February 18th, 2014

"The Wisdom of Psychopaths" by Kevin Dutton

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton

Page turner (although I admit I listened to the audio version!) and chokeful of interesting tidbits and examples not just about the exceptionally psychopathic but about all humanity along the spectrum (and not). If you are not at all psychopathic (raises hand) then you will definitely be surprised by the processes going on in the minds of people whose very neurology, not just actions and choices, are so profoundly different and, ultimately, outside your realm of experience (Unless, like the author, you get to try out being a psychopath for an hour!).

Collected all the quotes, as usual.

[Spoiler (click to open)]

The results couldn’t have been clearer: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the knickknacks. The rain made them sad, and their sadness made them pay more attention. Moral of the story? When the weather’s nice, be sure to check your change.

When you go down the road of disorders conferring advantages, of clouds, silver linings, and psychological consolation prizes, it’s difficult to conceive of a condition that doesn’t pay off—at least in some form or another. Obsessive-compulsive? You’re never going to leave the gas on. Paranoid? You’ll never fall afoul of the small print. In fact, fear and sadness—anxiety and depression—constitute two of the five basic emotions1 that are found universally across cultures, and that, as such, virtually all of us experience at some point in our lives. But there’s one group of people who are the exception to the rule, who don’t experience either—even under the most difficult and trying of circumstances. Psychopaths. A psychopath wouldn’t worry even if he had left the gas on.2 Any silver linings there?

Put this question to a psychopath and, more often than not, he’ll look at you as if you’re the one who’s crazy. To a psychopath, you see, there are no such things as clouds. There are only silver linings. The fiendish observation that a year consists of twelve months, not eleven, might well have put one hell of a kibosh on selling those datebooks, you’d think. But not to my dad, it didn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. He saw it as a selling point.

He’s certainly not alone. Nor, some might argue, is he too far off the mark. During the course of my research I’ve met a great many psychopaths from all walks of life—not just within my own family. Sure, behind closed doors I’ve encountered my fair share of Hannibal Lecters and Ted Bundys: remorseless, unconscionable A-listers who could dine at any psychopath table you care to mention without even picking up the phone—by just showing up. But I’ve also met psychopaths who, far from devouring society from within, serve, through nerveless poise and hard-as-nails decision making, to protect and enrich it instead: surgeons, soldiers, spies, entrepreneurs—dare I say, even lawyers. “Don’t get too cocky. No matter how good you are. Don’t let them see you coming,” counseled Al Pacino as the head attorney of a top law firm in the film The Devil’s Advocate. “That’s the gaff, my friend—make yourself small. Be the hick. The cripple. The nerd. The leper. The freak. Look at me—I’ve been underestimated from day one.” Pacino was playing the Devil. And—not surprisingly, perhaps—he hit the nail right on the head. If there’s one thing that psychopaths have in common, it’s the consummate ability to pass themselves off as normal everyday folk, while behind the facade—the brutal, brilliant disguise—beats the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.

As one hugely successful young attorney told me on the balcony of his penthouse apartment overlooking the Thames: “Deep inside me there’s a serial killer lurking somewhere. But I keep him amused with cocaine, Formula One, booty calls, and coruscating cross-examination.”

Ever so slowly, I moved away from the edge.

This aerial encounter with the young lawyer (he later ran me back to my hotel downriver in his speedboat) goes some way toward illustrating a theory I have about psychopaths: that one of the reasons we’re so fascinated by them is because we’re fascinated by illusions, by things that appear, on the surface, to be normal, yet that on closer examination turn out to be anything but. Amyciaea lineatipes is a species of arachnid that mimics the physical appearance of the ants on which it preys. Only when it is too late are its victims finally disabused of the notion that they’re good judges of character. Many people I’ve interviewed know exactly how that feels. And they, believe me, are the lucky ones.

Take a look at the picture below. How many soccer balls can you see? Six? Take another look. Still six? Turn to the end of the preface and you’ll find the answer at the bottom.

