The Upside of Dark Minds

Some killer traits can make the world a better place.

By Matt Huston, published May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Next time you walk down the street, look around: In a crowd of a hundred people, the odds are that a few of them are on the psychopathic spectrum. Don't bother picking out the scariest-looking passersby. The person of interest may well be that handsome Don Draper in the expensive suit, and you might want to ask him for a few pointers.

In his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, psychologist Kevin Dutton makes a tantalizing case that, in moderation, some of the traits that drive killers and con-men to destroy others can actually make the world a better place. By comparing special ops commandos, surgeons, business executives, and dangerous criminals, Dutton lays out a psychopathic personality map grounded in charm, fearlessness, ruthlessness, and a laser-like focus. In the extreme, traits like these will land you in prison but judiciously applied, they may turn out heroes and saints.

Experiments have shown that people who test relatively high on the psychopathy scale—and apply these traits in the right contexts—often act more rationally than non-psychopaths, tending not to dwell on feelings or take things personally. While many Wall Street traders crumble under their losses, the best brush off failure and start afresh the next day. Where normal folks would shudder, the SEAL sniper calmly squeezes the trigger. A psychopath or sociopath, according to criminal psychologist Robert Hare, is four times more likely to be the head of a company than the person sweeping the floors. And in a recent paper, psychologist Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues at Emory University correlate a psychopath's fearless dominance with presidential glory. Teddy Roosevelt once gave a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest; he had a lionlike presence, without the antisocial bent and impulsivity of criminal hell-raisers.

When push comes to shove, would you murder one person to save five others? "Functional" psychopaths already know their answer, which makes them so confounding—and quite possibly indispensable.

See also: Confessions of a Sociopath