I’ve always found the best talks answer only enough questions to make you ask more.
In spite of the ‘folk science’ element to what was said at ‘Good Psychopath, Really?’, a talk by Professor Kevin Dutton and author Andy McNab, the ideas definitely shoved me far enough away from my baseline to give me a space-eyed view of my assumptions about psychopathy and society.
Let’s step back.
Tuesday 16th September 2015.
The theatre of the Royal Institute spreads under the slowly ticking clock; time is waiting for a signal and the room lingers in the local twilight between discovery and history. This is a room with inescapable history. It’s the Faraday Lecture Theatre, the same space where world-defining science has happened and a thousand assumptions challenged. The talk about to commence does not quite fall into the same category of trailblazing science but, sitting in that hall for the first time, the space feels electric.
Dutton paces at the front of the room. You can sense his background in academics. Not because he’s any nerdier than anyone else or because he’s wearing a sweater vest like all of Hollywood’s cleverest clogs. It’s in his gaze; just sharp enough to let you know this is a man more than used to making a hall fall silent. His partner in crime, ex-SAS author Andy McNab, I know has a flare for the dramatics and will surface with suitable swagger. He once visited my school under a secret so stubborn even after his talk (about his new YA novel) the rumours ran thick with doubt he’d ever been there.
Accompanied by the curiosity that is the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer, Dutton begins by reminding us that whilst the word ‘psychopath’ may instantly have us conjuring up images of Lector-like monsters prowling down blood-spattered halls, the reality is that psychopathic people are everywhere.
Sitting in a hall of a few hundred people, he admits, you might even be sitting next to one.
“Shall we find out?” he asks. A hum, a nervous, empathic murmur rises as we’re given the following quiz.
Having taken the quiz earlier in the day (it featured in the Daily Mail and I’ve always been one for research), I already knew my score. I could also tell how my score would vary according to context. And context, it seemed, was kinda the whole point of Dutton’s study.
Within the framework of clinical psychology, a psychopath is someone with a distinct cluster of personality traits: charm, charisma, fearlessness, ruthlessness, narcissism, persuasiveness, and lack of conscience.
However, psychopaths, according to Dutton, exist on a scale – functional to non-functional, good to bad (as you can tell, simplified for the assumed ‘average’ lay reader). Hence the premise of the book: good psychopaths. People like Andy McNab. Supposedly people like your top traders and lawyers and surgeons.
Dutton explains that this difference – the fact they have all the traits of potential killers but aren’t – on a scale of intelligence to functionality, which is then delineated by context to illustrate what psychopaths end up doing and why.
A well-educated, economically comfortable psychopath with high intelligence might become a lawyer or a surgeon.
A poorly-educated, economically uncomfortable psychopath with high intelligence might become a successful special forces agent or criminal mastermind whilst someone with the same background but low-intelligence perhaps more likely to become an enforcer.
Basically, it’s not just the genes.
The disposition towards psychopathy might exist but nurture plays a crucial role.
On top of this, we can – according to the book – play with the levels of the traits associated with our Dexters and Mansons to make ourselves better in business. You want to succeed in the operating theatre? Turn down the empathy. You want to win in the boardroom? Ramp up ruthlessness.
Yet as interesting as this is to listen to – both Dutton and McNab are charismatic, funny – it descends into a self-help guide with the word ‘psychopath’ thrown in for click-bait. It’s a ‘inane quote accompanied by meme’ sort of trick.
Much more intriguing was the neuroscience, not to mention the behavioural ticks and peculiar abilities of psychopaths.
Psychopaths and what makes them tick is mysterious. They stroll through popular culture cloaked in that intrigue – from Flemming’s charismatic but ruthless James Bond to Gone Girl’s manipulative but charming Amy Dunne. Now I went into that theatre with my writer’s hat on. I was there because I have a fictional character in my writing who – thus far – I’ve diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder. Could my character be a ‘good’ psychopath? Potentially.
He can certainly ‘tell a victim from the way she walks down the street’ like Ted Bundy, a point raised by McNab who cited research from a study entitled ‘Psychopathy and Victim Selection: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability’. This research shows the way we walk can have hidden ‘victim signals’ for the preternaturally observant psychopath.
Yet whilst I sat there thinking: yes, my character could be a McNab-like ‘good psychopath’, the talk only to created more questions.
Why are so many psychopaths men? They say around 4% of the male population is a psychopath compared to only 0.5% of women. Is this because it goes undiagnosed? Is there a bias against labelling women as psychopaths? Are women better at ‘faking’ it? What about the brain – do more empathetic female brains have smaller variations in the amygdala compared to male brains?
What are the wider social implications of encouraging people to embrace their inner psychopath for success? Are we creating a more psychopathic society through our deindividuated selves – the idea that we can avoid culpability because of anonymity online, or because we are gamifying our daily lives? Should we encourage psychopathic tendencies or perhaps laud the compassionate monks who, despite being the antithesis of the more popular psycho, have many of the same enhanced abilities?
And to what extent can we trust any of the ‘tests’ taken in the room when it’s quite clear many of those attending the lecture would be predisposed to want to be psychopathic, knowing as they do that it should give them a little edge, a little qu’est-ce que c’est.
I’ve read the book. I’ve heard the talk, and still I’m wondering about all this.
I’ve come away and three days later I’m still wishing I still had access to the medical humanities section of the library at Durham, that I could pop up the road to discuss it with the neuro folk.
And I can’t stop thinking about the guy sitting a few rows in front of me. He never laughed even when the conventions of our synapses dictated we should, he never raised his hand when asked what we scored on the psychopath test. He answered every question right on the truth-or-lie detector.
Were we sitting a room with a psychopath?
I’ve a funny feeling we were.