Saturday, September 06, 2014

When a little craziness helps

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths

What does it take to become the best of the best, in medicine, as an astronaut, … or as a killer? Do the steely resolve and immunity to distraction seen in top surgeons, for example, mean that they are psychopaths? During the first Moon landing in 1969, Neil Armstrong piloted "Eagle" to a safe landing on fumes, and his heart rate didn't waver. Was he a psychopath? In The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton writes much of "functional psychopaths", meaning people who exhibit psychopathic traits while achieving success in non-criminal endeavors.

Early in the book we find that Dr. Dutton's father was a psychopath, as was a school friend. This must have had a lot to do with his career as a psychologist. He proposes that certain psychopathic traits lead to greater success, that many top leaders in business, political, and technology are well endowed with analytical coldness coupled with devastating charm and an ability to shrug off rejection or misfortune, that are seen in our most dangerous criminals.

The traits he discusses, that work together to make a psychopath number 8, in 3 groups:

  1. Self-Centered Impulsivity, composed of Machiavellian Egocentricity, Impulsive Nonconformity, Blame Externalization, and Carefree Nonplanfulness.
  2. Fearless Dominance, composed of Social Potency, Fearlessness, and Stress Immunity.
  3. Coldheartedness
A test called the PPI determines the strength of each of these traits. Most people score 2 or 3, but of those few who score more than 5, there seems to be a rapid jump to 30 or more. If this is so, then the test has great discriminatory power. At one point he spent time with a number of men in an asylum named Broadmoor, where the most dangerous psychopaths in England are kept. For these unfortunates, all 8 "dials" are turned up to the maximum.

After a social and historical discussion of the phenomenon and its basic psychology, we are introduced to the notion of a "functional psychopath", someone who has several of these traits strongly, but has greater self control and patience. That is, they may be nonconformists, but the impulsivity is lacking and they are better planners. Is it proper to call such people psychopaths, even if the softening adjective "functional" is added?

I think not. Let us remember that "psychopath" literally means "suffering soul", and as the -path suffix is used medically, "psychopath" means "sick mind". More than any other, it is the psychopath of which people say, "He's SICK!". And "he" is usually the sick one; male psychopaths greatly outnumber female psychopaths. We need new terminology. We can also understand the 8 factors better by looking at each as the pole of a spectrum, splitting one of them, and dispensing with heated adjectives:
  • Egocentric versus Unselfish
  • Impulsive and Spontaneous versus Deliberate
  • Nonconforming versus Compliant
  • Blaming versus Taking Responsibility
  • Carefree versus Anxious
  • Socially Potent versus Socially Weak or Needy
  • Fearless versus Cautious
  • Stress-Immune versus Reactive
  • Coldhearted versus Warmhearted
Looking at these items on the left, I can see how someone who matches them all would be a formidable beast. And we think of the classic wimp as someone with a pathological excess of all the items on the right. Even Taking Responsibility can go wrong if one takes on the world's worries without the clout to do anything about any of them. These are not a complete list of personality factors. Rather, they are those expressed and combined to a troubling degree in psychopaths.

Dr. Dutton believes we would do well to learn to internalize and express the left-side traits a little more, as the situation warrants. For example, when making investment decisions, coldhearted analysis leads to better gains in nearly every case. But coldhearted treatment of your unhappy child will damage or sever the relationship. Not that a psychopath cares for relationships anyway, but the rest of us do need them.

I fully agree. I once took a business writing class. One preliminary exercise was to redraft a very badly written letter from an employee to his supervisor, requesting a change to a new supplier because of poor service by the current vendor. It wasn't hard to turn 3 pages of explainery into a one-page letter that I was pretty happy with. After a night's sleep, however, I crafted a half-page version which I also turned in, with the note, "Here's how I'd write it to a supervisor I didn't fear." The instructor made much of this in class the first day, saying it was the most effective one of them all. This experience made a big difference in the way I wrote to my bosses after that. It was a good difference for my career!

On another occasion, years later, I had a manager, my supervisor's boss, who wanted me to drop everything and take on a project for which I knew I was poorly suited. As it happened, I'd nearly died of cancer more than a year previously, enduring a grueling surgery and half a year of chemo. I went into the surgery expecting to die. I didn't, and am now a 15-year survivor. I replied to the manager's request by politely declining and suggested names of people I thought would do a better job. Her response was to call me to her office and demand that I do the project. I looked at her coldly and said, "I already died. What can you do to me?" I walked out and engineered a transfer to another manager's group. It did my career a great deal of good! As someone who usually wilts under authority, I am glad I could channel some inner steel when I needed it.

I think these are minor examples of what the author is getting at. None of us wants to become a totally sick mind, destroying and killing until we need to be locked away for life. But if we recognize that some traits which characterize a psychopath might be reachable when needed, we might become more successful while remaining healthy in mind and emotion. And you know, that "carefree nonplanfulness" bit sounds like the right equipment to take along on a vacation.

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