Yet alongside the challenge to our existential comfort zones, these two accounts also conceal, deep within the lining of their tragedies, a rather odd paradox. The fact that conformity is built into our brains is about as nailed down an evolutionary certainty as you can get. When a herd animal is threatened by a predator, what does it do? It huddles closer to the group. As individual salience decreases, chances of survival increase. This is just as true in humans as it is in other species. Streaming behind our supersonic, turbocharged brains are ancient Darwinian vapor trails stretching all the way back to the brutal, blood-soaked killing fields of prehistory. In an experiment, for instance, that hitched the latest in social networking to its earliest biological origins, social psychologist Vladas Griskevicius, then at Arizona State University, and his coworkers found that when users of an Internet chat room are made to feel under threat, they show signs of “sticking together.” Their views display convergence, and they become more likely to conform to the attitudes and opinions of others in the forum.

“Prison,” elucidates Barry, “is a hostile environment. It has a different set of rules than the outside world. It’s a community within a community. If you don’t stand up and be counted, someone can move in on you any time they want. So you have to do something about it. You don’t have to keep taking people out. That ain’t the way it works. Once or twice is usually enough. You do it once or twice and word soon gets round: Don’t mess with these guys. Prevention, is what I’m saying, is better than cure. Carpe noctem.”

Barry’s point about conflict resolution is an interesting one, and is echoed, in not so many words, by the incarcerated record producer Phil Spector. “Better to have a gun and not need it,” the Magnum-toting screwball once expounded, “than to need a gun and not have it” (though whether he still believes that today is anybody’s guess). A more nuanced position is taken by the Chinese military strategist of the sixth century B.C.,

Sun Tzu. “To subdue the enemy without fighting,” wrote Sun, “is the highest skill”—a skill, as we saw just a moment or so ago with Jim and Buzz, that’s both hard to fake and unequivocally rooted in confidence. Not a false confidence based on bravado. But a real confidence based on belief.

Here’s Dean Petersen, an ex–Special Forces soldier turned martial arts instructor: “Sometimes, when you’re in a hostile situation, your best option is to match the aggressive intentions of a potentially violent individual. And then go one step beyond them. Raise them, in other words, to use a poker analogy. Only then, once you’ve gained the psychological ascendancy, shown them … hinted … who’s boss, can you begin to talk them down.”

How better to assert your authority than by convincing prospective challengers that they’re beaten before they start?

Barry’s argument has wider implications, too—for the selection, not just of ruthlessness, but of other psychopathic characteristics such as fearlessness and superficial charm. Conflict, it transpires, isn’t the only means of establishing dominance in the natural world. Back in the days of our ancestors, survival, just as in prison, didn’t come cheap. Although group membership constituted a significant chunk of the price tag, communities also placed a surprisingly high premium on risk takers.

One observes a similar dynamic in monkeys still today. Male chimpanzees (our closest living relative, with whom we share 96 percent of our DNA) will compete through “magnanimity”: through the direction of unsolicited altruism toward subordinates. Such magnanimity is usually gastronomic in nature: enduring danger to provide the troop with food, sharing out the proceeds of one’s own kills charitably, and confiscating those of others for the purposes of reallocation.

As the primatologist Frans de Waal points out, “Instead of dominants standing out because of what they take, they affirm their position by what they give.”

Of equal note are those primates who vie with one another for status through “public service” or “leadership”—by facilitating cooperation within the group, or, if you prefer, through charisma, persuasion, and charm. Dominant chimpanzees, stump-tailed monkeys, and gorillas all compete by intervening in disputes among subordinates. Yet, contrary to expectation, such intervention does not, by default, automatically favor family and friends. It is implemented, as de Waal observes, “on the basis of how best to restore peace.”

Consequently, de Waal continues, rather than decentralizing conflict resolution, “the group looks for the most effective arbitrator in its midst, then throws its weight behind this individual to give him a broad base of support for guaranteeing peace and order.”

Ruthlessness. Fearlessness. Persuasiveness. Charm. A deadly combination—yet also, at times, a lifesaving one. Have the killers of today enjoyed a sneaky evolutionary piggyback on the prowess of yesterday’s peacemakers? It may not be beyond the bounds of possibility—though violence, of course, isn’t exactly new.

