in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: May 2, 2023

Podcast #889: The Wisdom of Psychopaths

When most people think of psychopaths, they think of uniformly monstrous characters who lack empathy and conscience.

But my guest says that those characteristics are just one part of the spectrum of traits that make up psychopathy, and while always having these traits turned up high is indeed bad, when employed to certain degrees in certain circumstances, they can actually be utilized for adaptive, positive ends.

Kevin Dutton is a researcher of experimental psychology at Oxford and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Today on the show, Kevin first defines what makes psychopaths, psychopaths, and how they differ from sociopaths. He describes how psychopathic traits can be particularly useful in some professions and which professions attract the most psychopaths. In the second half of our conversation, Kevin lays out his argument for why he thinks the Apostle Paul was a psychopath and how that’s actually what made him such an effective evangelist. At the end of our conversation, Kevin offers a test that assesses psychopathy; stay tuned to find out if I’m a psychopath and take the test yourself to see if you are.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When most people think of psychopaths, they think of uniformly monstrous characters who lack empathy and conscience. But my guest says that those characteristics are just one part of the spectrum of traits that make up psychopathy. And while always having these traits turned up highs indeed bad, when employed to certain degrees in certain circumstances, they can actually be utilized for adaptive positive ends. Kevin Dutton is a researcher of experimental psychology at Oxford, and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, what Saint Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach us about Success. Taylor, show Kevin first defines what makes psychopaths, psychopaths and how they differ from sociopaths. He describes how psychopathic traits can be especially useful in some professions in which professions attract the most psychopaths. In the second half of a conversation, Kevin lays out his argument for why he thinks the Apostle Paul was a psychopath, and how that’s actually what made him such an effective evangelist. At the end of our conversation, Kevin offers a test that assesses psychopathy. Stay tuned to find out if I’m a psychopath, and take the test yourself to see if you are after show’s over. Check at our show notes

All right, Kevin Dutton, welcome to the show.

Kevin Dutton: Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s really good to be here.

Brett McKay: So, you are a research psychologist and you’ve written a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths, which is about the lessons that non psychopaths can get from psychopath. And I’m sure people are like, what? Aren’t psychopaths not good people? But let’s talk about this. What is… What makes a psychopath a psychopath? I think that’s a word we throw around a lot. Like, oh, that guy’s a real psychopath, but, there’s an actual… That means something. So what does it mean?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, I mean, it’s true, isn’t it, bro? I’m glad we’ve kicked off with that question. I mean, psychopath is one of these words. I mean, it’s so ubiquitous these days that is almost losing its meaning, and it’s true, isn’t it? When most people hear the word psychopath, they instantly think of on the silver screen, serial killers like Hannibal Lecter in real life. Of course, people like Ted Bundy. But actually, when psychologists like myself talk about psychopaths, we’re in fact referring to a distinct subset of individuals with a specific constellation of personality characteristics such as ruthlessness, fearlessness, mental toughness, self-confidence, coolness under pressure, emotional detachment, focus, charm, charisma, and of course, those trademark deficits in conscience and empathy that you hear so much about. Now, none of these traits or characteristics is necessarily a problem in itself. In fact, all of them dialed up at the right levels and deployed within the right context can actually prove rather useful the key lies in context and level.

So, for example, imagine that those qualities that I’ve just outlined for you comprise the dials on a studio mixing desk of personality that may be twiddled up and down in various combinations. Right? Now, if you use that analogy, you arrive at two conclusions. The first is that there is no one definitive correct setting at which these dials may be positioned, but rather it will invariably depend on timing upon the particular set of circumstances you might happen to find yourself in. Okay? And we’ll come to that a little bit later. The second conclusion that you can draw is that there are certain jobs or professions, which by their very nature demand that some of these mixing desk dials be turned up just a little bit higher than average demand, what we might call some precision engineered psychopathy. Okay? So for example, imagine you’ve got the skillset to be a top surgeon, but the, you lack the ability to emotionally disengage from the person that you’re operating on.

Brett McKay: You’re not gonna cut it, are you? Well, [laughter], quite literally imagine you’ve got the skillset to be a top lawyer, but the, you lack the almost pathological self-confidence and narcissism to be the center of attention in the middle of a packed courtroom. Again, it’s not gonna work, is it? Imagine you’ve got the strategic and financial smarts to be a top business person, but you lack the ruthlessness to fire someone if they’re underperforming or the coolness under pressure to ride out a storm, or the sheer balls necessary to take a calculated risk when appropriate. Now, those characteristics that I’ve just outlined for you there, ruthlessness, fearlessness, self-confidence, coolness under pressure and emotional detachment comprise five core characteristics of the psychopathic personality. So you can see where the title of the book was coming from. I wouldn’t say that those characteristics, those psychopathic characteristics were necessarily dysfunctional in those particular context, in those particular professions.

Kevin Dutton: They can be, but it all, if we go back to that mixing desk dial analogy, it all comes down to the context in which the personality traits are used, the combination in which they’re used, in the levels at which they’re dialed up, and of course, the intention with which they’re used. So that’s basically what a psychopath is, is somebody who’s high on those characteristics. They’re not necessarily bad, as you can see in some professions, those kinds of characteristics will predispose you to success, in forensic settings in case you’re wondering about that and how you might be diagnosed as a psychopath. Well, in forensic settings, it’s kind of different story. If you are referred to a psychiatrist, a forensic psychiatrist, or a clinical psychology, say, within a prison setting, you are diagnosed as a psychopath usually by being given a test called the psychopathy checklist, which is devised by the father of modern psychopathy research, Bob Hare, Canadian famous Canadian psychologist, and of a maximum score of 40 on that test.

