What is it about our fascination with psychopathy? In comparison to the ‘norm,’ psychopaths are extremely compelling. Think Heath Ledger as the Joker seducing audiences in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. They are undeniably intriguing, but we don’t usually want to be one. Would you honestly be happy with comparisons to Amy Dunne, even if you secretly admire aspects of her bold decisiveness and fearless ability to think on her feet?
There’s no condoning antisocial behaviour that results from psychopathic thinking. However, we sometimes lack objectivity in our analysis of their characteristics. An association with psychopathy questions the validity of our own sanity and it’s this cognitive dissonance that leaves us with a skewed or incomplete perspective. There are always two sides to every coin.
Psychopaths living amongst us
If a broken clock is right twice a day, psychopaths can’t always be wrong, can they? Most of the time they are depicted as the stereotypical knife-wielding maniac. Leading psychologist Dr Robert Hare’s renowned ‘psychopathy test’ highlights 20 points identifying commonality among the traits in much detail. However, what would these people look like if such characteristics were channelled in a positive light? You may be surprised to know they’d probably be a company CEO, a successful lawyer or even a self-made millionaire.
Board and Fritzon (2005) found that business CEOs – the very people you may aspire to be one day – actually possess more psychopathic attributes, including superficial charm, lack of empathy, persuasiveness, focus, independence and egocentricity, compared to ‘so-called disturbed criminals’ – they just refrain from criminal behaviour. However, we generate a much kinder pseudonym for their traits because of their positive positions. Superficial charm can be read as charismatic; manipulative behaviour can be seen as having the ability to influence; lacking emotion is interpreted as making hard decisions; and reduced stress as increased confidence. Successful achievements, then, are seen as the consequence of reaping the positive side of the coin. Do you possess any of these attributes? The chances are, you have probably exhibited some psychopathic thinking or unearthed a trait or two of your own.
Channelling these behaviours positively
The trick is to be able to harness these responses in a controlled manner. Possessing psychopathic traits doesn’t mean you are the next case study for a Hollywood blockbuster. Far from it. So don’t judge your boss or even yourself too harshly. However, you must recognise the attributes first, then practise a controlled application of specific traits. The successful result is likely to be positive enhancements to aspects of your decision-making and behaviour. Think of the lead detective who catches the antagonist at the end of the movie because he adapted to think like the psychopath… in a controlled manner.
The traits you should borrow positively
There are three main characteristics that can be borrowed to positive effect. The first is the ability to ‘exhibit reduced fear’. Many of us are crippled by fear, especially the fear of failure. Mastery of this could be useful in many situations, such as job interviews or taking opportunities that present themselves. So don’t run, face your fears.
The second is the ability to ‘detach from emotion’. This doesn’t mean become heartless. We know emotions impede rational decision-making. The lesson is to practise not diving into decisions. Take a moment to think whether this something is right, as opposed to feeling right.
And the third is the ability to ‘exhibit a resistance to stress in pressurised situations’. This may be linked to self-belief and confidence, thereby, not perceiving challenging situations as an inability to cope. With stress being the number one reason that people take time off work, an ability to master it would come
So in short, some traits that see psychopaths detach from people and their environments can be beneficial if used productively. It’s good not to be at the mercy of your emotions. In professional settings, for example, reduced fear is likely to manage stress and understanding the processes of manipulation may minimise being manipulated yourself.
Successful people often already possess some ‘psychopathic characteristics’. Raise your awareness of them to assist the development of your healthy mind, but remember, everything in moderation; you don’t want to dance too close to the edge!
Martyn Stewart is a chartered psychologist and relationship coach, and is Head of Psychology at Doha College. He is also a published author and public speaker. Get in touch on Twitter via @martynpsych or @findasolutionuk, email firstname.lastname@example.org. www.relationship-solutions.co.uk.