Yet it is precisely this simplification, this behavioral polarization, which lends such a model its power. Pure unconditional aggression and pure unconditional capitulation are destined to fail as strategies of social exchange in a society of multiple interaction and mutual dependence. In what essentially amounts to a peripatetic seesaw effect, each strategy is vulnerable to exploitation by the other once one has gained the ascendancy: once the proponents of one strategy become enough of a mob to be parasitized by those of the competing strategy. To coin a phrase from the sociobiology lexicon: as strategies for survival, neither unqualified cooperation nor unqualified competition may be regarded as evolutionarily stable.6 Both may be trumped by invading or mutating counterstrategies.

including, in some cases, the queen, in order to a

“Most folk you come across pay no attention to what they say when they’re talking to you. Once out, the words are gone. But a grifter will zone in on everything … Like therapy, you’re trying to get inside the person. Figure out who they are from the little things. And it’s always the little things. The devil’s in the detail … You get them to open up. Usually by telling them something about yourself first—a good grifter always has a narrative. And then immediately change the subject. Randomly. Abruptly. It can be anything … some thought that just occurred to you out of the blue or whatever … anything to interrupt the flow of conversation. Nine times out of ten the person will completely forget what they’ve just said.

        “Then you can get to work—not right away, you need to be patient. But a month or two later. You modify whatever it is, whatever the hell they’ve told you—you tend to know instantly where the pressure points are—and then tell the story back as if it were your own. Bam! From that point on, you can pretty much take what you want.

        “I’ll give you an example … [One guy is] rich, successful, works like a dog … When he’s a kid, he comes home from school to find his record collection gone. His pop’s a bum and has sold it to stock up his liquor cabinet. He’s been collecting these records for years.

        “So wait, I think. You’re telling me this after, what, three or four hours in a bar? There’s something going down. Then I get it. So that’s why you work so goddamned hard, I think. It’s because of your pappy. You’re scared. You’re life’s been on hold all these years. You’re not a CEO. You’re that scared little kid. The one who’s going to come home from school one day and find your record collection is history.

        “Jesus, I think! That’s hilarious! So guess what? A couple of weeks later I tell him what happened to me. How I get home from work one night and find my wife in bed with the boss. How she files for divorce. And cleans me out.”

        Morant pauses, and pours us some more champagne.

        “Total bullshit!” he laughs. “But you know what? I did that guy a favor. Put him out of his misery. What do they say—the best way to overcome your fears is to confront them? Well, someone had to be Daddy.”

        Morant’s words are chilling. Even more so when you hear them firsthand. At close quarters. I distinctly remember our meeting in New Orleans, and how I felt at the time. Violated, but captivated. Enthralled, but creeped out—much like the clinicians and law enforcement agents that Reid Meloy interviewed, back in chapter 1. I was under precious few illusions as to the kind of man I was dealing with, despite his style and the millionaire yachtsman vibe. Here, in all his glory, was a psychopath. A predatory social chameleon. As the champagne flowed, and the slow southern twilight glinted off his Rolex, he would colonize your brain synapse by synapse without even breaking a sweat. And without your even knowing.

        And yet, as a psychologist I saw the simple, ruthless genius in what Morant was saying. His modus operandi adheres to strict scientific principles. Research shows that one of the best ways of getting people to tell you about themselves is to tell them something about yourself. Self-disclosure meets reciprocity. Research also shows that if you want to stop someone from remembering something, the key is to use distraction. And, above all, to use it fast.4 And in clinical psychology, there comes a point in virtually every therapeutic intervention where the therapist strikes gold: uncovers a time, a defining moment or incident, that either precipitates the underlying problem or encapsulates it, or both. And this doesn’t just apply to dysfunction. Core personality structures, interpersonal styles, personal values—all these things are often best revealed in the small print of people’s lives.

“There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear,” comments David Zald, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, and coauthor of the study. “But those traits are not particularly good predictors of violence, or criminal behavior … These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick … It’s not just that they don’t appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns.”

High PPI scorers—specifically, those who scored high on the “Coldheartedness” subscale of the questionnaire, the subscale that most directly taps into empathy—in fact showed greater attenuation of the TMS response than low scorers, suggesting that psychopaths, rather than having an impairment in recognizing the emotions of others, indeed have a talent for it. And that the problem lies not in emotional recognition per se, but in the dissociation between its sensory and affective components: in the disconnect between knowing what an emotion is and feeling what it’s like.