It’s usually around a cutoff of 30 that you need to score above in order to be diagnosed as a psychopath. In general terms, in terms of if we are diagnosing or we’re rating people within the general population to see where they might figure on the psychopathic spectrum. We use other kinds of tests, Brett, but in forensic settings it tends to be the hair checklist, which is the standard instrument of choice. And if you’re interested, perhaps a bit later on, I’ve devised, [laughter], I’ve devised my own test, actually, which is a very accurate test, only lasts about two minutes to see where you are on the psychopathic spectrum. So if we’ve got time a little bit later on, we can do it. We can see where you are and perhaps where your listeners are as well. So you need a pen and paper or a mobile phone to keep a track of your score as we’re going through it. But yeah, if we’ve got time a bit later on, we can do it.

Brett McKay: All right? Yeah, we’ll definitely do that. I wanna see if I’m a psychopath. So psychopath, it’s a personality disorder. It’s not like depression or anxiety where those are like mood disorders and it’s a cluster of different things. It’s not just one thing, it’s a whole bunch of different things. There’s also a diagnosis that you write about antisocial personality disorder that’s similar to psychopathy. How are they similar, but how are they different?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, many people confuse ASPD antisocial personality disorder with psychopathic personality disorder. And also in the mix is sociopathy. Okay? So it’s really interesting this, because I’ll tell you what, let me give you a demonstration or a show rather than tell, imagine that you met me in a bar, right? And say you, I don’t know, bumped into me in a bar, spilled your drink over me, annoyed me in some way, something like that. If I was somebody, say with antisocial personality disorder, which is basically akin to sociopathy or what we might call secondary psychopathy, I might react very violently to that. I might instantly smash a bottle over your head. I might punch you. I might be instantly violent towards you. I might then be arrested, taken off to the police station, and later on I might regret my actions. So in other words, what I’ve done, I’ve reacted to that situation in a very impulsive, volatile way.

And that tends to epitomize and characterize antisocial personality disorder sufferers or people with sociopathy. The two are pretty much interchangeable. However, if I was somebody who was what we might call a primary psychopath, I might not react at all. However, if perhaps I saw that when you spilled your drink over me, you had a wallet full of $20 bills, then what I might do is I might wait for the bar to close, or I might wait for you to leave, and then I might, approach you outside down a dark alley, put a knife in you for your trouble, and take your wallet and disappear. But I would do it in a very calculated, premeditated, cool, calm and collected way. So the main difference between a psychopath and someone with ASPD or sociopathy, or what we might call secondary psychopathy, Brett, is that psychopaths tend to respond, and sociopath or ASPD sufferers tend to react.

There was one psychopath, primary psychopath who I once interviewed who put it really well, and he said, professor Dutton, I didn’t really ever set out to hurt anybody. It was just collateral damage. So in other words, if I want something you’ve got and you get in my way, then you might get hurt. So psychopathic violence is what we call instrumental Brett. It’s a means to an end where a sociopathic violence tends to be more reactive to the situation. Sociopaths tend to have more of a conscience. They do experience remorse, where a psychopath, as I say, are very premeditated, very instrumental, very cold and emotionless reptilian you might say, and don’t have that remorse and empathy. So that’s the difference between the two. But generally speaking, Brett, when journalists or say non-scientific writers use the term sociopath and psychopath, they do use them interchangeably.

Brett McKay: Okay. But there is a difference. What percentage of the population might be labeled as psychopaths?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, it’s, roughly about 1% of the population. There’s, a slight difference in estimates, but it’s usually estimated between three quarters of percent and about one and a half percent. So the average being about 1%.

Brett McKay: Oh, so okay, about 1% of the population are psychopathic. What percentage of criminals are psychopathic?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, more, there’s more criminals that are psychopathic. Brett, roughly between 15 to 20% in a general kind of prison environment would be psychopathic. But of course, the other thing about that is we don’t know. They’re the criminals that have been caught, right? And this has always been, an issue that I’ve brought up. We don’t know how many criminals out there that haven’t been caught are psychopathic because they’re the good ones, [laughter] So, although look, I mean, good, they’re the ones who avoided detection. So roughly about 15 to 20% of incarcerated criminals are psychopaths. But if we take the view that actually the really, skilled criminals haven’t been caught yet, it’s impossible to put a number on it.

Brett McKay: So I’ve read these, of course, this is anecdotal what I’ve read, but from psychologists and counselors and therapists, that they’ve actually seen an uptick in the number of people coming to them with personality disorders. So it could be borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder. Is something similar going on with psychopaths?

Kevin Dutton: Well, it’s remained pretty stable. I mean, there’s different kinds of… I mean, it is important to remember that when we talk about someone who’s 1% of the population we’re talking about, like, genuine, pure, what we might call criminal psychopaths. I mean, there’s other, it is interesting actually that, studies have been done in the corporate sphere and actually the estimates in the corporate sphere are actually higher studies have shown the data comes out as a little bit higher of the incidence of psychopathy saying the corporate or business sphere than in the general population. So estimates in the, corporate sphere vary from between four to 12%, which is probably not gonna come as a surprise to too many of your listeners. But I mean, I think generally speaking, and psychologists like myself have this conversation. I think, if you look at society in general and you compare it today to maybe how it was say 30 or 40 years ago, I would say that certainly society in general might be considered further along the psychopathic spectrum than it might have been a few years ago.

