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Critiquing “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” by Kevin Dutton, Ph.D.

Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is a strange, ultimately disconcerting book. Dutton is erudite and obviously fascinated with his subject—psychopaths. He references some cutting edge research and had access to many heavy hitters in the field of  psychopathy experts.

Yet in the end, I find his book very troubling. His thesis is basically what the book’s subversive title suggests—that psychopaths have qualities of “wisdom.” That is,  psychopaths, he asserts, have certain admirable, enviable and distinguishing qualities in greater volumes than non-psychopaths, qualities the non-psychopath could benefit from in greater quantity so long as (unlike psychopaths) the non-psychopath can regulate and express these “psychopathic qualities” appropriately, in the appropriate contexts.

Dutton seems to be suggesting that psychopaths (or many of them) are, by virtue of possessing these “psychopathic qualities,” in some respects advanced in their psychological, temperamental and even spiritual evolution.  Audaciously, he draws analogies between psychopaths and the most evolved monks and Buddhist masters.

Dutton finally specifies what he regards as enviable, advantageous psychopathic qualities, the only caveat being that they should be expressed in good, balanced measure. They are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and the propensity to action/decisiveness.

When he describes psychopaths as being endowed with high levels of “mindfulness,” he is referring to what he alleges is their capacity to be present in the moment of whatever they are endeavoring. He asserts that psychopaths possess a distinct capacity to tune-out all sorts of inconvenient distractions such as depression, anxiety, fear, guilt, and anticipated remorse to achieve their ends with unique focus.

Even if this is the case, what Dutton fails spectacularly to appreciate, it seems to me, is the extent to which psychopaths deploy this alleged quality, and several of the other qualities he gushes over, in the service of exploiting, not enhancing, others. This is what, in essence, makes them psychopathic.

The psychopath is, at bottom, an exploitive, transgressive personality, a remorseless violator of others’ rights, boundaries and dignity. If you are not this, then you are not a psychopath.

But Dutton seems to be arguing that the key to being optimally adapted to our world is to master the capacity to be what he calls a “method psychopath,” meaning to develop and channel all the psychopathic qualities necessary to succeed in the particular contexts requiring them.

He then confuses, continually, the examples he gives of  “method psychopaths” by basically referring to them as “psychopaths.” But they are not necessarily psychopaths at all—many of the men he describes may merely be endowed with certain of the “psychopathic qualities” he outlines, and deploy them in the service of performing jobs that require, for instance, fearlessness (or the successful suppression of fear), perhaps ruthlessness, certainly unblinking, sustained concentration under duress, and possibly a suspension of guilt.

He may be right that psychopaths are better suited for these jobs than non-psychopaths, but this doesn’t implicate all those who do these jobs well or even brilliantly as psychopaths. Yet this implication permeates the book, corrupting its discourse.

Dutton describes a brain surgeon who describes his work with chilling detachment and compartmentalization; thereby, on this apparent basis alone, he dubs him a psychopath. He describes men in the British Special Forces who undertake daring, violent work from which most of us would cringe or break, yet these men embrace their work with a rare coolness, and, apparently by virtue of their capacity to handle the intense risks and stresses involved in their missions without reflecting signs of disabling anxiety, agitation or guilt, Dutton  regards them as “functional” or “method” psychopaths.

But a glaring question is left unexamined: Are these same men, in their personal lives, the cold, calculating clinicians, surgeons, rescuers or assassins that their jobs require them to be? (And incidentally, none of them are committing crimes: the surgeon is saving lives as, arguably, are the warriors he profusely admires.)

If the answer to the above question is “no,” as may be the case, then these men are not psychopaths. They are non-psychopaths with nerves of steel. But this basic question isn’t even addressed, superficially.

Dutton references research suggesting that psychopaths might be more likely to act heroically than non-psychopaths in certain dangerous situations. But even if this is the case, so what? So what if, in the event your house is burning down and there are two individuals on the street watching, the psychopath might be more inclined to run in and pull you out of the inferno than the non-psychopath? That may be true, and we can imagine reasons this might be the case.