        Psychologist Abigail Baird has discovered something similar. In an emotion recognition task using fMRI, she found that while volunteers scoring high on the PPI showed reduced amygdala activity compared to low scorers when matching faces with similar emotional expressions (consonant with a deficit in emotional processing), they also displayed increased activity in both the visual and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices—indicative, as Baird and her team point out, of “high-scoring participants relying on regions associated with perception and cognition to do the emotion recognition task.”

        One psychopath I spoke to put it like this. “Even the color-blind,” he said, “know when to stop at a traffic light.

Moreover, the experts rated the acupuncture displays as significantly less unpleasant than the controls did—reminiscent of numerous laboratory findings showing attenuated physiological responses (e.g., heart rate, galvanic skin response [GSR], and cortisol levels) in psychopaths on presentation of fearful, disgusting, or erotic stimuli—and in the face of arduous social stress tests, such as the Trier.11 What the expert acquires through experience, psychopaths have from the start.

         Precisely why this downturn in social values should have come about is not entirely clear. A complex concatenation of environment, role models, and education is, as usual, doing the rounds. But the beginnings of an even more fundamental answer may lie in another study conducted by Jeffrey Zacks and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, Washington University in St. Louis. With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his coauthors peered deep inside the brains of a bunch of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters’ locations (e.g., “went out of the house into the street”) were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., “picked up a pencil”) produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important of all, however, changes in a character’s goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action.

        Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to lead researcher Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives, to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.

        Reading a book carves brand new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world. Makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.2

. Boys who are abused or neglected, and who possess a variation of the gene that codes for low levels of MAOA, are at an increased risk, as they get older, of turning into violent psychopaths. On the other hand, those coming from a similarly dysfunctional background, but who produce more of the enzyme, rarely develop such problems.

        The implications of the discovery have percolated into the courtroom, and could completely rewrite the fundamental rules of crime and punishment. Whether we’re “good” or whether we’re “bad” lies partly in our genes, and partly in our environment. But since we don’t choose either, are we free to choose at all?

         I suddenly get a flash of insight. We talk about gender. We talk about class. We talk about color. And intelligence. And creed. But the most fundamental difference between one individual and another must surely be that of the presence, or absence, of conscience. Conscience is what hurts when everything else feels good. But what if it’s as tough as old boots? What if one’s conscience has an infinite, unlimited pain threshold and doesn’t bat an eye when others are screaming in agony?

        Ahem. Even more important: will my prosthetic psychopath implants make me cooler than Andy McNab?

        Back in the chair, wired up to the counters and bleepers, I sit through the horror show again: the images modified, so as to avoid habituation. This time, however, it’s a completely different story. “I know the guy before me found these images nauseating,” I hear myself saying. “But actually, to be honest, this time round I’m finding it hard to suppress a smile.”

        The lines and squiggles corroborate my confession. Whereas previously, such was my level of arousal that it was pretty much a minor miracle that the state-of-the-art EEG printer hadn’t blown up and burst into flames, my brain activity after the psychopath makeover is significantly reduced. Perhaps not quite as genteelly undulating as Andy’s. But getting there, certainly. Not a New York skyscraper in sight.

With his immaculately coiffured blond locks and his impeccable cut-glass accent, he looks and sounds like an authority. “People are as nice as you make them,” he enunciates. “Which, of course, gives you a heck of a lot of power over them.”

        Leslie also has a good take on focus, especially when it comes to getting what you want. The master realized from a rather young age that what went on in his head obeyed a different set of operating principles compared with most—and he used that knowledge to his own inexorable advantage.

        “When I was a kid at school, I tended to avoid fisticuffs,” he tells me. “Same as I do as an adult. Rather like Jamie, I suppose.”

        Jamie smiles, with more than a hint of wry self-approbation.

        “You see, I figured out pretty early on that, actually, the reason why people don’t get their own way is because they often don’t know themselves where that way leads. They get too caught up in the heat of the moment and temporarily go off track. At that point, the dynamic changes. That’s when things become not just about getting what you want. But about being seen to get what you want. About winning.

        “Jamie was talking about boxing there a minute ago. Well, I once heard a great quote from one of the top trainers. He said that if you climb into the ring hell-bent on knocking the other chap into the middle of next week, chances are you’re going to come unstuck. But if, on the other hand, you concentrate on winning the fight, simply focus on doing your job, well, you might just knock him into the middle of next week anyway.”

