When you hear the word psychopath, what comes to mind? Serial killers? Members of the mafia? Hardened criminals? What if I told you psychopaths are also surgeons, lawyers, and civil servants? And that by the end of this video, you will want your surgeon to be a psychopath.
These are the many faces of psychopathy.
Psychopaths aren’t inherently evil or harmful to others. They’re not all born with the desire to oppress people, either. Psychopathy just describes a person who lacks emotional sensitivity and empathy. They’re calm under pressure, confident, and often superficially charming. They’re impulsive, insensitive to punishment and praise, and ruthless.
It’s not hard to see how these personality traits could lead someone to a life of crime. When you pair a lack of empathy with an insensitivity to punishment, you get a person who can harm anyone without thinking about it twice.
It’s no wonder that psychopaths make up 20% of the prison population, even though they represent only 1% of the overall population. They’re also far more likely to reoffend. 90% of psychopaths released from incarceration commit another violent crime within 20 years. Punishment does nothing to stop them from doing something equally terrible or even worse in the future.
In 2014, Dr. Kent Kiehl interviewed a violent psychopath in a maximum security treatment program in Canada. The man he interviewed described his life as impulsive. To make a quick buck, he turned to a life of crime as a teenager, committing burglary and armed robbery. Then he got into drug dealing, forcing people to mule drugs for him.
He didn’t care about anything or anyone and would take a person’s life if they angered him or threatened his lifestyle in any way. When his brother threatened to report him to the police for selling drugs from their shared living space, he took his life gruesomely. It’s terrible, so I’ll spare you the details.
This is an extreme example of a psychopath on a criminal path. It’s the story we almost always hear in the media. The same kind we make movies and documentaries about. Whether they’re fictional characters like Michael Myers and Hannibal Lecter or real-life psychopaths like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, we as a society are obsessed with psychopaths. The problem is that we describe psychopaths as pure evil—people who will always end up being mass murderers.
We treat psychopathy as a moral failure when, in reality, it’s a cognitive-affective impairment. It can lead to evil, or it can be used for good.
In 2005, a neuroscientist named James Fallon made a startling discovery while examining the brain scans of serial killers. He had the scans in a pile that included X-rays of his family members’ brains.
He noticed that one of the scans had low activity in the frontal and temporal lobes – the lobes linked to empathy and self-control. He assumed it belonged to one of the serial killers but was shocked to discover that it belonged to someone in his family.
Trying to figure out who in his family was most likely a psychopath, Fallon probed further, only to discover that the scan was of his own brain.
Fallon confirmed his findings with genetic tests and further research into psychopathic behavior.
A neuroscientist who had never demonstrated any anti-social behavior was a psychopath. He’s what people often refer to as a pro-social psychopath. This is where someone lacks genuine empathy but still behaves within socially accepted boundaries.
According to James Fallon, he’s always motivated by power and tends to manipulate others. He gets aggressive in arguments but never resorts to violence. He believes that being loved as a child by his parents saved him from a life of violence.
Fallon has a genetic condition that affected the development of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation. This put him at a higher risk for psychopathic tendencies. The condition also causes that part of his brain to be more receptive to environmental influences, like a loving family. If he’d grown up in an abusive home, he might still have been searching through people’s brains, just not in a hospital.
Although his personality traits caused interpersonal conflicts in his life, Fallon likely benefited from his psychopathy when it came to getting ahead.
Have you ever been concerned about your lack of drive toward your goals? Does it feel like you’re falling behind in a status-driven culture that values financial success above all else? If you’re like me, the answer is almost always yes.
This feeling of inadequacy sits in the back of our heads, taking us out of the moment and stopping us from actually putting in the work. If we had more drive toward rewards without stopping to worry about anything or anyone, we’d be much better suited for the money-obsessed world we live in.
But psychopaths never pause to question themselves while pursuing their goals. They don’t hear voices in their heads questioning if they’re good enough or telling them they won’t succeed. Whereas the fear of making the wrong move cripples us from taking action, the psychopath calmly moves forward without a care in the world.
Their mind is silent and only focused on the reward. They live in the moment in a similar way that Buddhist monks do.
It’s not hard to see how this condition could help someone rise through the ranks in their field. As you progress through the hierarchy of an organization, you become more of a decision-maker. You might be in a senior management role or a team lead. Your job is to make decisions; the easier it is for you to do that, the more successful you’ll likely be.
In your own experiences in the workplace, you may have noticed that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether decisions are for the best or not. The most important thing is that they were made.
Business leaders make terrible decisions all the time. But what they have over most people is that they are willing to take on the risk associated with that decision. This is why they can land on their feet no matter what.
