Scientific American FSG Books


The Wisdom of Psychopaths

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Kevin Dutton


Some Surprising Things You Never Knew About Psychopaths

  1. Psychopaths can sometimes be more empathic than the rest of us. This is especially the case in sadistic serial killers. As one senior FBI profiler told Dutton: “Sadistic serial killers feel their victims’ pain in exactly the same way that you or I might feel it. They feel it cognitively and objectively, and emotionally and subjectively too. But the difference between them and us is that they commute that pain to their own subjective pleasure.” Studies have also shown that some psychopaths have more ‘mirror neurons’ (empathy brain cells) than normal people.
  2. They can be more altruistic than the rest of us. Studies have shown that psychopaths are quicker to offer help to people in need than everyday folk.
  3. They don’t take things as personally as the rest of us. Research in the field of neuroeconomics has shown that psychopaths make more money than the rest of us in negotiation games because they are more willing to accept unfair offers.
  4. As well as taking lives, they can also be better at saving lives than the rest of us—especially in knife-edge situations when the chips are down. How would you solve this moral dilemma? A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients. Each of the patients is in need of a different organ, and each of them will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs currently available to perform any of the transplants. A healthy young traveler, just passing through, comes in to the doctor’s office for a routine checkup. While performing the checkup, the doctor discovers that the young man’s organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose, further, that were the young man to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Would the doctor be right to kill the young man to save his five patients? Now imagine how a psychopath might answer the same question.
  5. Psychopaths make really good customs officers. In one experiment Dutton ran, psychopaths were better at picking out people with contraband concealed about their person than were non-psychopaths.
  6. James Bond is a psychopath. A recent study shows that James Bond epitomizes the profile of the successful psychopath: ruthless, fearless, charming, persuasive, non-conformist, extraverted, thrill-seeking, philandering, and decidedly lacking in the conscience department.

—Kevin Dutton

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