I think, look, stating the obvious, I think social media has got quite a bit to do with that, the anonymity of social media, but also the pace of life has become much faster. Everything from, household objects to friends have become disposable and transient. So, in general it wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t have the figures off the top of my head about, any upticks in psychopathic personality disorder. But it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if people are generally scoring higher on tests of psychopathy than they say would’ve done say 30 years ago.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned that a disproportionate amount of people who work in the corporate world are psychopaths, but a surprising one. So you’ve looked at the correlation between career fields and psychopathy and clergymen tend to rate high on psychopathy. What’s going on there, do you think?

Kevin Dutton: Or you tell me. [laughter] when, yeah, you’re referring to a survey I did, which became rather famous back in, I think it was about 2014 called the Great Bruce Psychopath Survey. Brett and I was on a radio show over here in the UK and I put out a call, actually I put out a little test on the radio show’s website, pretty similar to the tests that we are gonna do a bit later on here on your show. And what I got people to do was to obviously fill out the questionnaire to answer the questions, they would then get their psychopath scores, so to speak, and in return they would let me know what their occupations were. And well, I didn’t realize how popular this was actually gonna be. And it turned out that low thousands of people filled out this questionnaire.

Had I known it was gonna be so popular, I would’ve probably done it in a more scientific fashion. But, it was good enough to get some, pretty good data. And it turned out that I’ve got the, of the top of my head. Number one, the most psychopathic profession was CEO. The number two came in lawyers. I think three was the media. Four I think was sale surgeons came in at five. The police were in there at some point. Clergy I think came in at number eight. Now, at the time, of course, that did surprise me. However, being crude and being, totally realistic about it, the church is just like any other business. It involves, power structures and hierarchies and, if you want to get to the top of that, what it’s pretty much like getting to the top of any other business.

The same skillsets are needed. And especially when you’ve got a business where the merchandise is something ineffable like God, and you are dealing with having power, real power over people’s lives, which is, apparently, backed by a divine being, then actually that’s quite a fertile environment for people high on the psychopathic spectrum who perhaps have rather dubious motives to thrive in. Now, one senior clergyman when I was in Cambridge once said, I have to say one of the most chilling things that anyone has ever said to me in all my years of working in this field. And he turned around to me and he said, Kevin, I don’t believe in God. I’m just good at him. And I’ll never forget that, Brett. I mean, look, I’m not… Hey, we’re not here to dig out church people, right? There’s always gonna be one or two rotten apples in any barrel. But I mean, when you’ve got people saying that to you is quite a senior figure in the church, actually, you tend as time goes on, not to be surprised that clergy are up there in the top 10.

Brett McKay: So what separates, there’s successful psychopaths. Like there’s lawyers who are doing great neurosurgeons, CEOs, they’re not committing crimes. So what separates the psychopaths who direct their, those traits to we say, adaptive ends as opposed to ones who use for maladaptive ends?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah. Well, actually coming back to surgeons, I mean, you mentioned surgeons there, and I’ll tell you something quite interesting. I was doing a talk a few years ago, and there was, a surgeon in the audience who came up to me afterwards and he said, I think you might be being a little bit generalistic in including surgeons in the list. He said, I’ve got… He’s got no doubt he wasn’t trying to defend surgery. He said, he’s got no doubt at all that, psychopathic characteristics are important in the operating theater. But he said, maybe it’s a little bit more nuanced. And he said he wouldn’t be surprised if we did a study that we’d find that out of, I think there’s 11 or 12 surgical disciplines within the umbrella term surgery. He said he probably wouldn’t be surprised to find that there were differences amongst the surgical disciplines. And we began doing a study with the help of this guy actually. Actually COVID kind of got in the way of it and halted it, so we should really should get back to it. But actually it turns out that there are three of those surgical disciplines, which are really quite high on the Psychopathic spectrum higher than the others. One you’ve mentioned is neurosurgery, probably no surprise there, you’ve got differences in distance between crucial capillaries and veins in the brain are in the order of fractions of a millimeter, if you get it wrong, you could kill someone or you could blind the more incapacitate them for life.

So you really are walking a high wire, surgical high wire there, and the second of the disciplines is cardiothoracic surgery, again, probably no surprise. But a third one did surprise me actually, although not so much now I know it, and I’m sure you’re gonna have people listening and we’re gonna get this and that the third one is orthopedic surgery. Orthopedic surgeons have to do some pretty nasty things to people, they use drills, they have to break bones, they have to crunch bones, that’s even though you’re trying to heal someone and make them better, you gotta do some pretty nasty things to them. So neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery and orthopedic surgery are the three leaders among the surgical disciplines, but I think the question was, What’s the difference between psychopaths who turn out all right and psychopaths who kind of go down the, take the bad route?

You know what Brett, it comes down to something really simple as what kind of background you grew up in and you came from? Let’s, this gets very complicated, so I always use a kind of a simple analogy I was using analogy of a bullet in the gun. Okay, so let’s say that the bullet in a gun is your DNA, it’s your… Let’s say that’s your genetic predisposition to be psychopath. Okay, now, guns don’t fire on their own, right? Okay, so you need a finger on the trigger to fire the gun, or in terms of our analogy to make that DNA become live. Now, that finger on the trigger of the psychopathy gun is usually some abusive or aversive incident or set of incidences in your formative years as a child. So it could be coming from a violent dysfunctional, alcoholic home, broken family, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. You could have got a devastating rejection at a formative period of your life, you might not have had a good education, you might come from a very poor family background, and you didn’t have the right role models. All kinds of stuff like that.