        Leslie’s words make perfect sense to me, and remind me of an encounter that took place several years ago—one in which vengeance and violence might easily have come into the equation, but where charm and focus won the day instead.

         “It’s not the violence that breaks you,” he elucidates. “It’s the threat of violence. That carcinogenic thought process that something terrible is going to happen. And that it’s just around the corner.”

         “One approach,” Mark explains, “might be to take the person on a plane and seat them next to a flying buff. You know, someone who absolutely loves being up in the air. Then, midflight, you hand them a pair of brain scans. One of them depicts a happy brain. The other one depicts an anxious brain. A brain in a state of terror.

        “ ‘This pair of pictures,’ you tell them, ‘represents exactly what’s going on in each of your heads right now, at this precise moment in time. So obviously, because they’re so different, neither of them really means anything, do they? Neither of them predicts the physical state of the plane.

        “ ‘That truth is in the engines.

        “ ‘So, what do they signify?’ you ask them. ‘Well,’ you explain, ‘what, in fact, they do represent is … precisely what you’re holding in your hands. A brain state. Nothing more. Nothing less. What you’re feeling is simply just that. A feeling. A neural network, an electrical ensemble, a chemical configuration, caused by thoughts in your head that drift in and out, that come and go, like clouds.

        “ ‘Now, if you can bring yourself round to somehow accepting that fact; to dispassionately observe your inner virtual reality; to let the clouds float by, to let their shadows fall and linger where they please, and focus, instead, on what’s going on around you—each pixelated second of each ambient sound and sensation—then eventually, over time, your condition should begin to improve.’ ”

. Logically, of course, the right thing to do was to invest in every round. But as the game panned out, some of the participants began declining the opportunity to gamble, preferring instead to conserve their winnings. They began, in other words, to “live in the past”—allowing, in Don’s words, members of their brain’s emotional executive committee to knock on the door of the decision-making boardroom. Bad move.

        But other participants continued to live in the present. And, at the conclusion of the study, boasted a pretty healthy profit margin. These “functional psychopaths,” as Antoine Bechara referred to them—individuals who are either better at regulating their emotions than others or, alternatively, don’t experience them to the same degree of intensity—continued to invest and treated each new round as if it were the first.

        Oddly enough, they went from strength to strength. And, exactly as Don would have predicted (indeed, did predict when I told him about the experiment), wiped the floor with their cagier, more risk-averse rivals.

Of course, living in the past is just one side of the equation. Living in the future, getting “ahead of ourselves,” allowing our imagination to run riot—as mine had done under that pallet of reinforced concrete, or whatever the hell it was—can be equally incapacitating. Studies, for instance, of cognitive and emotional focus in the context of dysfunctional decision making have shown that whenever we evaluate common, everyday behaviors—things like diving into a swimming pool, or picking up the phone and delivering bad news—the imagined, potential reality is significantly more discomfiting than the real one.

        Which explains, of course, our unquenchable urge to procrastinate much of the time.

        But psychopaths never procrastinate.

        Just one of the reasons why, if you recall the words of Richard Blake from earlier, my host at Broadmoor and one of the clinical team in the Paddock Centre, they tend to excel at activities on the ward. Psychopaths need to do something. Nothing just isn’t an option.

        “Feeling good is an emergency for me,” Danny had commented, as he’d slammed in his fourth goal for Chelsea. “I like to ride the roller coaster of life, spin the roulette wheel of fortune, to terminal possibility.”

        He frowned, and adjusted his baseball cap.

        “Or at least I did”—he shrugged—“till I got in here.”

        Coming from a psychopath, it’s not an untypical statement—one we could all perhaps do with taking on board just that little bit more in our lives.

        “When I was a kid,” Larry tells me, “we used to go on holiday every year to Hastings. One day—I’ll never forget it—I watched my sister playing in the sea, and this big wave came in and hit her. She ran out crying, and that was that. She never went in again. When I saw what had happened—and I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time—I remember thinking to myself: ‘If you stand where the waves break, you’re going to get hurt. So you’ve got two choices. You can either stay on the shore and not go in at all. Or you can go out further so the waves lift you up and then crash and break behind you.’ ”

        Jamie gets to his feet.

        “The secret, of course, is not to go out too far,” he grunts. “Otherwise you wash up in this place.”