Psychopaths don’t struggle with asserting themselves, either. They don’t fear the consequences of offending someone by saying something wrong or being too bold. Assertiveness is another trait that is highly valued in the workplace. It’s one of the most essential traits in a leadership role. It’s also something that many of us lack, leaving us with a strong feeling of inadequacy.
In a study of what jobs attracted psychopaths, CEOs, surgeons, lawyers, media workers, journalists, and civil servants were among the leading roles. Each of these roles requires assertiveness and, in many cases, an ability to focus without fear. A journalist can’t be afraid of interviewing a dictator or traveling to a warzone to capture a story.
To defend a client, lawyers have to step up and not second guess their strategy.
Surgeons, specifically, have to be calm and focused under pressure and, most importantly, decisive when at the operating table. If they second-guess their decisions, the consequences could be fatal.
This may sound unusual, but the role of a surgeon almost requires a lack of empathy. If a surgeon is worrying too much about the patient on the table, they’ll question their decisions, which will cost them time they don’t have.
The surgeon’s role may demand more psychopathic traits than almost any other occupation, which is probably why it’s becoming synonymous with discussion of pro-social psychopaths. That may sound unnerving at first, but when you think about what it takes to perform surgery, you definitely want a psychopath on your side.
Psychopathy isn’t an all-or-nothing state of being. You can have some psychopathic personality traits without being diagnosed with the personality disorder.
When filling out a psychopathy test, you may find that you’re somewhat impulsive and are only mildly fearful of consequences. You may also have some empathy responses and be very decisive. This won’t mean that you’re a psychopath or even close. You just share some traits.
If you’d like to experience some of the benefits of psychopathy, it’s possible to train your mind in various ways. Buddhists and psychopaths have some characteristics in common. They’re both good at being present and picking up on micro-expressions in others. By practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation, you can help yourself focus on the here and now. You can protect yourself from invasive thoughts that keep you from being a decisive leader.
I want to say categorically that being a psychopath isn’t necessarily something to envy. It’s not a quirky character trait. It’s not something to romanticize. It often comes with a host of interpersonal challenges.
Speaking during an anonymous interview, a pro-social psychopath shared her struggles and daily challenges living with the disorder.
She said she doesn’t have an emotional reaction when she witnesses pain. This doesn’t mean she would go out of her way to cause pain, just that she doesn’t get the same emotional response most of us do.
This poses a challenge, though, when trying to care for someone close. When a close friend or family member is sick, for most of us, there’s an instinctive desire to care for them. For psychopaths, that’s not the case. If you don’t feel empathy, you have to remind yourself to express concern and care for that person. And that sweet feeling you get when you care for someone you love- the feeling that makes you happy to do those things in the first place? Psychopaths don’t have it. So, to them, it’s just like doing a chore. It’s a necessary task, sure, but not one with a pleasurable reward.
The interview subject also described not being able to bond with other people. Psychopaths don’t process oxytocin, the chemical responsible for the feeling of love, in the same way non-psychopaths do. This limitation is bound to impact their relationships. The interview subject described having to figure people out intellectually rather than through any instincts.
But with these limitations, there are also benefits. The woman described having no fear of death and no sense of grief or loss when someone dies. She lives very much in the moment without fear of her conscious experience coming to an end.
The interviewee still found things enjoyable and exciting. She enjoys adrenaline rushes, in particular. But undeniably, there are limitations to this way of being.
The road to psychopathy is often a painful one. Personality traits are cemented around age ten, thanks to genetic predisposition and environmental causes. Children who become anti-social psychopaths often experience abuse, neglect, rejection, and terrible parenting. Obviously, this is not something you would wish on anyone.
There are no known ways to intervene in psychopathic personality traits either. Once these traits are solidified around age 10, there’s no way to change them. It is effectively impossible to grow empathy at this point. The only known treatment of psychopathy is to steer these traits toward more positive goals, like how a surgeon uses their characteristics in surgery. In other words, the only way to treat an anti-social psychopath is to steer them toward pro-social activities.
One thing that would benefit psychopaths and all neurotypes is to destigmatize psychopathy. That’s not to suggest we completely disregard the percentage of psychopaths in jail or the challenges of working with one. But that when we address the personality disorder, we don’t automatically jump to thoughts of Norman Bates or Ted Bundy. Let’s also think of our surgeons, CEOs, and journalists.
For you watching this video, you can learn a thing or two from psychopaths. Wouldn’t you like to live your life with a little less fear? And if you’re wondering, “What fear is he talking about? I live without fear or worry,” you just might be a psychopath.
If you want to live your life without any care in the world, watch this video on Absurdism to understand why life is meaningless and why you should live accordingly.