If you have that kind of background that kind of start in life and you’ve got that bullet in the gun, then it’s likely you might end up taking the criminal route, especially if you are also aggressive by nature. Okay, however, if you’ve got the bullet in the gun and you come from, and by the way, this isn’t an exact science, by the way, we all know people that have come from a really, really, really rough background as they aren’t, haven’t psychopaths. You who haven’t turned out that way, and we also know people who come from a very good backgrounds, who turn out to be bad apples, but generally speaking, if you’ve got that bullet in the gun and you come from a really good family background, a loving family background, you have a good education, you have good role models, then you might take a different root altogether and the famous route right, as headline once put it, you might be more likely to make a killing in the market than anywhere else, so it’s pretty much background, especially formative experiences in your background as a child that tend to interact with genetics.

Brett McKay: Well, you even to highlight the biological component of psychopathy, you turn yourself temporarily into a psychopath with magnets in your brain. Can you walk us through that?

Kevin Dutton: Well, I’m glad you said temporarily there Brett, I think my missing is my immeasurable super other half might disagree with that, but [chuckle] yeah, it was a bet that I entered into with a very good friend of mine, Andy McNab, who’s ex British Special Forces soldier who is a psychopath, many people who are in special forces are on the psychopathic spectrum, perhaps not surprisingly, and Andy and I went head-to-head on a task to see who would be cooler under pressure, and so what this task involved was being wired up to various physiological measures such as galvanic skin response, which measures your sweat rate, an index of anxiety, also your heart rate, stuff like that, all indexes of anxiety, and we were standing front of a computer screen, which played at kind of a long story short, some extremely horrific images. Very, very gruesome images.

And we were then monitored to see where our physiological responses would end up, and… Andy’s were just flat lining, there was hardly anything going on, pretty much the gold standard test for a psychopath, my physiological responses were going through the roof, so if you looked at the graph at the end of it, my physiological responses were like the New York skyline up and down, up and down, up and down, whereas Andy’s were pretty much flat lining, so that was stage one of the experiment, stage two of the experiment was I underwent a technique, which a colleague of mine subjected suggested to is one of the world experts and it called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

Now, very briefly for your listeners Brett, not to go into too many details about this, if you imagine your brain cells as being like the hairs on your head, well, if you wanna get a different hair style, you basically comb your hair into a different style. Well, you can kinda do that with neurons, using electromagnetic pulses, you can kind of give yourself an electromagnetic neural comb over, so you’ve got a different neural hairstyle as it were within your head, but just like normal hair styles, it doesn’t last long if you just do it once, it will soon go back to your usual style.

So Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation of all is putting a helmet on your head and you target various areas of your brain that you are interested in stimulating, in my case, it was the areas to do with emotion and empathy, we needed to turn them down, my colleague subjected me to the electromagnetic comb over as it were, and then I sat the test again, in other words, I looked at these horrific gruesome images and when I was looking at them this time, whereas before I found them, truly horrific. It was very difficult to kind of not suppress a smile this time. Now my readings, my psychophysiological readings still weren’t as cool or as flat as my special forces friend, Andy. So I did have to buy him a few drinks and dinner that night, but they were dramatically reduced from the New York skyline that they were before.

And basically, the effect lasted for about 45 minutes afterwards as well, and people have on also asked me what it feels like, and it feels like you have five or six shots of Jack Daniel’s, but without that kind of sluggishness or tiredness or lack of focus that you get it was kind of like you couldn’t really care what happened, but you didn’t lose your focus. I think I wrote at the time, it was a line that people picked up on, it was like my entire brain had been spring cleaned or like put in a washer dryer, and it come out completely different. And I remember afterwards, there was a driving video game at the time, which was in the student bar, which I had to go out and beat my previous score, ’cause obviously I was waiting whizzing around corners, I wasn’t caring, somebody had left some money on the table to pay for a dinner, they left and I felt very much like taking that money, [chuckle] I didn’t by the way, it was a very, very interesting experience. So yeah, I guess, I’m… I guess I know what it’s like to feel like a temporary psychopath anyway.

Brett McKay: Yes, so the psychopath brain is different from a regular person’s brain, non-psychopathic brain.

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Well, going back to this idea that psychopathy can be useful and be positive, you use this example and people are gonna be like, this is crazy, but you make the case that the Apostle Paul may have been a psychopath. Now, we haven’t give them… You haven’t given them test, so all we have is a speculative, we’re basing on the historical record, but what’s the case that the Apostle Paul might have been a psychopath and how that might have made him a greatest evangelizer of Christianity?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, well, a couple of things that… Let me first do will pick up on a point there, Brett, you said that there’s no… I haven’t tested him, there’s no psychological evidence. Actually, I have in a manner of speaking, so you don’t just have to take my word for this, but yeah you’re absolutely right. I’m really glad not many people ask me about Saint Apostle Paul, it’s one of my favorite topics, I would have loved to have met the guy. I mean, there is no doubt whatsoever. He was a psychopath and very high on the psychopathic spectrum. Now, I know that’s gonna come as a shock to some of you are listening, The founder of Western Christianity before he turned into stained glass was a brutal narcissistic psychopath, but he was, and I have often called Saint Paul the patron Saint of psychopaths. That’s not to dig him out in any way, I’m a great admirer of Saint Paul, it’s just stating the facts. So let me go back to how I came by this diagnose ’cause it’s really interesting. So the tagline of the book, Wisdom of psychopaths is lessons in life from Saints, Spies and serial killers. And when I first admitted to the publisher, the publisher were very, very nervous about including Saint Paul in there, because they thought it was gonna alienate vast waves of the public, especially in America, but I was absolutely adamant that I had the data, and I was very confident in this…

