Kevin Dutton, Ph.D., is a fabulous writer. Unfortunately, in his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths—What saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success, he uses his prodigious skill with words to promote a fundamentally flawed thesis.
What is the thesis? That psychopathy, “in small doses,” is good for us. Here’s what Dutton writes in the preface of the book:
Psychopathy … can also be good for us, at least in moderation. Like anxiety, depression, and quite a few other psychological disorders, it can at times be adaptive. Psychopaths, as we shall discover, have a variety of attributes—personal magnetism and a genius for disguise being just the starter pack—which, once you know how to harness them and keep them in check, often confer considerable advantages not just in the workplace, but in everyday life. Psychopathy is like sunlight. Overexposure can hasten one’s demise in grotesque, carcinogenic fashion. But regulated exposure at controlled and optimal levels can have a significant positive impact on well-being and quality of life.
In the pages that follow we’ll examine these attributes in detail, and learn how incorporating them into our own psychological skill set can dramatically transform our lives. Of course, it’s in no way my intention to glamorize the actions of psychopaths—certainly not the actions of dysfunctional psychopaths, anyway. That would be like glamorizing a cognitive melanoma: the malignant machinations of cancer of the personality. But there’s evidence to suggest that psychopathy, in small doses at least, is personality with a tan—and it can have surprising benefits.
Kevin Dutton has a Ph.D. in psychology. He’s a research psychologist and an honorary affiliated member of the Calleva Research Centre for Evolution and Human Sciences at the University of Oxford, England. In writing The Wisdom of Psychopaths, he interviewed all of the top experts in the field of psychopathy. Then he cherry-picked the information to present an incomplete and lopsided view of psychopathy, emphasizing the “positives” and ignoring the negatives, such as the fact that psychopaths live their lives by exploiting people.
Persuasive writing style
How did he do this? Dutton used tried-and-true techniques of magazine journalists and direct mail copywriters (both of which I am).
The difference between writing for magazines and writing for newspapers is that while news articles are supposed to be objective, magazine articles are unabashedly subjective. (By the way, there is no such thing as objective journalism, even in the newspaper business. Simply selecting which facts to include in a story is subjective. Complete objectivity is impossible.)
The purpose of a magazine article is to convince the reader of the author’s point of view. When I studied magazine journalism at Syracuse University, I was taught to not give equal weight to opposing viewpoints. I was taught to acknowledge opposing viewpoints, then present an argument to prove they were wrong.
For example, Dutton wrote above that he didn’t want to “glamorize the actions of psychopaths,” but then he goes ahead and says psychopathy can have benefits. He spends the rest of his book glamorizing psychopaths, and creating an illusion that psychopaths can be “harnessed” and “kept in check.”
The most dangerous thing Dutton does is employ a direct mail copywriting technique called verisimilitude, which is defined as “the appearance or semblance of truth.” (The comedian Stephen Colbert calls this “truthiness.”) For example, on page 11 Dutton writes:
Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused. Yet contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. And if that sounds good, well, it is.
The way Dutton describes psychopaths is technically true. But he neglects to mention the most salient characteristics of a psychopath, at least according to Lovefraud’s research: Deceitfulness and manipulation. He also doesn’t include traits like exploitative, irresponsible, aggressive and reckless.
So what would happen if he told the whole truth? Well, here it is:
Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, focused, deceitful, manipulative, exploitative, irresponsible, aggressive and reckless. Yet contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. And if that sounds good, well, it is.
What do you think? If Dutton wrote the above paragraph on page 11 of the book, would you believe any of the rest of it?
He quotes a multitude of experts and research studies in support of his points, giving the impression that these experts and studies prove what he advocates. Which, in a way, they do. The problem is that Dutton tells only half of the story, uses the experts to support the half that he is telling, and totally ignores the rest of the story.
