How Psychopaths Can Save Your Life

Originally featured in The Guardian

I once met a man who told me this: “In the operating theatre I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. Emotion is entropy and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.” That man is one of the world’s top neurosurgeons. And a psychopath. Unfortunately I cannot name him.

Another man I spoke to told me this: “You seriously don’t think twice about it. When you’re in a hostile situation, the primary objective is to pull the trigger before the other guy pulls the trigger. And when you pull it, you move on. Why stand there dwelling on what you’ve done? Go down that route, and chances are the last thing that goes through your head will be a bullet from an M16.” That man is a former member of the SAS. And a psychopath. His name is Andy McNab.

Psychopath! When most people hear that word they immediately think of serial killers, hockey masks and lacerated shower curtains.

But actually when psychologists like myself talk about psychopaths we’re referring to a group of individuals with a distinct subset of personality characteristics such as ruthlessness, fearlessness, self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, mental toughness, charm, charisma and a zero-calorie conscience.

Note that none of these traits is a problem in itself. All of them, dialled up at the right level and deployed in the right context, can be useful. Imagine a personality “mixing desk” on which the aforementioned qualities comprise the knobs and sliders. Twiddle them up and down in various combinations and you arrive at a simple conclusion: there are certain jobs and professions which, by their very nature, demand some dials are turned up a little higher than average, demand what we might call “good psychopathy”. The key, as I say, is in context and level.

This “new science” of psychopathy has met with resistance from many clinicians. And with good reason: their job means they only get to meet bad psychopaths. I’ve met them, too. But I have also met people more likely to save your life than take it. I wouldn’t go for a curry with many of them. But if a kid of mine had a brain tumour or my other half was on an airliner that had been taken over by al-Qaida I know who I’d like to see scrubbing up or storming the aisle. Those who go where angels fear to tread often have more in common than you might think with the demons they rub shoulders with.

Much is written about the stigmatisation of mental illness, but we still have a long way to go. What headline writer worth their weight in bold would dream of vilifying autistic individuals or victims of depression or PTSD in the same way that they pillory “psychos”? Last year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, I and my co-authors presented the first published evidence that psychopathic traits – especially those linked to the personality dimension “fearless dominance” – are positively associated with holding leadership and management positions as well as high-risk occupations, such as police work and firefighting.

Next time you hear the word “psycho” spare a thought for the functional diaspora of card-carrying psychopaths who aren’t “psychos”. Who by their ruthlessness and fearlessness do good. And who, with their low-fat consciences and sugar-free emotions, execute the knife-edge transactions that can improve the lives of the rest of us. “You never know,” as Andy McNab points out, “next time you use the word ‘psycho’ it might even be as a compliment.”