What we can learn from psychopaths

Scientific American excerpts a chapter from Kevin Dutton's book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, describing a visit to a high-security ward at Broadmoor Hospital in England, seeking insight into the positive aspect of a psychopathic mindset:

Leslie's pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath's rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial. In fact, anchoring your thoughts unswervingly in the present is a discipline that psychopathy and spiritual enlightenment have in common. Clinical psychologist Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, for example, incorporates this principle of centering in his mindfulness-based cognitive-behavior therapy program for sufferers of anxiety and depression.

“Feeling good is an emergency for me,” Danny had commented as he'd slammed in his fourth goal for Chelsea on the Wii. Living in the moment, for him and many psychopaths, takes on a kind of urgency. “I like to ride the roller coaster of life, spin the roulette wheel of fortune, to terminal possibility.”

A desire to feel good in the here and now, shrugging off the future, can be taken to an extreme, of course. But it's a goal we could all perhaps do with taking onboard just a little bit more in our lives.

Wisdom from Psychopaths? (via Hacker News)

Previously: Which professions have the most psychopaths? The fewest?


  1. So, “Live in the Today” is called WISDOM now? This sets the bar for wisdom quite low in my eyes. This seems to be the kind of tripe usually found in fortune cookies or romantic comedies.

    edited for typos.

      1. He appears to be bothered by not caring about the future and general selfishness whereas you are pointing out mindfulness.  Two different things.  You can be mindful of the present without ignoring the future.

        1. It is not clear that Markus is saying what you say Markus is saying. I see no indication in the text of the comment whether Markus is referring to mindfulness or mindless hedonism — “live in the today” could easily be interpreted either way.

          Perhaps you’re right that I misinterpreted but it’s not nearly so obvious as you seem to think.

          Also, from experience — no, I can’t be mindful of the present without ignoring the future. That is to say, when I am aware of the future I am not being mindful of the present. I’ve never heard anything about mindfulness practices that said anything other than to avoid thinking about the future when trying to be mindful.

          1. It is difficult to interpret any point of view in a written forum. I think, though, the larger context can be gleaned in that Markus is responding to the article, which centers on a narcissistic interpretation of “carpe diem” per these so-called “psychopaths.”

            The article itself — and possibly the book — does not really draw a clear line between real mindfulness and this shallow version of living in the moment. Perhaps that’s intentional, although — presuming you are well-versed in mindfulness and Buddhist literature — you’re probably aware of several cautions against false mindfulness. (Thich Nhat Han, for example, writes about that in Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment.) It appears to me, then, that the psychopath’s injunction to live for today is fully egocentric in nature and is a rather flimsy simulacrum of the actual wisdom of true mindfulness.

          2. Again, I simply cannot see where the inferences you guys are making from Markus’ comment are coming from.  I responded to the comment as written.  There are good reasons to believe some approaches to “living in the today” actually do constitute wisdom, although I agree with you that there are certain approaches to “living in the today” that do not. 

            Since none of us can read Markus’ mind it may make more sense to let him respond if he cares to do so.

          3. The point of the whole article is that
            mindfulness and mindless hedonism might not be that different after
            all. At least that’s how I understand it.

        2. I don’t know what Markus meant either, but as someone who doesn’t know what mindfulness is, I had a similar gut reaction to “focus on the present”: That’s dumb. Isn’t that where credit card debt and divorce come from? That can’t possibly be what people mean by mindfulness.

          1. …”focus on the present”: That’s dumb. Isn’t that where credit card debt and divorce come from?

            Precisely the contrary. Credit card debt comes from throwing your bills under the bed unread because the sun’ll come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar. Besides its philosophical connotations, focusing on the present is extremely practical and task-oriented.

      2. Speaking of zen, why on earth did you use 500 character search strings (now cleaned up) as links?

    1. When a superior man hears of the Tao,
      he immediately begins to embody it.
      When an average man hears of the Tao,
      he half believes it, half doubts it.
      When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
      he laughs out loud.
      If he didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the Tao.

      1. When I hear lines like that, it always makes me feel like someone is hoping I’ll just take whatever they say in hopes of seeming wise. I wonder where that puts me.

