What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success

By Kevin Dutton

Scientific American/Farrar Straus Giroux. 261 pp. $26 

’The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success’ by Kevin Dutton (Scientific American/FSG)

During the recent presidential debates, the two men on stage appeared brazen, cool under fire, charming, persuasive and supremely confident in themselves and their abilities. The qualities that both politicians share — charisma, confidence, boldness — and that have made them so successful are the subject of a new book by Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford.

It’s a book about psychopaths, of course.

In “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” Dutton argues that being a psychopath, or having some psychopathic characteristics, is not really a bad thing at all. According to Dutton, we depend on psychopaths every day and don’t even know it. Drawing upon a wealth of research, he argues that certain professions tend to attract people with psychopathic tendencies: physicians, Special Forces operatives, police officers, spies, lawyers, journalists and politicians.

“Deep inside me there’s a serial killer lurking somewhere,” one successful lawyer told Dutton. “But I keep him amused with cocaine, Formula One, booty calls, and coruscating cross-examination.”

Dutton writes that the psychopaths we know by name from their grisly exploits, such as John Wayne Gacyand Ted Bundy, lie on the most extreme end of the spectrum. The majority of psychopaths, Dutton claims, are more moderate. “Psychopathy really is like a high performance sports car,” he writes: Whether or not it’s a dangerous vehicle on the highway largely depends upon who has a foot on the gas pedal.

The good news, Dutton announces, is that only 1 or 2 percent of the world’s population are psychopaths. That’s between 70 million and 140 million people who possess “the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.”

There, now don’t you feel better about that upcoming visit to the dentist?

T. Rees Shapiro