Maybe Being a Psychopath Isn’t Such a Bad Thing?

in News, Pop Culture
October 31st, 2012

It’s Halloween, folks, and you know what that means: Jell-O molds of brains and punn-y costumes (Freudian Slip, anyone?), right? Amirite? Okay, maybe that’s just me, whatever, guys. But I can name at least one cherished Halloween pastime that tends to be pretty popular across the board, and that’s the horror movie marathon.

As we learned earlier this month, the mechanisms by which our brains process fear are intricate yet animalistic—after all, we’re by far not the only species that experiences the sensation of fear. Though what may be a uniquely human instinct is the propensity to actually seek out fear (and the sensation of arousal that inherently comes with it)—a concept illustrated nicely in this piece from The Dana Foundation. This purposeful seeking-out of fear-inducing stimuli is undoubtedly present in the act of partaking in the aforementioned horror movie marathon, and a particular subset of said scary flicks (and the characters therein) will serve as the main focus of this post.

There are lots of types of scary movies out there, from the psychological thriller to the slasher film and everything in between, but today, for the purposes of this entry, our interests lie in the psychopathic killers. Whether your allegiances fall with Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the psychopath is a popular character in cinema and in popular culture in general. But what makes this character profile so enjoyable and even attractive at times? And furthermore, what can we learn from the psychopaths among us?

America’s favorite psychopath.

A recent piece in Scientific American covered a conversation between psychologist Kevin Dutton of the University of Oxford and actor Michael C. Hall, the man behind America’s favorite serial killer, Dexter Morgan, of the hit Showtime series, Dexter. In his remarks and in his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us, Dutton asserts that possessing some of the qualities of a psychopath—ruthlessness, charm, inflated self-worth, lack of remorse and empathy, and the ability to manipulate others, to name a few—might not be all that bad.

Dutton’s book, out now.

Conventionally, we picture psychopaths as horrifying, antisocial killers and menaces to society, but Dutton argues that psychopathic tendencies fall on a spectrum (much like other psychological disorders), and those individuals that fall on the lower end can actually use these traits to their advantage. One of the examples he uses in his book (an excerpt of which can be found here, and is definitely worth a look), is that of a neurosurgeon. Ruthlessly cool and focused under pressure, and immune to emotional flair-ups of empathy and compassion in times of stress, the neurosurgeon (or any surgeon, for that matter) is a great example of someone who may possess psychopathic tendencies on some low level. Another prime example presented by Dutton is the business mogul—in order to climb to the top of a huge conglomerate, it’s imperative that some insensitivity, cutthroat ambition, and ruthlessness come into play.

This is NOT the way good CEOs operate.

In the context of the discussion, Michael C. Hall echoed Dutton’s claims that psychopathic tendencies can be a plus, saying he envies some of Dexter’s qualities, stress-management especially. And though we may not realize it consciously, the acceptance and even embracing of psychopathic traits isn’t uncommon. In his book, Dutton makes reference to an informal poll conducted in one of his classes in which students were presented with the aforementioned personality profile and asked what line of work might best suit someone who fits that description. Not surprisingly, their answers included CEO, spy, surgeon, and politician, as well as assassin and serial killer.

So what does this mean for the non-psychopathically inclined among us? And what does it mean for those who possess some of these traits? Could surgeons and CEOs be one step away from being the next Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter? Probably not. As for everyone else, maybe we should try embracing some of our psychopathic tendencies, if we have them. It’s no surprise that characters like Dexter are so appealing to so many people (myself included)—though Dexter is on what Dutton would consider the higher end of the spectrum in terms of intensity of psychopathic qualities, a lot of those qualities are admirable ones, and ones that we would tend to seek out. So who knows, maybe you could be a psychopath, too.


“Dexter” and British Psychologist Ask: Who Wants to be a Psychopath? – Scientific American

What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed [Exceprt] – Scientific American

Desperately Seeking Stimulation: Fear, Reward, and the Human Need for Novelty – The Dana Foundation

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