        The fool says in his heart that there are problems free market economics does not solve. You and I know better, don’t we?

        On the other hand, it’s not as bad as endorsing something like callous disregard because it gives you power, which this excerpt seems to lean towards.

        1. ZikZak’s quote is from the Tao Te Ching I believe.  Think of it less as trying to sound wise and more as trying to use riddles to describe something that can’t be described in words.  “What is it that is embodied by the superior man, half believed by the average man, and laughed at by the fool?”

          In fact, the Tao Te Ching starts off by explaining that the Tao can’t be described in words:

          The tao that can be told
          is not the eternal Tao
          The name that can be named
          is not the eternal Name.

          1. Every time someone tells me that a concept “can’t be explained in words”, my thought is always that they just suck at explaining things.

          2. When you use language to describe something, you are separating out some parts of the whole content of your awareness and selectively attending to them, which is useful for (amongst other things) being able to make judgements, choices, meals, whatever.
            If you are trying to get somebody to pay attention to their whole, undivided awareness, you have to do some funny things with words because to use them straightforwardly would be divisive, and you’re aiming at ‘that which is not divided’.
            I think this is why zen parables make little sense; they’re stimulus intended to knock you out of reasoning and into broader perception.
            I’ve nothing against reasoning and explanations, it’s just that any map needs a space in it which says ‘here be dragons’, an acknowledgement that in order to fully describe the territory, it would have to be at least as large and complex as the territory itself.
            Hope that made some sense…

          3. >Every time someone tells me that a concept “can’t be explained in words”, my thought is always that they just suck at explaining things.

            Maybe you’ve just never experienced anything that can’t be explained using words.


          4. Of course the other reason people can’t explain something is that they don’t understand it themselves. 

          5. Try looking at one of Chuck Close’s portraits up-close and then again far away.  When you’re up close you can see the details but they don’t seem to make any sense and don’t fit together in any obvious way.  When you step back you can see them resolve into a face.  He paints these because he’s “face blind” — he can see the details of a face but he can’t put it together into a coherent whole except by seeing it as a sort of abstract design.

            All of us are “world blind”.  We can see the details but it’s tough to step back far enough to get them to fit together into a whole.  Adding more details — more description, more words — just makes it more difficult to unite all the details as part of the same whole.

            You’re screwing yourself up by putting “that which cannot be described” into the “concept” bucket — which is essentially a description.  So you’re right in some sense; there are probably no concepts that cannot be described in words.  What cannot be described is not a concept.  Another riddle for you.

          6. Most experiences can’t really be explained in words. For instance the beauty of an autumn sunset – the words are there to remind you about it, not convey it as a whole.

            There are some good thoughts in Taoism. But it often turns into “oh, you just can’t understand this, but trust me it’s awesome” rambling, and nobody should mistake that for being profound.

            And note, here I mean how people tend to run with it, which can be less than subtle. After all, we are talking about an article comparing mindfulness to psychopathy.

        2. When I hear lines like that, it always makes me feel like someone is hoping I’ll just take whatever they say in hopes of seeming wise. I wonder where that puts me.

          It reminds me a game I used to play with my Christian friends, which ultimately increased (rather than decreased) my skepticism: bible balderdash. We’d take turns making up fake bible verses, mixing them with real ones, and having the other players guess which were real and which were fake. It was disturbingly easy to fool each other, and we were insiders, presumably sensitive to what was and wasn’t authentic.

  2. I have only read the excerpt in Scientific American and not the whole book so, perhaps the author expands on this idea of mindfulness later on. However, going by what the author briefly mentions in said excerpt, he seems to misunderstand the concept of spiritual mindfulness (at least, as practiced in Buddhism and related forms of meditation). In fact, he seems to completely misinterpret what spiritual mindfulness is supposed to be about: an awareness of the moment while, simultaneously, understanding one’s place in the universe as part of a whole. 