And it was something I was very passionate about, and the publisher back me and hence the famous tagline. So actually, when I say, “Don’t take my word for it.” When I was at the University of Oxford a few years ago, I was surrounded by some of the world’s top biographers of people, the famous historical personages. Now, some of these were all of these biographers had and studied the people that they were experts in for years and years and years, and probably knew those people better than they knew themselves, so it suddenly dawned on me I was very interested to find out, where famous historical personages might feature on the psychopathic spectrum? So I can drive the way of doing this, and I thought, Well, okay, imagine if I were to give a psychometric test of psychopathy, especially device Psychometric test of psychopathy that are you say for members of the general public… And we touched on that earlier. Imagine if I were to give these psychometric instruments to the world’s top biographers of famous historical personages, people who knew these personages, it is better than they knew themselves and said, “Hey, fill this questionnaire out, not on behalf of yourself, obviously, but on behalf of the person you are an expert on.” It struck me as a scientist that actually I would probably get quite an accurate reading on people, but just to make sure, for each historical personage that I profiled, I got two academic experts to do it.

And then I look at the correlation between the ratings from both of them, and obviously if they were way out, then you can pretty much say, Well, okay, there’s perhaps not that reliable, but actually I didn’t find any that were too greater discrepancy and St. Paul was obviously one of the people who I profile, I gave two academic experts, the questionnaire to fill out on behalf of Saint Paul, and he came in very high in the psychopathic spectrum, and I mean, look, it’s not surprising, first of all, if he was alive today, he’d probably be indicted by the Geneva Convention for genocide. Obviously, before the road to Damascus, he was massive green Christians in large numbers, so total lack of conscience there, he had no concern whatsoever for his personal safety, he was constantly at risk of violent assault on open roads, and in inner cities. He was shipwrecked three times.

He was estimated to have spent six years of his ministry in prison, five times he received the maximum 39 lashes, any more than that, and you are in danger of being killed, he was beaten with rods three times. There was a famous incident outside the city of Lystra, where he was preaching and he was stoned by an angry mob to with an inch of his life dragged outside the city wall, and what did he the mode you do as soon as he came around, he went straight back in, so he was a bitch will law breaker as well, no sense of consequence or personal safety, he was a cold and calculating political mover and shaker, I think very deficient in empathy, he famously fell out with Saint Peter in Antioch, where he called Peter out to his face, he called him a hypocrite, then in fact, biblical scholars will note that Paul had to leave Antioch after that and pretty much as persona non-grata. So he wasn’t averse to riding rough-shod over people’s feelings and sentiments and sensibilities without any care at all about them.

And no doubt, with more than a pinch of narcissism, there’s also the idea that he was a social chameleon as well, that… The famous passage in 1 Corinthians, when he says, “I have become all things to all people.” To the Jews, I’ve become a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I’ve become under the law. Now, I am not under the law, he says, so win those who are under the law, to those who are outside the law, I’ve become outside the law to win people that are outside the law, and to the weak I’ve become weak and et cetera, et cetera. So if you look at those qualities, ruthlessness fearlessness, narcissism, manipulativeness and a lack of empathy, plus the high score that he got from two academic experts who had been studying Paul for years and years and years, I think it’s pretty certain that Paul was high on the psychopathic spectrum, and when we look at the stained glass in our churches and cathedrals, we’ve got a psychopath in there.

Brett McKay: He’s also instrumental, so in that verse you just quoted, first Corinthians, he says, “To the Jews, I became a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” He says, “To the weak, I became the weak, that I might win the weak.” So he does these things for a purpose.

Kevin Dutton: Absolutely, right. And he’s what I would call a good psychopath. I mean, he wasn’t indiscriminate in what he was doing, if we go back to the mixing desk analogy, which I told you about a little bit earlier, and we look at those kinds of dials on that mixing desk, it’s all to do with the right context, the right combination, the right level and with the right intention. And absolutely right, that’s why I find Paul so fascinating. If I was God, which I’m not, [chuckle] I would have picked Paul for that ministry precisely because of the personality structure that he had. If you wanted to spread Christianity, spread the word in that kind of volatile environment that existed in those days, you’re not gonna pick a shrinking violet, Brett.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, you don’t wanna pick the guy who they get flagged one once and they give up, you want the guy who just, he’s gonna keep going back after he gets flogged, he doesn’t care.

Kevin Dutton: You’ve got it. He was ruthless, fearless, narcissist. He had it all. He had it all.

Brett McKay: But this is the same guy who wrote first Corinthians 13, which is all about love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. So how do you reconcile St. Paul, the psychopath, with this guy who wrote this great thing about love that people read at weddings and the like?

Kevin Dutton: Let me answer that question, Brett by reading you one of my favorite passages of Love, it’s only a short passage, and it goes like this, “Love, true love, real love is a plant that needs no watering, it seeks not to be sustained by its object, but purely to nurture it. Love is blind, not in the sense that it cannot see, but in the sense that and it cannot condemn or desert or wither. Love is like a fire that burns in an empty grate, it feeds only on itself, it dances flickers and blazes from within.” Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that that passage was written by one of the great romantic writers or of the great romantic poets of the 19th, or 18th centuries, but when in fact it wasn’t.

