An article on psychopathy in society appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, and will be of interest to some here. It is an excerpt from a new book entitled The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success
by Kevin Dutton. The article is too long to post in its entirety here so I will just link to it and include a few key quotes. It starts out talking about research that is indicating that society is becoming more psychopathic and less empathetic over recent decades (since the study began in 1979 at least), and likely causes for this. Perhaps most relavent for this forum is that after this introduction the author discusses the positive aspects of psychopathy for certain endeavours such as combat, and he provides an entertaining description of where he and a special forces veteran submit to a brain activity test while watching disturbing images. The entire article should be read to get all the context and nuances, it ties in well to previous discussions here on the psychological aspects of combat and self-defense.Psychopathy's Double Edge
by Kevin Dutton
But if society really is becoming more psychopathic, it's not all doom and gloom. In the right context, certain psychopathic characteristics can actually be very constructive. A neurosurgeon I spoke with (who rated high on the psychopathic spectrum) described the mind-set he enters before taking on a difficult operation as "an intoxication that sharpens rather than dulls the senses." In fact, in any kind of crisis, the most effective individuals are often those who stay calm—who are able to respond to the exigencies of the moment while at the same time maintaining the requisite degree of detachment. Individuals like my old friend Andy McNab.
McNab was arguably the most famous British soldier to have served in Her Majesty's Armed Forces until Prince Harry hung up his polo mallet at Eton. During the first Gulf War, Andy commanded Bravo Two Zero, an eight-man Special Forces patrol that was assigned the task of gathering intelligence on underground communication links between Baghdad and northwest Iraq, and tracking and destroying Scud missile launchers along the Iraqi main supply route in the area.
But soon the boys had other fish to fry. A couple of days after insertion, the patrol was compromised by a goatherd. And, in time-honored fashion, they beat it: 185 miles, across the desert, toward the Syrian border.
Only one of them made it. Three were killed, and the other four, including Andy, were picked up at various points along the way by the Iraqis. Suffice it to say that none of their captors were ever going to have their own talk shows ... or make their mark in the annals of cosmetic surgery. It's generally accepted that there are better ways of putting a person at ease than by stubbing your cigarette out on his neck. And better ways of breaking and remodeling their jawline than with the sun-baked butt of an AK-47. Thanks to more-advanced techniques back home in Britain, Andy's mouth now packs more porcelain than all the bathrooms in Buckingham Palace put together. He should know. In 1991 he went there to collect the Distinguished Service Medal from the queen.
Such mental toughness isn't the only characteristic that Special Forces soldiers have in common with psychopaths. There's also fearlessness. A couple of years ago, on a beautiful spring morning 12,000 feet above Sydney's Bondi Beach, I performed my first free-fall sky dive. The night before, somewhat the worse for wear in one of the city's waterfront bars, I texted Andy for some last-minute advice.
"Keep your eyes open. And your arse shut," came the reply.
I did. Just. But performing the same feat at night, in the theater of war, over a raging ocean from twice the altitude and carrying 200 pounds of equipment, is a completely different ballgame. And if that's not enough, "We used to have a laugh," Andy recalls. "Mess about. You know, we'd throw the equipment out ahead of us and see if we could catch up with it. Or on the way down, we'd grab each other from behind in a bear hug and play chicken—see who'd be the first to peel off and pull the cord. It was all good fun."
Er, right. If you say so, Andy. But what wasn't much fun was the killing. I ask Andy whether he ever felt any regret over anything he'd done. Over the lives he'd taken on his numerous secret missions around the world.
"No," he replies matter-of-factly, his arctic-blue eyes showing not the slightest trace of emotion. "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. Simple as that. 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.
And then some key aspects of the description of the test.
"OK," says Nick. "Listen up. Right now, on the screen in front of you, you can see a tranquil, restful scene, which is presently being accompanied by quiet, relaxing music. This is to establish baseline physiological readings from which we can measure subsequent arousal levels.
"But at an undisclosed moment sometime within the next 60 seconds, the image you see at the present time will change, and images of a different nature will appear on the screen. These images will be violent. And nauseating. And of a graphic and disturbing nature.
"As you view these images, changes in your heart rate, skin conductance, and EEG activity will be monitored and compared with the resting levels that are currently being recorded. Any questions?"
Andy and I shake our heads.
"OK," says Nick. "Let's get the show on the road."
He disappears behind us, leaving Andy and me merrily soaking up the incontinence ad. Results reveal later that, at this point, as we wait for something to happen, our physiological output readings are actually pretty similar. Our pulse rates are significantly higher than our normal resting levels, in anticipation of what's to come.
But with the change of scene, an override switch flips somewhere in Andy's brain. And the ice-cold Special Forces soldier suddenly swings into action. As vivid, florid images of dismemberment, mutilation, torture, and execution flash up on the screen in front of us (so vivid, in fact, that Andy later confesses to actually being able to "smell" the blood: a "kind of sickly-sweet smell that you never, ever forget"), accompanied not by the ambient spa music of before but by blaring sirens and hissing white noise, his physiological readings start slipping into reverse. His pulse rate begins to slow. His GSR begins to drop, his EEG to quickly and dramatically attenuate. In fact, by the time the show is over, all three of Andy's physiological output measures are pooling below his baseline.
Nick has seen nothing like it. "It's almost as if he was gearing himself up for the challenge," he says. "And then, when the challenge eventually presented itself, his brain suddenly responded by injecting liquid nitrogen into his veins. Suddenly implemented a blanket neural cull of all surplus feral emotion. Suddenly locked down into a hypnotically deep code red of extreme and ruthless focus."
He shakes his head, nonplused. "If I hadn't recorded those readings myself, I'm not sure I would have believed them," he continues. "OK, I've never tested Special Forces before. And maybe you'd expect a slight attenuation in response. But this guy was in total and utter control of the situation. So tuned in, it looked like he'd completely tuned out."
My physiological output readings, in contrast, went through the roof. Exactly like Andy's, they were well above baseline as I'd waited for the carnage to commence. But that's where the similarity ended. Rather than go down in the heat of battle, in the midst of the blood and guts, mine had appreciated exponentially.
"At least it shows that the equipment is working properly," comments Nick. "And that you're a normal human being."
We look across at Andy, who's chatting up a bunch of Nick's Ph.D. students over by a bank of monitors. God knows what they make of him. They've just analyzed his data, and the electrode gel has done such a number on his hair that he looks like Don King in a wind tunnel.
All done, Andy is off to a luxury hotel in the country, where I'll be joining him later for a debrief. But that's only after I've run the gantlet again, in Phase II of the experiment. In which, with the aid of a psychopath makeover, I'll have another go at the experiment, only this time with a completely different head on—thanks to a dose of TMS.
In Phase II they temporarily and artificially bring out a bit of the fearless psychopath in author, which makes for a humorous read.
So is this one of the secrets of the martial-arts masters of old (from any part of the world), they had a high psychopathic ranking? If so then the question becomes, for those of us who might be 'normal human beings', how do we tap into this useful psychopath when needed? Or are we just doomed to becoming statistics that the psychopathic survivors reflect on briefly during moments of remembrance?