    The psychopath is the embodiment of the opposite of this (self centered and confused as to his/ her place in this universe with the self as a central focus point around which everything else revolves). While the author does have a point about the advantages of certain psychopathic traits for success (in a capitalist, personal success driven society, I might add), unless he elaborates further down the book on these ideas around spiritual mindfulness, if I go just by what I read, I’d say he misses the point of the practice entirely.

    1.  Nicely stated. Every moment the psychopath lives in, is generally done without concern for anyone else. Their living in the moment isn’t what makes for success, it’s the lack of conscience and compassion that makes it easier to step over, and/or on top of others to get to the top. I can’t imagine more than a paragraph of merits to the lifestyle/point of view, nevermind an entire book.

      1. So psychopaths live in the moment.  Not unlike the people who decide to kill their spouse instead of just leaving them.  I wonder what they are thinking “Well all my problems will be solved!  No one will notice anything different.  No questions.  I won’t have to share the car.  All good.”

        1. No, they do not think that. 

          Imagine you need to carry an armload of groceries into the house, so you can eat them.  In your way are a few piles of dirt.  There is no way around them and you can barely go over them, and you’ll have to kick them over  to get through.  Naturally, you struggle straight over the top with your groceries and do not care how much you have damaged these dirt piles.  They are totally kicked down by the time you make it to your door.

          The dirt piles contained entire colonies of ants, teeming with life and vibrancy, and they were hard at work creating those hills and their homes in them.  They were decimated and destroyed and mostly dead because of you.  You didn’t realize, nor do you care when you do realize, if you do.

          The psychopath no more considers those ants than a volcano considers the communities creeping up its slopes.

          That is what a psychopath thinks.  There is no consideration.  It is a lack.  A hole.  An absence.  Their world does not include you.  Or me or anyone else.  Nothing else exists.

    2. The idea of a “wisdom of psychopaths” doesn’t seem much like a very intellectually rigorous thesis. Rather, it appears to be a premise conceived to cash in on people’s natural interest in psychopaths. We already have enough material to feed our morbid curiosities – now we’re getting to the revisionist/counter-intuitive phase.

      1.  If the author of this book thinks that mindfulness and psychopathology are the same thing, perhaps they understand neither.

      2. …it appears to be a premise conceived to cash in on people’s natural interest in psychopaths.

        Are psychopaths the new Shark Week?

    3. While the influence is definitely from Buddhist and related spiritual practices, it’s my understanding that the ‘mindfulness’ that contemporary psychology is interested in is (intentionally) devoid of as many ‘spiritual’ trappings as could be removed. Purely a matter of getting statistically significant results in the treatment of certain psychological issues, not with setting the patient down the noble eightfold path or what have you.

      (This doesn’t make the behavior of psychopaths any less problematic of course; but when a psychologist says ‘mindfulness’ the metaphysical entanglements implied by phrases like ‘understanding one’s place in the universe as part of a whole’ are deliberately being avoided.)

      1. Agreed on your statement about the difference between spiritual mindfulness and the way it’s used in psychology. However, the author is purposefully referring to the spiritual side. The title itself (“What saints, spies…” etc) and then in the article when he mentions mindfulness vis a vis enlightenment.

        I mean, it’s pretty disingenuous to use a westernized concept (mindfulness as a tool in psychology) and then, in the same breath, mention psychopaths, saints and enlightenment. Either the author is shooting for sensationalizing or he lacks intellectual rigor (i’d say it’s the former, but I am a cynic). Either way, his premise is misleading.

      2. Mindfulness as you’re describing it sounds a lot like what I’ve thought of as totality in dialetical thought. Famously, it’s a struggle to separate the rational aspects of dialectical thought from Hegelian mysticism, but it still seems to me it should be possible, and would be valuable to do so.

        It often seems like psychologists recognize material insights in spiritual beliefs, point this out, and then stand there with big grins, waiting for applause, blissfully unaware that the real intellectual work hasn’t even started.

  3. Slow to hit submit, but yes, there is a very real misunderstanding and misrepresentation of mindfulness here – mindfulness is *not* acting on every impulse and chasing pleasure.  Mindfulness is simply awareness of what you are sensing and feeling   Mindfulness is not about seeking anything- it’s about accepting what is, which is not what psychopathy is. 

