As I read Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book, Gone Girl, I was not expecting to learn much about positive psychology but instead to learn more about what is often discussed in regard to this book – the mind of the psychopath.
Indeed, that is what I got: an incredible, realistic portrait of a devious, manipulative, and revengeful character. Readers learn a lot about the lack of remorse, dishonesty, impersonal sexuality, and striking charm that are characteristics of a psychopath. Flynn offers the world a textbook example with the character of Amy Dunne that psychology students will marvel at for years to come.
While my signature strength of curiosity was piqued throughout the book (I devoured the book in 2 days), I began to consider the strengths of this psychopath. What character strengths did Amy use to concoct her plans? How did Amy use these strengths to harm others?
As one considers universal character strengths found across cultures, nations, and beliefs, it is easy to see strengths that have gone awry in Amy Dunne. In the positive psychology world, there is particular emphasis on the use of signature character strengths, how we might overuse these strengths, how strengths work together in combination, and how context is king. What is less discussed, however, is what I term "strengths misuse," which refers to those times when individuals deliberately use their character strengths to manipulate or harm others. This is not only the dark side, but the "darkest" side of character.
If Amy Dunne were to take the VIA Survey, the only online, validated test that measures strengths of character, what traits would she score high on? Pause for a moment and review the VIA Classification list while you reflect on this.
What did you come up with? Here are the traits that have my vote (and I'm speaking only to the character in the book, not the movie): creativity, perseverance, judgment, prudence, self-regulation, and curiosity. For example:
Moreover, Amy misuses each of these elements of her character in a combined way. It is this complex, misused constellation of her personality traits that brings forth such stunning results.
Remember, Amy brings forth each of these aspects of her character to the disservice or outright harm of others. Hence, they are no longer “strengths.” They are, instead, machinations of her psychopathy. To use the phrase, “strengths misuse,” is certainly not a positive spin, rather it is the presentation of another angle to examine how what is best in us can turn dark. Really dark.
Whether a psychopath can permanently change for the better is highly debatable. Any positive comments along these lines would be met by significant skepticism from a wide range of scholars. If there were a way, I suspect a way to start would be to twist those strengths that are being misused to align with a different purpose – a purpose that brings benefit to others and does not harm anyone in the process.
Ultimately, the challenge for the millions of people around the world that have taken the VIA Survey of character strengths is to take that list of strengths and find ways to use them that contributes to the betterment of others AND ourselves.
VIA Institute (the nonprofit organization)
VIA Classification (the system of strengths and virtues)
VIA Survey (the research-validated test)
Character Strengths Research (up-to-date science)