The word "psychopath" naturally makes our minds dart to the deranged. But maybe psychopaths are all around us -- and maybe they're not all bad.
From TV's nice-guy serial killer Dexter to the new comedy movie Seven Psychopaths, perhaps society is even ready to embrace psychopaths, at least a little.
A new book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success suggests that some traits of psychopaths may actually be beneficial.
"I wrote the book primarily to debunk deep-seated myths the public has about psychopaths -- that they are all bad or mad," says research psychologist Kevin Dutton, of Magdalen College in Oxford, England. "No sooner does the word 'psychopath' come out of our lips then images of (1970s-era serial killer) Ted Bundy and serial killer A-listers come to mind."
But Dutton says that "when we talk about psychopaths, we're actually talking about people who have a distinct set of personality characteristics -- ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, persuasiveness -- and they lack a conscience and empathy."
"Notice I haven't said 'violent' and haven't mentioned 'intelligence.' If they happen to be intelligent and not naturally violent -- now they're more likely to make a killing in the market."
Dutton says some psychopathic qualities can further your career: Psychopaths are reward-driven; they do not procrastinate, and they are action-oriented, he says.
Dutton looks at these qualities on a continuum, and says that for psychopaths, certain traits are dialed up or down.
So does psychiatrist Ronald Schouten, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, co-author of a book called Almost a Psychopath, out earlier this year.
Schouten says an estimated one per cent of the population are true psychopaths that meet the clinical diagnosis; about 10 to 15 per cent are in the "almost" category. Those are the ones you're most likely to encounter, he says.
"The hallmark of a true psychopath and an 'almost psychopath' is impaired capacity or lack of capacity for empathy," Schouten says. "It's a matter of degree and intensity."
He says true psychopaths intimidate and target those who are vulnerable. Many have been abused.
"True psychopaths don't learn this behaviour. It's inborn and a function of different brain structure and also of environmental influences, many of which are quite negative," Schouten says.
But almost-psychopaths "can attract people by being glib and charming and cunning and manipulative. At the same time, they are stealing credit and treating peers and subordinates very poorly. They are engaged in bullying behaviour and control people around them," Schouten says.
This week in New York City, Dutton will share the stage with Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who plays a Miami police forensics expert who also happens to be a serial killer.
"He'll be chatting about his role playing Dexter and the insights he's got into what makes a psychopath happy," Dutton says.
Dutton says he will talk from a researcher's standpoint about what makes a psychopath happy.
"Things like control and instant gratification really drive the psychopath," he says. "They love control. They love power. They love the idea of getting what they want and getting what they want now."
Dutton says he knows from experience: In the first sentence of his book, he notes that his late father was a psychopath.
"He was a pretty ruthless businessman. He was extremely high on fearlessness and extremely high on shamelessness. I never ever saw my father embarrassed during my entire life," Dutton says. "There were lot of times when my dad should have been upset but wasn't. He was not the most empathetic guy."
Lack of empathy, or the ability to identify with the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another, is a key factor in psychopathic tendencies, other experts agree.
"Empathy is on a continuum. Everybody has a little in some ways," says researcher Sara Konrath, of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "It's considered a very fundamental moral trait. And if you don't have it, people would consider you to be not a moral person."
-- USA Today