest on Psychopathic Traits:
In spite of the stereotypes that some may apply, individuals with these traits have the potential for both good and evil. Ruthlessness and charm can be applied in pursuit of positive ends. Saul of Tarsas, better known as Saint Paul, was a psychopath. All of his great lessons in spirituality were revealed to him by taking risks.
Philip Zimbardo, the famed researcher who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, came to the conclusion through his research that psychopaths adapt just as well to the “hero” role as to the “villain” role. It’s merely a matter of the ideas they fall in love with…
I believe they’ve been with us for a long time. History shows their fingerprints.
Ask yourself, what kind of person:
•Plots and carries out an event like 9/11?
•Orchestrates a massive financial scandal, stealing billions of dollars – then lies, threatens, and coerces to cover it up?
•Fiddles while Rome burns?
The 20th Century seems to have created expanded opportunities for psychopaths to thrive, yet the 21st Century seems to have created expanded opportunities for them to be exposed. Hence, the stream of scandals, corruption, adultery, and theft.
But, what if the biggest fishheads have yet to be revealed?