But again, he’s not a psychopath unless he’s exploiting others audaciously and shamelessly in his life. Otherwise, he’s just a hero with nerves of steel. And if he is a psychopath, then his fearlessness, or lust for risk, in instances like these, confers a small benefit to humanity, which we will take without undo gratefulness given the incalculable suffering he imposes on humanity in the greater arena of life.

Dutton cites research suggesting psychopaths can feel empathy, maybe even more empathy than non-psychopaths. But the very concept of empathy is confusing and, to my mind, muddles the issue of psychopathy. What psychopaths really lack is “compassion” for their victims. Forget about empathy and how we define it. They lack compassion–real, true compassion. Compassion should be the benchmark measure here, not empathy. (My next article on Lovefraud will address “compassion” as the far more telling, missing deficit in sociopaths than “empathy.”)

And “victim” needs to be stressed in a book where it is woefully, incredibly under-stressed in Dutton’s need to virtually idealize psychopaths. Psychopath=Victims (that is my formula!). Psychopaths victimize people unconscionably. Psychopaths are victimizing, exploitive personalities. If you are dealing with an individual who is not remorselessly exploitive, you are not dealing with a true psychopath (or sociopath).

And Dutton pays scant attention to qualities like emotional shallowness and deep loyalty. The psychopath is a disturbingly shallow, disloyal individual. This surely doesn’t equate with spiritual advancement, yet Dutton absurdly seeks to find commonalities between Tibetan monks and psychopaths. He aims to recast psychopaths as misunderstood rebels, perhaps overly adapted to the exigencies of modern society.

Dutton writes, “…the problem with psychopaths isn’t that they’re too chock-full of evil. Ironically, it’s precisely the opposite: they have too much of a good thing…The car is to die for. It’s just too fast for the road.” (p. 186).

This gives you the flavor of the need Dutton has throughout his book to reframe psychopathy as a virtually enviable condition that is “too much of a good thing.”  The chasmic inattention given, as noted above, to the immeasurable suffering psychopaths inflict on their victims is itself almost glib and callous.

One senses that Dutton is just a bit too enamored of the psychopath and too desperate to rehabilitate the psychopath’s well-earned reputation as an exploitative, emotional cipher to do real justice to his subject.

Which is to say that psychopaths, in the end, really have no wisdom to impart to us. As entertaining as his book is, neither, I’m afraid, does Dutton.



63 Comments on "Critiquing “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” by Kevin Dutton, Ph.D."

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  1. darwinsmom says:

    The book sounds like bull to me… it’s the typical spath blowing his own horn claiming that only psychopaths can be good leaders. Empathic and compassionate people can make needed snap decisions without guilt, without being soft, and without fear. I just have to think of teachers, colleageus, principals, fellow adventure tourleaders, or myself. One of the chore traits for any decision job is being responsible and accurately applying responsible when it’s upon yourself or on someone else.

    Spaths don’t take responsibility and blame everyone else. So there they already fail big time on good leadership capabilities.

    What this author fails to understand that a psychopath is pathologically fearless, pathologically irresponsible, pathologically unempathic/incompassionate… Also fearless doesn’t equal rash. Normal doesn’t mean that people are without any of the traits or behaviours, but it means that a pathologically disordered personality only has those and in a grotesque, abnormal level. And if the level wasn’t harmful to others, themselves and society as a whole, it wouldn’t end up being regarded as a pathology in the psychiatric field. It’s just totally silly to advocate normal people to display certain normal, human functioning traits, but call it psychopathic traits. UGH!