  4. The author should read “Political Ponerology”, a very interesting text on the social and bureaucratic structures that support psychopathology. That piece of trash Zbigniew Brzezinski, an avid Obama phile, tried to block it’s publication. 

  5. The last thing I learned from a psychopath was that “Hip To Be Square” was Huey Lewis And The News’ undisputed masterpiece.

    1. Don´t forget Whitney Houston’s debut LP, called simply Whitney Houston. It’s hard to choose a favorite among so many great tracks, but “The Greatest Love of All” is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late to better ourselves. Since, unclemike, it’s impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really. And it’s beautifully stated on the album.

  6. I am a clinical psychologist that specializes in the mindfulness- and acceptance-based therapies.

    There are different ways to direct attention to the present moment. The self-focused hedonism and manipulation of the psychopath is not mindfulness.

    Mindfulness, whether from the Western Clinical, the Buddhist, or the Yogic approach is more than simple present moment awareness.

    It is cultivated awareness which includes letting go of judgment or reactivity directed to the present moment. In most cases, mindfulness is presented in a context that also teaches, at minimum, empathy and compassion for oneself and the living beings around you.

    Like some of the commenters above, tying psychopath to mindfulness seems to me to be a sensationalist ploy to bring together to very popular topics to make some money. One the face it seems deeply irresponsible.

    Mindfulness and related practices, whether through Buddhism,Yoga, or Western Psychology are transformative practices have an increasing scientific support that demonstrate that they have the power to change lives for the positive in dozens of different ways. For examples, the mindfulness-based therapies have had success with chronic pain, certain personality disorders, and even positive symptoms of schizophrenia in ways that few other therapeutic interventions have had.

    Equating mindfulness with psychopathy is going to muddy the waters for all people trying to help others through these skills.

    1. Thanks. Perhaps you can help a little more… I just read the whole wikipedia article on mindfulness and was left having little idea what it is. I was getting the impression mindfullness was ‘metacognition’, being aware of what you are thinking about at a point in time and trying to exert some self control of that. But I don’t understand what that has to do with feeling good about yourself, or being present focused rather than future focused, or non judgmental.

      1. Rather than try to explain a very complex subject in a comment thread, here are some of my favorite practical written introductions to the subjects. With mindfulness, actual experience with the practices and skills involved is much more important than a cognitive understanding so each of the books below is a jumping point to actual practice.

        This is one of the best written introductions to mindfulness from  a non-clinical perspective I have found:

        If you are looking for an approach to specifically treat something like anxiety, the Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety is excellent. Also, for a more general clinical intro the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook is also a very good introduction. Both workbooks come with meditation CDs which is a help if you do not have someone around to teach you the practices.

        If meditation is not your thing, any book on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Russ Harris is different approach to coming to understand the processes that make up mindfulness through exercises and metaphors rather than extended periods of meditation.

        If you find you like these books, I highly recommend finding a meditation instructor or therapist skilled in these approaches. Ask around for recommendations, like any profession there are honest and skilled practitioners and there are quacks!

    1. That’s a remarkable and chilling interview.  Finally, some of society’s most dangerous predators have a capable spinmeister. 

      1. From the interview:

        “Psychopaths have a conglomeration of very positive traits that they use in everyday life. I mean, psychopaths are assertive, psychopaths don’t procrastinate, psychopaths focus on the positives of situations. They don’t take things personally. They don’t beat themselves up when things go wrong. They don’t overly criticize themselves. And of course they are very cool under pressure. So these are everyday characteristics that we can use in our life, not just at work, but also when we are with our friends, when we’re with our family”

        WTF?! I mean, I understand this guy has a book to sell but this is some of the most asinine bullshit I’ve heard in quite some time. Because truly, what our relationships with family, friends and co-workers need are more psychopathic traits.

        1. “So these are everyday characteristics that we can use in our life, not just at work, but also when we are with our friends, when we’re with our family”

          Yes, yes, because psychopathy is all about friends and family…oh, wait, not so much. One wonders if the author is a psychopath and is just playing with us.

