In “Seven Psychopaths,” which hits theaters this Friday, a struggling screenwriter becomes an unwilling participant in the L.A. gang underworld after his friends abduct a crime lord’s shih tzu. Starring Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson and Abbie Cornish, and directed by Martin McDonagh (the brains behind “In Bruges”), the film takes a dark but comic approach to the idea of a “psychopath”: someone whose utter lack of conscience enables them to hurt others without remorse.
But real-world psychopaths are no laughing matter and, often, they’re far less obvious about their iniquities than the gun-toting anti-heroes of “Seven Psychopaths.” In his new book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” Cambridge psychology researcher Kevin Dutton adds fuel to the recent interest in psychopathy with a bold assertion: the lack of conscience that enables murderers and thieves to commit “around 50 percent of the most serious crimes on record,” he argues, may actually be a secret to success for those at the top of society.
Drawing on laboratory experiments, studies and interviews, Dutton (“Split-Second Persuasion”) finds surprising similarities between the diagnostic checklist for psychopathy and the personality traits we often attribute to highly successful and intelligent people. Charisma, fearlessness, ruthlessness and the ability to detach from one’s emotions are among the perversely seductive qualities observed in psychopathic criminals, Dutton argues, but they’re also behaviors and attitudes we see in the movers and shakers—the CEOs, media executives, surgeons and civil servants—we revere. “Deep within the corridors of the brain,” Dutton writes, “psychopathy and sainthood share secret neural office space.”
Dutton’s findings open questions about the nature and definition of psychopathy, joining the annals of psychology books that tackle the issue. Is psychopathy a disorder unto itself or a sinister consolidation of traits that are present, to some degree, in all of us? Are high-achieving individuals who exhibit psychopathic qualities really psychopaths or are they instead people who, in pursuit of success, have found a way to circumvent fear and shake off the albatross of moral thinking?
Dutton explores these questions and lays out a theory that psychopaths, for all their eeriness, may have something to teach us about success.
Reviews of “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” have been mixed. Some critics have applauded Dutton’s treatment of the subject as nuanced and original, while others have complained that his arguments spring from an overly elastic understanding of the disorder. “Dutton hazards the guess that a small helping of one particular psychopathic quality can confer surprising benefits for society as well as the individual,” says Kirkus, declaring the book to be “enjoyable” but “breezy.” Publishers Weekly says Dutton is “admirably capable of rendering complicated research into readable and engaging prose,” but that his “definition of ‘psychopathy’ is a little too malleable.” PW adds that Dutton’s “repeated use of studies—most conducted in a university or laboratory setting—detracts from his broader analysis of psychopaths within our society.”
The Guardian extols “Dutton’s refusal to accept easy answers in one of the more sensational fields of popular psychology,” but laments his tendency to write with “the one-tone-fits-all breeziness of the excited enthusiast.” For The Daily Beast, Robert Herritt writes: “Psychopathic traits have been given the Darwinian OK throughout the history of human evolution, which helps validate Dutton’s argument that these qualities can be pretty important tools if properly used.” Still, Herritt decries the sometimes-prescriptive nature of the book, saying that Dutton “falls victim to the pervasive habit among popular psychology writers to turn every insight into a self-help strategy.”