Psychopaths provide the best examples for a successful life. This was the message psychologist Kevin Dutton (University of Oxford) delivered to a packed out theatre in the Erasmus Paviljoen on Tuesday afternoon.

However, don’t let there be any misunderstandings: according to Dutton, real psychopaths are extremely dangerous, both to themselves and their environment. Sooner or later, they will end up in either prison or an institution. Dutton has met many psychopaths in the course of his research and – during his highly stimulating lecture – he talked about predatory beings without morals; beings who act purely for personal gain. They threaten and manipulate to achieve their aims. If that doesn’t work, they won’t hesitate to kill. They are constantly seeking challenges and taking irresponsible risks. Real psychopaths are extremely difficult figures, possessing a ‘magnetic aura’ while radiating a ‘glacial coldness’; which makes empathising with them virtually impossible.

Ordinary madness

Despite this, psychopaths can teach us a few things, explained Dutton; because in their madness, psychopaths are often less mad than other people deemed more or less ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’. This can be illustrated by a couple of examples. Take a game of chance whereby in each round a player can put in a one pound stake and has a fifty percent chance of winning 2.5 times the original stake. A group of ordinary people will quickly show a tendency to sit on their money and avoid all risks; as opposed to subjects displaying psychopathic tendencies who “will be prepared to play forever”. Rationally, the latter strategy is, in this case, the most sensible.


Another good example is the collection of ‘pleader’ videos which Dutton showed to his respondents. Pleaders are people who, via the media, appeal to the public to help them find a missing loved one. Generally, these appeals are done with the best of intentions, but sometimes such an appeal is simply a cover to conceal the fact that, as the murderer, he or she is responsible for the person being missing. When you show people films of pleaders – as Dutton did during his talk – the psychopaths in the audience appear to have a sixth sense and are able to identify which pleaders are actually liars. Psychopaths don’t look at the emotionally charged story that is being told but, with surgical precision, recognise tics and idiosyncrasies which betray the weakness in the act. Dutton went on to say that psychopaths are cold fish who can – as it were – experience reality in ‘slow motion’; in a way that is only bettered by some elite Buddhist monks.

Lessons for life

Surgeons, top lawyers, bank analysts and special army units frequently display psychopathic traits. And that’s good; as it means they remain cool and calculating at times when others can’t cope with the stress and anxiety of suffering pain or loss of face. In Dutton’s opinion, anyone who wants to be successful should “make a pact with his or her psychopathic self”. A couple of lessons for life: try to act rather than react; live in the present and don’t dwell too much on the past or yourself; study the world about you. And, in particular: teach yourself not to be overly scared of pain or failure. According to Dutton research has shown that you will ultimately experience less pain in your life if you think and act like a psychopath. Dutton told the audience to compare psychopaths to people who immediately leap into the water at the beach. While other people stand and shiver thinking about how cold the water might be, the psychopaths are already having fun in the water. The lesson provided without impunity by psychopaths is, therefore, very simple: “Just do it!” DR