It was written by an AI program just a couple of weeks ago with about as much experience of love as a turnip. Now, I think that when we compare that passage with that famous passage from one Corinthians 13, Saint Paul wrote, nothing specific in that passage that Paul wrote convinces me definitively that the author of it really had any genuine experience or feeling of love. If an AI program can write a passage like the one I’ve just recited to you then I don’t think it’s totally different from what Paul wrote, and I think your question here actually flags up a very important distinction that we need to make when it comes to psychopaths and empathy, because there are two different kinds of empathy.

There’s what we call hot empathy, Brett, which is basically the feeling of feeling what and how a person is feeling okay, it’s when we genuinely feel what another person is feeling, and then there’s cold empathy, which is the ability to cognitively and dispassionately gauge what another person might be feeling and to act accordingly, and there’s a lot of scientific evidence, a lot of empirical data that suggests that psychopaths are deficient in the hot empathy, but they have a of a lot of cold empathy, they’re even better than the rest of us, quite possibly at gauging cognitively, coolly, calmly and dispassionately, what another person is thinking and acting accordingly in that, of course, makes them great manipulators, great persuaders.

And so that may well be what we’re seeing here with St. Paul, in that passage. I have to say, by the way, again reiterate, I’m a graded great admire of Saint Paul, I think he was a very, very gifted personality, so I’m not having a go or digging him out here, but I think given the fact that he was high on the psychopathic spectrum, I think quite possibly, that this was more of a cognitive exercise, this passage, it was coolly and dispassionately describing what he had perceived love to be as displayed in other people, he doesn’t necessarily need to have felt it himself, and I would remember one psychopath saying, “In order to know how traffic lights work, you don’t need color vision, you don’t need to see the red and the green light, you just need to know which bit of the light is lit up.” And that very much sums up in visual form…

The relationship between psychopaths and empathy, they don’t see the color of emotion, but they know which bits to lit up. If you wanna put it in a music analogy, they see the notes on the page, but they don’t hear the tune or the melody. So the fact that St. Paul wrote that very famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13, it certainly doesn’t, for me, contradict any of the scientific evidence that I’ve gathered that he is on the psychopathic spectrum. And it doesn’t change my opinion one bit, that he was high on the psychopathic spectrum.

Brett McKay: Of course, if you’re a believer, you would say, well, that just revealed the word. He could be a psychopath, but God could still tell me this great thing about love.

Kevin Dutton: Absolutely. Yeah, I’m not criticizing Paul. And as I say, I can absolutely see why Paul was the right man for the job in that particular time, in that particular environment, it was a very, very dangerous world that he lived in. Christians were in mortal danger a lot of the time, and his own life demonstrated that. He spent, as I say, six years in prison. He was a real fearless adventurer and he had to be in order to spread the word. But he was a good psychopath because he needed to be.

Brett McKay: Okay. So being a little psychopathic can be useful if you’re a pioneering profit type like Paul. But we’ve also talked about how psychopathy can be useful in other vocations, like being a doctor or a lawyer or a CEO. But let’s talk about some of the specific traits the psychopathy that can be adaptive for everyone. And one of those traits of psychopathy that you talk about is ruthlessness. Now, a lot of people, they don’t feel comfortable being ruthless, but what can non-psychopaths learn from psychopath as to how to be ruthless, but in an adaptive way?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, I think one of the things which psychopaths are very good at if we just factorize down what that means being ruthless, Brett is they’re able to decouple emotion from behavior. Okay? And this is something which a lot of us could do a little bit more of. I’m not saying… Actually, when the book first came out, everyone said, “Oh, Dutton is trying to turn the whole world into psychopaths.” I wasn’t at all. But if you think about it, a lot of us kind of labor under the mis-apprehension that we’ve got to feel like something in order to do it. Well, that’s just not true. If that was the case, then half of us wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, right? So that’s the first number one truth. You don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Now, [chuckle] you can split people into two camps, Brett. Okay, let’s say, for example, you go on holiday, and let’s say you go to the sea, you got your swimming trunks on or your bathing costume on, and there’s the sea. And you know what I’m gonna say, you can divide people into two camps. There’s people that basically run straight into the sea and dive into the wave, right?

Or you’ve got another group of people that basically spend about half an hour getting in. They dip their toes in, they kind of splash, they get up to their knees, whoo, and then the wave, oh and it’s really cold and eventually they get in. Whereas the person that just ran and jumped in has been in for about 20 minutes. Now, you may think this is quite flipping, but actually, there’s been studies done looking at this in real life, and like, well, who experiences the most discomfort or pain. Is it the runners and jumpers that go straight in, or is it the splashers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s actually the splashers that experience most pain because they are aggravating it, not only is the thought of going in exacerbating the pain that they’re feeling, but it’s almost death by 1000 cuts. Whereas, if you get it out of the way completely, straight away in one go, ‘Okay.

You have that one big dose of pain, but actually it’s all over then, right?” So you experience less pain if you just run in and do it and jump. So what’s that gotta do with everyday life? Well, actually we are exactly the same as people on the beach. There are psychological splashers and there are psychological runners and jumpers in. And if you just use exactly the same logic, the more you put something off, the more you hesitate, the more you come up with reasons not to do something or procrastinate, the more pain you are gonna actually feel. And that could be anything from say, firing someone to saying “No”, or to say doing some chore that you’ve been putting off for years or making an awkward phone call.

