Decoding Psychopaths: The Wisdom of Psychopaths Summary

Peek inside a psychopath’s mind to discover their success secrets. This summary of The Wisdom of Psychopaths brings valuable life lessons to apply in your life.

This chapter-wise summary of “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” by Kevin Dutton brings valuable life lessons to apply in your life.

The book reveals how some psychopathic traits, like fearlessness, decisiveness, and charisma, can be highly useful to help them succeed in various professions and aspects of life.

Dutton introduces us to a “functional psychopath,” those who function normally and do not engage in criminal or harmful behavior despite their personality traits.

These are the ones we can learn from.

The Wisdom of Psychopaths Summary
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

The Wisdom of Psychopaths Summary

Quick Summary: The Wisdom of Psychopaths dives into the traits that help a psychopath succeed. The author, Kevin Dutton, shows how a controlled adoption of some psychopathic traits, like fearlessness and charm, can take us to greater professional success. He also shares how we can use their strategies to grow personally.

Kevin Dutton is a Ph.D. in psychology and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who spent time with some of the world’s top con artists.

1: Scorpio Rising

Dutton introduces us to psychopathy and how it can manifest differently in different people.

He recounts a popular Aesop fable:

The Scorpion & The Frog

The frog and the scorpion are sitting on the bank of a river, and the scorpion asks the frog to give it a ride to the other side. The frog is suspicious, but the scorpion assures him:

“But it is clearly not in my interest to sting you. I really do need to get to the other side of the river. And I give you my word that no harm will come to you.”

So the frog lets the scorpion ride on its back across the river.

At first, everything goes to plan, but halfway through, the frog suddenly feels a sharp pain in his back and sees the scorpion withdraw his stinger. The frog asks:

“Now we are both going to die!”

The scorpion replies:

“Mr. Frog, you said it yourself. I am a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting you.”

First, the scorpion is a psychopath’s malevolent nature, which they cannot control, even if it means self-destruction.

Second, scorpions choose their frogs.

Ted Bundy confessed to meticulously selecting his victims because he was skilled at decoding anyone’s vulnerability.

Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless, and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not limited to prisons and criminal settings.

They can exist in a variety of professions that we may encounter on a daily basis.

Can Psychopaths Love? Well, a psychopath may say, ‘I love you,’ but it means to him about as much as if he said, ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee.’

To the psychopaths, emotion was irrelevant.

– Kevin Dutton quoting Robert Hare’s research paper that included the EEG responses of both psychopaths and non-psychopaths 

2: Will the Real Psychopath Please Stand Up?

“The psychopath … gets the words, but not the music, of emotion.”

– Kevin Dutton

Most of us would score around 2 on the Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL-R) — a twenty-item questionnaire with a maximum score of 40. The entry level for psychopaths is 27.

Dutton poses a question to a psychopath, the 28-year-old Joe with an IQ of 160, who raped and murdered a girl:

A transplant surgeon has five patients needing different organs, but none are available. A healthy traveler’s organs are compatible with all five patients. Is it morally right for the doctor to kill the traveler to save his patients?

You and I would face a moral conundrum. But not Joe. He quips:

“You kill the guy and save the other five. It’s utilitarianism … The trick’s not to think about it too much … If I was the doctor, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. It’s five for the price of one, isn’t it?”

Psychopaths are charming and intelligent people whose powers of persuasion are incomparable. They can teach us how to influence people.

Inside the brains of psychopaths | Kevin Dutton, James Fallon, Michael Stone | Big Think

3: Carpe Noctem

Barry, a member of a top-dog white supremacist prison gang called Rock, argues that they only need to be brutal once or twice to send this message:

“Don’t mess with these guys. Prevention, is what I’m saying, is better than cure. Carpe noctem.”

In ancestral communities and among chimpanzees, risk-taking, and altruism, were highly valued for survival and group cohesion.

Barry’s argument suggests that psychopathic traits like ruthlessness, fearlessness, and charm evolved to prominence due to their benefits in establishing dominance.

The Latin phrase “Carpe Noctem” translates as Seize the Night.

The author says every one of us has a bit of a psychopath in us.

“There will always be a need for risk-takers in society, as there will be for rulebreakers and heartbreakers. If there weren’t, ten-year-old boys would be falling into ponds and drowning all over the place.”

– Kevin Dutton

4: The Wisdom of Psychopaths

In this, the author discusses how certain psychopathic traits can be beneficial in specific professions, such as business, politics, or the military.

