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Fascinating, informative tour through psychopathic mind

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The title of this informative, surprisingly entertaining study is catchy but misleading. This isn't one of those jerky books that tells you how to use bad behaviour to get ahead in business or pick up women.

Instead, British psychologist Kevin Dutton (Split-Second Persuasion) mines recent research in neuroscience, social psychology, evolutionary biology and game theory. He visits Buddhist monasteries, military training centres and secure lockups for the criminally insane. He interviews psychiatric experts -- and psychopaths themselves -- examining the nature of psychopathy and how it fits into modern life.

The results can be disconcerting.

The movie image of the psychopath may be murderous Hannibal Lecter, but Dutton makes it clear that psychopaths are not necessarily violent. He suggests that psychopathy can be viewed on a spectrum, from impulsive, low-IQ killers to smart, manipulative con men to high-functioning alpha males (and they usually are males) who possess all the conventional markers of success.

As Dutton points out, the average psychopath is "more likely to make a killing on the stock market than down some dark, trash-can-strewn alley."

Professions that attract individuals who score high on the psychopathic checklist include CEO, lawyer, clergyperson and (yikes!) journalist. In a perverse way, psychopaths are highly adapted to thrive in the complex, competitive environment of the 21st-century corporation and the mobile, accelerated, anonymous landscape of our modern global culture.

Just to be clear, Dutton isn't advocating the full psychopathic menu -- which includes callousness, poor behavioural controls, pathological deceit and utter lack of remorse -- as a route to success. But he does believe that certain psychopathic traits -- charm, confidence, laser-like focus and an enviable lack of anxiety -- can teach us something.

The icy control of some psychopaths resembles the heightened clarity and calm described by elite athletes. Psychopaths exhibit the fearlessness, cool-headedness and capacity for taking action that we rely on in firefighters, police officers and emergency workers.

Dutton also sees some overlap between psychopathy and extreme states of spirituality. Rather provocatively, Dutton suggests that St. Paul, whose success in proselytizing rested on his extraordinary powers of persuasion and complete disregard for danger, "was almost certainly a psychopath."

Some sections don't work. Dutton occasionally throws out ideas without bothering to follow them up, and some of his attempts at being chatty and non-academic are awkward misfires. Fellow Brit Jon Ronson, who covered similar territory in 2011's The Psychopath Test, is much better at the jokey gonzo journalism.

But some of Dutton's first-person accounts are compelling, as when he undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that temporarily alters his neural wiring, making him react like a psychopath.

He describes the unsettling experience of shedding his conscience, slipping into a grandiose sense of self-worth and feeling his senses honed to predatory sharpness.

Thirty minutes later and he's back to the quotidian reality of worries and obligations, limitations and doubts. That's the realm of normality that most of us inhabit most of the time -- which might be why this tour through the psychopathic mind is so fascinating.

Even though she's a journalist, Winnipegger Alison Gillmor scores pretty low on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 J8

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Updated on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 4:08 PM CST: adds fact box

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