So just being aware of that and saying, “Okay, listen, as soon as you need to do something, the quicker you can do it, the less pain you’re gonna aggregate”, things start to change. Weakness, Brett resides in the gaps or the cracks between thinking and doing. When you think that you’ve got to do something, if you then leave it a long time before you actually do it, basically the germs of anxiety kind of fester and grow within that gap or that crack between thinking and doing. And that’s when you start to get nervous, and that’s when anxiety starts creeping in. So if you wanna be more ruthless, if you wanna be tougher, if you wanna be more resilient, go with that Nike phrase, “Just Do It.” Okay? Because there’s a lot of wisdom in it. Incidentally, that was based on Gary Gilmore, the American serial killer. I don’t know if you know this, who was pretty much his last words when he was being executed, “Let’s do it.” And that’s where the slogan came from. But if you wanna be more ruthless, if you wanna be more resilient, don’t think about it, just do it, decouple emotion from behavior, don’t leave long gaps between thinking about doing something and then getting down and doing it.

Brett McKay: Last year, I came to this idea that I’m actually, possibly, teaching my kids to be psychopaths in certain situations. So my kids play sports, basketball, flag football, and when you’re a parent, you’re on the sidelines and you yell at your kids when they’re on defense, “Be aggressive, be aggressive.” And I remember I asked my daughter, “When I say be aggressive, or a coach says, be aggressive, what do you think that means?” I was trying to figure out like, do they understand what I mean by that? And she said, “Well, it means you get really angry and you punch someone in the face.” And I said, “No.” That’s not what I mean. That’d be assault, we’re not gonna do that. And I realize aggression… When I say, be aggressive, I want you to think about the goal of what you’re trying to do in the sport is get the ball, get the rebound, and just go for that. And you’re not breaking the rules, but it’s a proactive.

You’re not responding to the other players. If you jump up for the rebound and you actually knock a guy over, well, that’s fine, you weren’t trying to hurt the guy, but that was a by-product of that. So in sports, when I’m telling my kids, “Be aggressive.” I’m kind of telling them, you gotta be a psychopath, a good psychopath in a way. You’re not reacting to the other players, you’re not getting angry. Your goal is just to pull the flag, get the ball, and whatever happens in the process, that’s what happens. You’re not purposely trying to hurt people, but you gotta do what you gotta do to succeed.

Kevin Dutton: Yeah. I couldn’t put it better myself., I mean, I call it, “The attack mindset.” And I do a lot of work in elite sports, and I have never yet known a great champion not to have the killer instinct, not to have an attack mindset, even when they are losing, even when they’re behind, having an attack mindset, which is basically winning out attack. And I often use sport as an example of where psychopathic characteristics absolutely are justified. And the example I often use is say someone like Roger Federer, one of the nicest guys you could ever wish to meet off the court. But when he’s at Flushing Meadows or when he’s at Wimbledon or when he’s at Roland Garros or places like that in a major final. He is absolutely ruthless in crushing the opponent on the other side of the net. And as I say, were Roger Federer to behave like that of court in every day life, he’d soon had found himself in a very different court, a court of law. But the difference in personality between, say, who Roger Federer is off the court and who he is on court in the middle of a major Grand Slam final is drastic, it’s dramatic, it’s a huge gulf.

And yet, Federer would have thought nothing, or any great champion, Djokovic, Nadal, any great champion would think nothing of crushing the other person 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 at Flushing Meadow in the final of the US Open, none whatsoever. You’re talking about in front of millions of people who are tuned in worldwide, you are completely crushing and sabotaging someone else’s dream. Why would you feel any shred of compunction or remorse about that? And yet, off court, you can be the nicest guy under the sun. And people often say to me, “Yeah, well, sports not real life.” Of course, it’s real life. There’s billions and billions of dollars in sport and people can be absolutely crushed in front of millions and millions of people. Their dreams lay bare in front of the world, and you’re trampling all over them. So don’t tell me, sport isn’t about real life. So I couldn’t agree with you more. But it’s a great example of how good psychopathic traits can be used, not just used, they’re essential in getting you to the top and keeping you there.

Brett McKay: But yeah. It depends on their context and also how much the dial on it. You wanna get…

Kevin Dutton: Well, absolutely. I mean, absolutely.

Brett McKay: It can get… It’d be bad in a different context.

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, if Roger Federer came off court in Flushing Meadows or Wimbledon and he didn’t dial it back down, he’d soon find himself in a very different court, court of law. But actually, he’s able to dial his dials up when necessary which is in the middle of a major final, and dial them down when he comes off court. Absolutely, it’s all about context, combination level and intention.

Brett McKay: Right. So I guess the trick there is to learn when to detach emotion from action. And it’s a skill you have to practice and you’ll be uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, you’ll learn how to… You’ll get better at it.

Kevin Dutton: Yeah. So that’s one of the big differences, Brett, between people who end up in prison and people who are successful, who use their psychopathic characteristics to be successful. And that is, again, going back to the mixing desk analogy. If your dials are stuck on max, and you can’t turn them down and they’re just blaring out, ruthlessness fearlessness all the time, you’ve got that sound track on and it doesn’t matter where you are, then you’re gonna end up in prison pretty quickly, but if you are able to turn those dials up and down, if you’re a good personality producer, then you’re likely to be successful, and that’s pretty much the difference. If we use the mixing desk analogy between a good and a bad psychopath.

Brett McKay: There are some other traits where you talk about the book fearlessness, being mentally resilient, being mindful is another one. Psychopaths often stay in the moment, they’re really keyed in on what’s going on, but let’s talk about… Let’s do this test. Let’s find out if I’m a psychopath. And maybe if you were listening and figure out if you’re a psychopath today.

