COMMENTARY | A recent feature in Scientific American rapidly turns from fascinating to horrifying. In “Wisdom from Psychopaths? ” Kevin Dutton, a scientist at Cambridge in the UK visited a high-security psychiatric facility to see whether the thinking and logic of psychopaths could be used to solve day-to-day problems. The article excerpts Dutton’s book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success.”
While the article itself is can’t miss, the implications are enough to send chills all the way to your fingertips. Or, at least, they should be.
When one of the patients suggests a solution regarding a tenant unwilling to leave a house that has been placed on the market, he sums up with, “If you’re a boxer, you do everything in your power to put the other guy away as soon as possible, right? So why are people prepared to tolerate ruthlessness in sport but not in everyday life? What’s the difference?”
Here’s the scary part. If we don’t know what the difference is, then we have lost boundaries, and without boundaries, you cannot have a functioning society.
We work within the framework of social rules. Psychopaths don’t, but realize that most people do. They then gain an advantage through their operation outside of the rules, and being psychopaths, they don’t even have to think about it again if they don’t want to.
In the suggestion that led to that quote, the patient said, in order to get the tenant to self-evict, someone should pretend to be from the government and tell him that there was an asbestos problem with the property. And here’s why we shouldn’t rely on that kind of thinking.
In the patient’s scenario, the guy gets scared and packs up and leaves, but life does not, necessarily, work that way. Though I’m unfamiliar with housing laws in the UK, perhaps the tenant can file a complaint or even a lawsuit against the homeowner, causing the elderly woman yet more cost and trouble. Perhaps he’s less concerned about the risk of asbestos than finding another place to live, thus accomplishing nothing.
And in the United States, posing as a government official is a crime. The possible illegality of this idea is not addressed. For an institutionalized psychopath, legality isn’t a hot concern, but what happens if legality is so casually dismissed by everyone when it interferes with achieving a particular end?
Perhaps we can ask the architects of the housing bubble, though they’re unlikely to care. On the other hand, the people who lost their houses probably would.
Putting the self above all else does not serve society, and it doesn’t seem to serve the individual all that well either, given that the subjects Dutton interviews are in a high-security mental facility.
Though it seems to be a trendy thing to do, given the proliferation of anti-heroes, idealizing behavior that is, by its nature, destructive to the fabric of society unravels society. Imagine a world of nothing but quicksand, a world where no one can be trusted to do anything beyond what he wants to do, to get what he wants without regard to the cost.
We’ve seen that on a large scale in this country. It’s the foundation of the Bernie Madoffs. It’s what tanked our economy to the incredible enrichment of the very few.
Anti-hero worship is worse than simple hero worship, because at least with hero worship, we have something to which we can aspire. With anti-hero worship, the only question is how low we can go.