          1. “psychopaths don’t procrastinate”

            I imagine procrastinating about disposing a body might lead to very unsanitary conditions so the author might have the best intentions in mind.

        2. The traits listed aren’t what I would consider (as a lay person) to be exclusively sociopathic traits. Being assertive, goal-focused, and resistant to criticism would certainly help with relationships, which require hard work and a self-image that is resistant to set-backs. But it would be hard to advocate for a complete lack of empathy, usually associated with sociopathy.

        3. Psychopaths have a conglomeration of very positive traits that they use in everyday life. I mean, psychopaths are assertive, psychopaths don’t procrastinate, psychopaths focus on the positives of situations. They don’t take things personally. They don’t beat themselves up when things go wrong. They don’t overly criticize themselves. And of course they are very cool under pressure.

          Yes, yes. The same is true of viruses.

          1. Maybe it’s just my humanist biases slipping through again, but I do like to believe that our abilities to remember, reflect, think, and feel may have some value, even if our present social organization would prefer we were more mechanical.

        4. That fragment of an interview rather reinforces my impression that the author’s premise is entirely ass-backwards. Most of those “positive traits” have long struck me as really negative traits, whose positive social valuation is a major social problem. To find that psychopaths possess these “positive traits” ought to lead one to question whether those “positive traits” really are good things.

          To my mind, being filled with self-doubt, feeling pained at failures, perpetually questioning one’s own beliefs and actions, are the prerequisites for being a good human being. In a world full of suffering and oppression, if you’re always happy and confident, you’re probably one of those responsible for the suffering and oppression.

    2. What strikes me is, why did he not try to synchronize himself with the Dalai Lama and see what that change felt like?

  7. I liked it better when it was titled ATLAS SHRUGGED.

    Seriously though, it’s worth remembering that publishers sometimes saddle books with provocative/borderline trolling titles that the authors did not suggest or would prefer not to use.

        1. Thanks …

          But I’m curious to know why you would not want to read it? (As in – you’re obviously interested enough in the subject to comment on the article.) (Not trying to pitch or sell the book, just wondering.)

  8. I was hoping this would take a more scientific tack by asking, on the assumption that psychopathy is at least partially genetic or epigenetic, why it has remained in the gene pool. I think the answer would probably be something along the lines of expressing the advantage of having someone in your tribe that is motivated to attain greater levels of power and influence than had even previously existed. Such a person can amass resources and create a bureaucratic social structure that can then be inherited by more compassionate individuals.

    1. I think the more interesting question is why it occupies such a small percentage of the gene pool. All of traits psychopathy engenders can be directly linked to success. 

      Somewhere in the nebulous web of indirect causation, there’s a selective pressure toward empathetic traits in individuals. 

      1. The traits favor “success” in the sense of social dominance, which is parasitic upon human communities in general. Most of us depend upon cooperation and webs of trust to survive.

        1. Success here is defined as staying alive until reproductive age and producing many offspring with a high likelyhood of achieving the same. 

          I think it’s fascinating and gratifying that there’s an obvious and overwhelming selection pressure toward people who don’t put their own interests ahead of others. 
          I think you’d actually have a really hard time drawing line of causation across the “web of trust” from traits that engender empathy to genetic success. You end up having to argue from the equilibrium of complex systems, which resists generalization. making a case of the success of apathic genes is far more straightforward.

  9. As a self-described psychopath I am always frustrated when people don’t listen to me. But now I can lord this scientific finding over people. Yessssss.

  10. Bit of irony visiting nut cases in locked wards and prisons to talk to them about their success and wisdom.

    Maybe the follow-up book will interview the homeless for economic tips or junkies for advice on self-control.

  11. It seems like half of the premise is undoubtedly true, that we could all stand to  “turn up” a few of the dials get maxed out in psychopaths, while the other half of the premise, that we can learn how to do this from psychopaths, is undoubtedly false. 

    The principle feature of psychopathy is a lack of empathy. The principle reason that we have those “knobs” turned a little low is because we are striking a balance between our own self-interest and that of others. 

    Psychopaths are last people you would want to ask for advice on how to most effectively consider the interests of others and arrange them in a harmonious balance with your own. 

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