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  2. Transcendence says:

    I heard this guy on the radio talking about his book…he is quite a convincing and rational speaker and obviously admires sociopaths for some of their seemingly exceptional traits! However…that is exactly what an Spath would want to portray…and they have hooked this intelligent man into pedaling this propaganda. He has become enamored; and is enfulfed in denial over the complete lack of care and empathy and the propensity for pure evil an Spath is capable of! They only “care” about WINNING at whatever cost to living things…they enjoy inflicting pain and destroying lives. Sadly…the average person on the street would probably be spoon fed this poison…but those with personal experience and knowledge KNOW the truth…and most law enforcement, psychologists, criminalists and other professionals.



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  3. Truthspeak says:

    Darwinsmom & Transcendence…..yepper.

    For my money, a spath has no useful purpose other than to teach me where my vulnerabilities are. Aside from that, the lessons aren’t worth the price I’ve had to pay.

    Brightest blessings



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  4. darwinsmom says:

    What also appals me is that psychopaths are compared to enlightened Buddhists. There couldn’t be a greater insult to either an enlightened person, a buddhist and psychology. How in the hell can be a being that is filled with nothing but envy, greed, anger and destructive malice to everything and everyone be called enlightened? The person who claims this
    a) knows zero about psychopaths
    b) knows zero about enlightenment
    c) knows zero about buddhism
    They’re just trying to sell psychopathy.

    A large number of criminals are either high in psychopathic traits or are full blown psychopaths. Political megalomaniac psychopathic despots have murdered millions of people since the Ancient Times and before. Just in the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, King Leopold of Belgium, to name a few. Our global economy has been undermined and destroyed because of greedy psychopaths putting millions out of work and out of their homes, and the economy hasn’t recovered yet. Children and women are being raped, abused and sold on black markets by them. Not to mention the millions of father, mothers, wives, husbands and children who are abused and left in betrayal after betrayal and debt.

    The psychopath only serves himself, his ego, his selfish needs. There is no wisdom to be had from them, except a conviction that there is a clear mark between right and wrong, and it doesn’t have the colour grey.



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  5. Truthspeak says:

    Darwinsmom, I agree, completely. To compare a spath to a Bhuddist is an affront to everything that I’m aspiring to. The only “Zen Thing” about a spath is their ability to FOCUS ON THEIR TARGETS!

    This author won’t get MY dime, time, or interest. There’s nothing helpful for my recovery in entertaining this bullshit. (harumph!)

    Brightest blessings



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  6. darwinsmom says:

    Thruthspeak wrote: ” The only “Zen Thing” about a spath is their ability to FOCUS ON THEIR TARGETS!”

    It’s called ‘concentration’, something nobody healthy has trouble with doing as long as they don’t have ADHD. I don’t need a spath to teach me how to focus, concentrate and feel zen-about it. 🙂 As for obsessive stalking focus ability by spaths – euhm not interested in that kind of wisdom 😉



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  7. Truthspeak says:

    Darwinsmom, LOL Yepper….nothing “positive” about sociopathy, on any level.

    😀



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  8. 7stepstoheaven says:

    I read this book, and found it very interesting. Dutton is an entertaining writer. But he is no psychotherapist. He states very clearly that his own father was a real,criminal sociopath – not one of the more rational ones he is describing. I don’t think he understands sociopaths very well, and may in fact be trying to work out his own troubled relationship with his father by attempting to ennoble sociopaths in some way. That is the only thing I can make of it. I was rather skeptical of his viewpoint throughout reading the book, because of the knowledge I have gained from this site for many years as well as your articles, Steve. What he says is definitely a distortion. Neurology is a complex science anyway, and this is a rather, though well-researched, pop culture sort of understanding of it. It makes me think of the show Dexter. I don’t think Dexter is actually a complete sociopath. He could not have the family ties he has if he was one. His victims are the real sociopaths, who do not care if what they are doing is noble or not. To them, everyone is expendable. That is what Dutton fails to get.



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  9. Tee says:

    I couldn’t agree with ALL of you more!
    my spath, is no Buddhist. He has no Zen like thoughts.
    He is empty with an aura of contempt.

    And I think this book sends a horrible message to those of us trying to get away from these empty people.



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