Why there's a little of the psychopath in us all


Consider how you would act in the following situations.

You are watching a runaway train hurtling down the track towards five people who are trapped on the line. You are helpless to intervene, with one exception – you could flip a switch and divert the train on to another track before it hits the five people. However, one person sits trapped on that other track.

You are standing on a platform above the rail track watching a runaway train hurtling towards five people who are trapped on the line. A very large stranger stands at the edge of the platform. If you push him/her on to the track, he/she is big enough to halt the oncoming train before it kills the five trapped people. In each case, taking action would save four net lives. How would you act?

Most normal people will reluctantly switch the train on to the other track in case A, thereby saving four net lives, but have great difficulty in deciding how to act in case B, mostly deciding not to push. On the other hand, psychopaths decide both cases quickly and easily – they redirect the train, and push the large stranger.

The mind of the psychopath is explained by research psychologist Kevin Dutton in a fascinating book The Wisdom of Psychopaths (Heinemann 2012), part of which is adapted for an article in Scientific American, October 2012

Psychopaths have a personality disorder characterised by particular traits. These include being egocentric, manipulative, ruthless, fearless, focused, charming, having an exaggerated sense of self-worth, lacking empathy, and knowing right from wrong but thinking that such considerations don’t apply to them.

When the word psychopath comes up, we tend to think of rapists, serial killers, and so on. Hannibal Lecter, portrayed in the film The Silence of the Lambs, comes to mind. The real-life Hannibal Lecter is Robert Maudsley, a serial killer who murdered four people. Maudsley has been held in solitary confinement for the past 30 years in a bulletproof cage in the basement of Wakefield Prison in England.

However, Kevin Dutton reminds us that we all sit somewhere on the psychopathic continuum. He likens psychopathic traits to dials on a studio mixing deck. If you turn all the dials to high you get an awful result, but if you blend the settings, such as focus, fearlessness and mental toughness, you can produce a high-performing individual. Many world leaders, top business executives and professionals in various fields have their dials set like this.

Empathy comes in two varieties – hot and cold – which explains people’s reactions in the two hypothetical runaway train scenarios. Case A is an impersonal moral dilemma involving areas of the brain that process rational thought – cold empathy. Case B is a personal moral dilemma and involves areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala, that handle emotions – hot empathy. Normal and psychopathic brains handle cold empathy in the same way, but not hot empathy. A functional MRI scanner can detect areas in the brain that are active – these areas “light up”. The amygdala lights up when the normal brain processes the second case detailed above, but it remains dark in the psychopathic brain.

To succeed in any profession you obviously need the skill-set required to perform the specific duties. But to get to the top of the profession you also need an additional set of traits that code for high achievement. For example, Dutton cites the successful venture capitalist Jon Moulton as listing determination, curiosity and insensitivity as his three most valuable character traits in a recent Financial Times interview. When queried about insensitivity, he explained: “It lets you sleep when others can’t.”

Dutton cites a 2005 study conducted by Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at Surrey University to find out what makes a successful business leader. Three groups were studied using a psychological profiling test: business managers, psychiatric patients, and psychopathic criminals. The study showed that a number of psychopathic attributes were more common in business leaders than in disturbed criminals – superficial charm, persuasiveness, egocentricity, lack of empathy, focus and independence. The main difference between the groups lay within the more antisocial aspects of the psychopathic syndrome – the dials for physical aggression, tendency to break the law and impulsivity were turned up higher in the psychopaths.

* William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC


The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.