Kevin Dutton: Alright, well what you’re gonna need, Brett, you’re gonna need, let me get the test in front of me here. You’re gonna need pen and paper, or you’re gonna need like a mobile phone, something you can record your responses on, okay? Because what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna read you out 11 items, okay? 11 statements. And these statements hypothetically describe you as a person, okay? And what you’re gonna do, you are gonna rate them as I go through them, one to 11. You’re gonna rate them according to how accurate a description you think each statement is of you. And you’re gonna use the following scoring key, okay? So if you strongly disagree, the statement describes you, you award yourself zero points, okay? Strongly disagree, zero points. If you disagree, you give yourself one point. If you agree, you give yourself two points. And if you strongly agree, you give yourself three points. Okay? So it says 0, 1, 2, 3, scoring key ranging from zero, strongly disagree to three, strongly agree. Okay, you got it, ?

Got it.

What I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna read you out 11, these 11 statements and you’re gonna write down on a piece of paper, or type it on your mobile phone screen or whatever. Let’s keep a record as we going of what your score is for each of the items, okay? And number one is, I rarely plan ahead. I’m a spur of the moment kind of person. I rarely plan ahead. I’m a spur of the moment kind of person. Now, I’m gonna give you a bit of advice here, Brett. Don’t say your numbers out loud, mate. The reason for that will become evident in a minute.


Just write them down, okay? I rarely plan ahead. I’m a spur of the moment kind of person. Number two, cheating on your partner is okay, so long as you don’t get caught. That’s why I was telling you not to say ’em out loud. You gotta be honest on this test folks. By the way, whenever I do this in a university with students who love this, that question too is always the one where they’re kind of looking over each other’s shoulder, seeing what the other person’s putting. Number three, if something better comes along, it’s okay to cancel a long standing appointment. Something better comes along, it’s okay to cancel a longstanding appointment. Just to recap, Brett, zero is strongly disagree, one is disagree, two agree, and three, strongly agree. Number four, seeing an animal injured or in pain doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Number five. Driving fast cars, riding roller coasters and skydiving appeal to me. And number six. It doesn’t matter to me if I have to step on other people to get what I want. Number seven. I’m very persuasive. I have a talent for getting other people to do what I want. Eight, I’d be good in a dangerous job ’cause I can make my mind up quickly. Don’t think too long about that one. Nine, I find it easy to keep it together when others are cracking under pressure. Number 10, if you’re able to con someone, hey, that’s their problem, they deserve it. And the final one, number 11, most of the time when things go wrong, it’s somebody else’s fault, not mine.

Okay? So you should have 11 numbers on a screen or a page in front of you there, Brett Or folks, if you’re playing at home. What I want you to do is add them up, top those numbers up and you will come to a final total. Now, Brett, don’t say your number out loud yet, mate. What I’ll do is, I’ll go through the scoring ranges and what it means, okay? Where you are on the psychopathic spectrum. Listen, what we should say, first of all here is we’re not diagnosing anyone here, by the way, okay? This is not a clinical diagnosis, this is just a general indication of where you might be on the psychopathic spectrum. Okay? So let’s get that outta the way. Now, zero to 11, if you’ve scored zero to 11 on that test, folks, you are low on the psychopathic spectrum, okay? If you score 12 to 17 below average, 18 to 22 is average, you can feel the tension rising, can’t you? 23 to 28, you are high on the psychopathic spectrum. And 29 to 33 you are very high on the psychopathic spectrum. So go on Brett, what did you get?

Brett McKay: I got a six.

Kevin Dutton: That pathetic. I’m gonna send you a few books, mate. You need to read a few of those. We need to get those dials turned up. A little bit. We need… Mind you, I can tell you’ve never been so happy to have done badly on a test in your life, have you?

Brett McKay: No. Yeah, I’m not gonna be James Bond for sure. I’m not gonna be a spy. Yeah, I’m a square. I’m a square for sure.

Kevin Dutton: Yeah. Six. You are, well you’re… Listen, you’re a saint, you’re a good saint. You’re not even like Saint Paul. You’re a good saint. You’re… Yeah, that’s one for the memoirs, that is.

Brett McKay: Right.

Kevin Dutton: But listen, I know, I dunno if you want do this Brett, but I’d be really interested to see what your listeners score. So if your listeners can put it on Twitter and maybe just put your score down and maybe say what you do for a living be kind of interesting if you tag me in… So I’ll give my Twitter insta handle. It’s @therealdr, that’s Dr. Kev, K-E-V. So @therealDrKev. If you can tag me in, put down what your score is and what you do for a living, I’ll be keeping an eye on that because I’m sure there’ll be some really interesting ones there.

Brett McKay: Well, Kevin, this has been a great conversation. Besides your Instagram and Twitter, where else can people go to learn more about you and your work?

Kevin Dutton: Yeah, you can go to my website, which is Dr. Dr, that is, and you can see a little bit about what I do on there. So Brett, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I really have really great questions. I am so glad you asked about Saint Paul. Hardly anyone asked me about Saint Paul. And as you can probably tell, it was one of my favorite topics. But I’ve really, really enjoyed it. It’s been fab. It’s been great fun.

Brett McKay: Well, I’ve really enjoyed it too, Kevin, thanks for coming on.

Kevin Dutton: Cheers, Brett. Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: My guest day was Kevin Dutton. He’s the author of the book, the Wisdom of Psychopaths. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at We find links to resources, we can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. If you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM Podcast, go to, sign up, use code “manliness” checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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