For example, on page 61, Dutton talks about the work of Scott Lilienfeld, who developed the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, a comprehensive questionnaire designed to work with both criminal and non-criminal psychopaths. Dutton quotes Lilienfeld as saying, “We reasoned that psychopathy was on a spectrum.” Then Dutton writes:
Lilienfeld’s notion of psychopathy being on a spectrum makes a good deal of sense. If psychopathy is conceptualized as an extension of normal personality, then it follows logically that psychopathy itself must be scalar, and that more or less of it in any given context might confer considerable advantages. Such a premise is not without precedent in the annals of mental dysfunction (if, indeed, psychopathy is dysfunctional, given its benefits under certain conditions).
So Dutton quotes Lilienfeld, and then transitions into the statement that more or less psychopathy “might confer considerable advantages.” I wonder if Dutton studied elementary logic, because one statement has nothing to do with the other.
On page 121, Dutton describes a conversation with James Blair, in which he asks, “Does it pay to be a psychopath?” Here’s what comes next:
Blair was cautious. It’s a dangerous road to go down. “It’s true that if bad things are happening the individual with psychopathy might be less worried about it,” he told me. “However, it’s not so clear that their decision making in such situations would be particularly good, though. Moreover, by not analyzing levels of threat appropriately, they might walk into danger, rather than away from it.”
In other words, if we could somehow defrost the reasoning a bit, take some of the chill out of the logic, then yes, psychopathic traits may well confer advantages. Otherwise, forget it.
I did not interpret Blair’s quote to at all signify that “it pays to be a psychopath.” But Dutton brazenly twisted Blair’s words around to suit his own argument.
This book is filled with cavalier statements that ignore the essential truth of psychopaths: They are lying, manipulating exploiters who cause considerable damage to almost everyone around them. For example, on page 106 Dutton writes:
Ironically, the rule-bending, risk-taking, thrill-seeking individuals who were responsible for tipping the world economy over the edge are precisely the same personalities who will come to fore in the wreckage.
Hello? Yes, research has indicated that the recent world financial collapse was likely caused by psychopaths. Dutton doesn’t consider this to be a problem?
Then there’s page 163:
Was psychopathy a “medicine for modern times”? Could taking it in moderation, twiddling those dials a little to the right on our respective psychopath mixing decks—at certain times, in certain specific contexts—actually be good for us?
And page 192:
Not all psychopaths are saints. And not all saints are psychopaths. But there’s evidence to suggest that deep within the corridors of the brain, psychopathy and sainthood share secret neural office space. And that some psychopathic attributes—stoicism, the ability to regulate emotion, to live in the moment, to enter altered states of awareness, to be heroic, fearless, yes, even empathic—are also inherently spiritual in nature, and not only improve one’s own well-being, but also that of others.
Regulate emotion? Has Dutton ever witnessed a psychopath flying into a rage? And by the way, this last quote was in the section of the book entitled “Saint Paul—the patron saint of psychopaths.”
I was married to a psychopath. My ex-husband, James Montgomery, personified the traits that Dutton extols: fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused. He also personified the traits that Dutton ignored: deceitful, manipulative, exploitative, irresponsible, aggressive and reckless.
As I was reading The Wisdom of Psychopaths, I felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu that mounted with each page. About a third of the way through the book, I realized why I was uncomfortable: Kevin Dutton’s writing was very similar that of my ex-husband.
Montgomery was exceptionally proud of his skill with words. Verbally and in writing, he could paint shimmering pictures with his words, glistening images of our lifelong happiness, his future entrepreneurial success, or whatever he was selling at the moment. Sometimes I’d be aware that Montgomery’s statements seemed a bit off, but I was distracted by his vivid descriptions or elegant turns of phrase. Or, there was enough truth in his words that I couldn’t say he was lying. Or, he had neglected to convey full and complete information, which I didn’t discover until much later.
Unlike when I was dealing with my ex-husband, I am able to reread, annotate, and analyze Dutton’s words. I find them to be full of holes, mischaracterizations, distortion and omission. This book is a disservice to society.
I feel sorry for anyone who reads The Wisdom of Psychopaths without a prior understanding of the disorder. Because of Dutton’s flashy writing and extensive references to scientific research, the uninformed reader might actually believe what he says.