I was recently honored with the opportunity to write a chapter for the edited book The Psychology of Dexter, along with several other esteemed Psychology Today bloggers (also see DePaulo's blog on this book). I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the Dexter series.
Many fascinating topics are explored in the book, but one common theme several of the authors discussed is the reason why "normal" people enjoy watching a television show about a serial killer. There are lots of possibilities, but I think the reason why the Dexter series is such a successful show is that his character gives us a peek into the rarely explored and misunderstood mind of a psychopath.
When we think of the word psychopath, images from The Shining, Silence of the Lambs or Texas Chainsaw Massacre may come to mind. But in reality, psychopaths are harder to spot in a crowd than one might think (hint: he's usually not the crazy-eyed guy in the black trench coat). Here is a definition of a psychopath and as you are reading, ask yourself if this describes anyone that you know personally: "A social predator who charms, manipulates and ruthlessly plows their way through life...completely lacking in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret (Hare, 2003, xi)."
Odds are you know someone or have been acquainted with someone that comes close to this description (someone who perhaps resembles the character Gordon Gekko from the 1987 movie Wall Street) and, yet that person is not running amuck on a killing spree or serving time in a jail cell. If this is the case, this person would probably qualify as a "successful psychopath." A successful psychopath is someone who fits the criteria of a psychopath, but is largely successful in their exploitations and so is able to avoid getting caught. Such people may be lawyers, professors, or politicians, and given the recent headlines, likely have a permanent address on Wall Street.
Unfortunately, very little is known about successful psychopaths. This is because most of the psychological research conducted on psychopathic tendencies has been done on psychopaths who are incarcerated. For instance, Kent Kiehl has done some interesting research using fMRIs to examine the brains of incarcerated psychopaths. His research shows that such individuals suffer from significant impairments that affect their ability to detect emotions in others and to feel emotions themselves.
But what makes a successful psychopath different than an unsuccessful or "prototypic" psychopath? My colleague, Dr. Stephanie Mullins-Sweatt, recently examined this idea in an article just published in the Journal of Research in Personality. Dr. Mullins-Sweatt, along with her coauthors, asked experts in the areas of psychology and law to describe an individual they knew personally who matched the description I gave above regarding a successful psychopath. These experts were then asked to rate this individual on a variety of personality characteristics. From these responses, a clear, consistent description emerged that matched the typical characteristics of a prototypic psychopath in all ways but one: Conscientiousness.
In the personality literature, conscientiousness refers to the tendency to show self-discipline, the act dutifully, and to aim for achievement. People high in conscientiousness prefer planned, rather than spontaneous, behavior and are able to effectively control and regulate their impulses. Prototypic psychopaths are quite low in this trait, unable to put the brakes on their dangerous impulses and incapable of learning from their mistakes. Given this, it is no surprise that such individuals are often arrested and convicted for their heinous crimes. However, the personality ratings of the successful psychopaths depicted a dishonest, arrogant, exploitative person who nevertheless was able to keep their behavior in check by controlling their destructive impulses and preventing detection.
Based on this insight, Dexter seems to fit the profile of a successful psychopath, and that is something that makes his character different from other psychopaths we have seen in pop culture. Despite Dexter's dark thoughts and even darker behaviors, his "work" is consistently clean, well-planned, and meticulous. He rarely acts out of impulse, and instead filters his destructive urges through a carefully organized code of conduct (i.e., "Harry's code"). In this way, Dexter is a fascinating contradiction: He is a cold-blooded killer and a warm-hearted father; an emotionally cold vigilante and a caring friend and brother; a violent assassin and a defender of innocence and justice.
Ultimately, Dexter is just a make believe character, there purely for our own entertainment, but his existence does give one pause. Given how successful Dexter is in controlling his urges and keeping his crimes a secret, it makes you wonder how many people are like him, running around in our world undetected. They could be your neighbor, your coworker, your friend, or maybe even your favorite Psychology Today blogger.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences and the Law.
DePaullo, B. (2010). The Psychology of Dexter. Smart Pop.
Mullins-Sweatt, S. N., Glover, N. G., Derefinko, K. J., Miller, J. D., & Widiger, T. A. (2010). The search for the successful psychopath. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 554-558.