“Indifference to me, is the epitome of all evil.”
– Elie Wiesel.
In the new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What saints, spies and serial killers can teach us about success, by Kevin Dutton, we are informed that CEOs and lawyers are among the professions with the most psychopaths. This is taken as evidence that psychopathic traits aren’t that bad. “Any situation where you’ve a got a power structure, a hierarchy, the ability to manipulate or wield control over people, you get psychopaths doing very well,” Dutton said. One successful lawyer who spoke to Dutton says, “Deep inside me there’s a serial killer lurking somewhere, but I keep him amused with cocaine, Formula One, booty calls, and coruscating cross-examination.”
Isn’t this just self-aggrandizement? Is there really any wisdom here? Aside from the ridiculous fallacy that monetary success equals wisdom, this idea that success results from psychopathic thinking is the height of hack psychology. If you have any doubts about this, check out the author’s website. Indeed, psychopathy is no laughing matter, though it’s probably not what most of us think. In the most general terms psychopathy is characterized by extreme self-centeredness and lack of empathy for others. This can be divided into specific behavioral constellations of traits: interpersonal deficits (grandiosity, arrogance and deceitfulness), affective deficits (lack of guilt and empathy, etc.), and impulsive and criminal behaviors (including sexual promiscuity and stealing). For a good lay description of psychopathy read this Scientific American article.
When the reviews of this book hit the interwebs a few weeks ago, my lawyer colleagues were all a twitter about it, eagerly forwarding links around, accompanied by tag lines like, “Sound like anyone we know?” And unfortunately, we could all probably answer yes to that question, as the legal profession does seem to have its fair share of people with psychopathic traits. What worried me about those missives, and what worries me about this book, is that they glorify psychopathic traits. They glorify bad behavior. The gossamer thread of justification for such glorification is that they help people get ahead, to be successful in their fields. Self-centeredness and lack of empathy helps one to climb over others to make more money. The implied corollary is that a person who does care about others will not be successful.
I just don’t think this is true. It may help not to feel for a witness during “coruscating” cross examination, but what happens when court adjourns for the day? Lack of empathy for others and complete focus on the self usually just means you’re an asshole and doesn’t gain fans. No one likes Gordon Gecko. But still people want to be him. Why is that? Is it simply the allure of power and wealth? Is it the twisted romantic notions of those who do not have power and wealth? I don’t really know. But what I do know is that the lawyer who thinks he has a serial killer inside him being placated with drugs, fast cars and sex isn’t doing himself or anyone else any favors. In fact, I don’t want to be anywhere near that guy when he snaps.
Sadly, that is what many of us recognized in this report. We recognize the assholes that we do not want to be around. Worse, we acknowledge that we work for them and have to do what they tell us. We witness first hand the destruction they leave in their wakes and the feel the toll it takes on us. Part of the problem is undoubtedly cultural. We are a society that elevates the aggressive pursuit of self-interest to a virtue. We put the individual first, and we encourage the use of force to achieve our aims. We coined the term “by any means necessary,” and live by it as an ethic. These are all ideas that are self-centered and lack empathy. They are psychopathic. So maybe it’s not just the CEOs and lawyers. Maybe it’s all of us. Or maybe we can do something about it.
Let me know what you think. Do we glorify psychopathy? How do you deal with the psychopath in your life?
Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist. His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com