A 2005 study found people with damage in emotion-related brain areas performed better in a gambling game than normal people.

This suggests that in certain situations, those with psychopathic traits, like less emotional intensity, may excel in high-stakes decision-making, like in the roles of stockbrokers, CEOs, and top lawyers.

These people are functional psychopaths.

Functional Psychopath = Psychopath – Poor Decision Making

Hare and Babiak’s Business Scan (B-Scan) questionnaire measures psychopathic traits in high-octane professions using a corporate framework and everyday business language.

They found that certain core psychopathic traits (such as superficial charm, grandiosity, manipulation, impulsivity, emotional poverty, and thrill-seeking) can morph into the star qualities of an influential leader known for their personal style and organizational success.

“Psychopaths … not only have a natural talent for duplicity, but also feel the “moral pinch” considerably less than the rest of us. (That is) Not always a bad thing when the chips are down and decisions must be made under fire.”

– Kevin Dutton

5: Make Me a Psychopath

Dutton talks to Professor Robert Hare, who feels society is becoming more psychopathic. To make his point, he recounts how a seventeen-year-old Japanese boy sold one of his own kidneys to buy an iPad.

Gary Gilmore, a notorious psychopathic criminal, was executed in 1977. After his death, in accordance with his wishes, his corneas were transplanted into two recipients. Did he want to “keep looking out” for victims?

Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test! | Kevin Dutton | Big Think

To find out more about how a psychopath’s brain works, Dutton undergoes a “psychopath makeover” using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily alter his brain function.

The experiment results in a reduced sense of conscience and heightened confidence though the effects wear off shortly.

Dutton reflects on this altered state and raises questions about the role of conscience in human behavior and the implications of manipulating it.

6: The Seven Deadly Wins

The hallmark traits of a psychopath are:

  • Ruthlessness: “The problem with a lot of people is that what they think is a virtue is actually a vice in disguise. It’s much easier to convince yourself that you’re reasonable and civilized than soft and weak, isn’t it?”
  • Charm & Focus: “Of course, the observation that charm, focus, and ruthlessness—three of the psychopath’s most instantly recognizable calling cards—constitute, if you can juggle them, a blueprint for successful problem-solving might not come as too great a surprise, perhaps. “
  • Mental toughness: “Give rejection the finger and rejection gives it back.”
  • Fearlessness: “But what if you don’t need courage? What then? What if you don’t have fear to start with? If you don’t have fear to start with, you don’t need the courage to overcome it, do you? The concrete and tire stunts wouldn’t have bothered me, mate. They’re just mind games. But that doesn’t make me brave. If I couldn’t give a s**t in the first place, how can it?”
  • Action: “But psychopaths never procrastinate. Just one of the reasons why, if you recall the words of Richard Blake from earlier, my host at Broadmoor and one of the clinical team in the Paddock Centre, they tend to excel at activities on the ward. Psychopaths need to do something. Nothing just isn’t an option.”

Dutton suggests harnessing these traits in a controlled manner in our life. The key lies in their balanced application, depending on the situation and desired outcome.

The Seven Deadly Wins are core principles of psychopathy that, when used judiciously, can help us achieve our goals and tackle challenges without turning into villains.

  1. Ruthlessness
  2. Charm
  3. Focus
  4. Mental toughness
  5. Fearlessness
  6. Mindfulness
  7. Action

7: Supersanity

“[The psychopath] is an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite … His inner experience of the possibilities within death is his logic. So, too, for the existentialist … And the saint and the bullfighter and the lover.”

– Alan Harrington quoting Norman Mailer in Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Extroversion, charm, and high self-esteem help psychopaths deal with rejection and ease their pursuit of risky exploitation.

Dutton says that knowing and using psychopathic traits can give us a form of “supersanity,” or heightened mental and emotional abilities.

As a matter of fact, both psychopaths and saints share an openness to new experiences.

And this ceaseless quest for new experiences can be seen in spies, serial killers, and wandering monks alike, connecting these seemingly disparate groups.

Final Words

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” demystifies the minds and traits of psychopaths And tells us we can learn from them how to be successful.

We can borrow from a psychopath’s smarts, charms, and fearlessness to tackle high-risk tasks with finesse. And learn to make decisions without overthinking, or worrying what others might think.

Psychopaths, undeniably, are fascinating. But the plain unvarnished truth is that there is nothing remotely funny about them. They can be dangerous, destructive, and deadly.

– Kevin Dutton

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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