Think psychopaths are all serial killers? Wrong. Many of us have their character traits — and as a book written by SAS hero Andy McNab and serialised by the Mail revealed in 2014, they’re vital to winning life’s battles.
With the help of Dr Kevin Dutton, who has spent a lifetime studying psychopaths, he explains how to tell if you’ve got good psychopathic tendencies…
Hello. My name is Andy McNab and I’m a psychopath. That statement comes as a bit of a shock when you first hear it, doesn’t it?
Finding out that I could be classified in this way was certainly a surprise to me but it turns out that I’m what they call a ‘good psychopath’ and it’s certainly done me no harm in life. In fact, I believe it’s the reason I’ve been so successful.
I’ve certainly come a long way since I was a kid. Abandoned on the steps of Guy’s Hospital in a Harrods bag as a newborn baby, I was adopted and brought up on a tough housing estate in South-West London. I’ve faced a lot of challenges, but one has always been pretty much like another to me.
Andy McNab’s book claims that being a psychopath could be the recipe to success
If you’ve read my books, you’ll already know that I was in the British Army for 18 years. Eight as an infantryman and ten in the Special Air Service.
My first book, Bravo Two Zero, was the story of my time as part of an eight-man Special Forces operation behind enemy lines in Iraq during the first Gulf War. For that, I was decorated for bravery along with three other soldiers from the Bravo Two Zero patrol. In fact, our mission became the most highly-decorated action since the Boer War battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879.
I’ve since written more non-fiction, thrillers and film scripts, and produced films. I’m also involved in business both in the UK and the U.S., particularly start-up ventures. I’ve gone from enemy lines to movie lines and from battle plans to business plans and I’ve never given a single thought to the possibility of messing up.
And I have always been up for stuff, whether it’s being number one through the door on a hostage rescue; going undercover in Derry with a South London accent; or, these days, talking to the board members of a company that’s going bankrupt because they don’t know their backsides from their elbows. Whatever the situation, I’ve always thought, ‘I’ll get away with it’ and I always have.
This is just one quality of the ‘good psychopath’ and I’m telling you all this because, with the help of my psychologist friend Dr Kevin Dutton, I want to show you how to make the most of your own inner psychopath. Don’t panic. We’re not trying to turn you into Hannibal Lecter, just to identify some simple psychopathic strategies for getting the most out of life.
DR KEVIN DUTTON SAYS: Whenever most of us hear the word ‘psychopath’, images of infamous serial killers flash across our minds. But psychologists use the term to refer to a much wider group of individuals who have a distinct cluster of personality traits.
As you might expect, reduced empathy for others and lack of conscience are among them. But they also include ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, self-confidence, focus and coolness under pressure.
Imagine each of these as a dial on one of those recording studio mixing desks. No one characteristic is necessarily ‘bad’ in itself. It’s the particular combination of levels at which they are twiddled up or down that matters.
Bad psychopaths cannot regulate their behaviour in this way. There are many possible explanations for this, including the start they get in life and what else they’ve got going on in their personalities. But the end result is that their dials are set at dangerously high levels and either stuck fast, or very difficult to turn.
In good psychopaths, those able to adjust the settings according to different social contexts, the same traits can actually be very constructive and there are various jobs and professions which, by their very nature, demand that some of these mixing-desk dials are cranked up a little higher than normal.
For example, there’s no point having the visionary thinking and instinctive feel for the market necessary to be a top businessman if you lack the ruthlessness to fire people who aren’t pulling their weight, or the nerve to take a calculated risk when appropriate. One of the world’s leading hedge fund managers told me he produced his best returns when the markets were chaotic and panic was rife.
‘I find that environment relaxing,’ he said. ‘Take 2008, when the market was down 20 to 30 per cent. I was up 20 per cent. When markets are calm and steady, my returns are not materially different to the average. I have no advantage in that environment.’
A certain level of psychopathy is also required to be a great surgeon because you must disassociate yourself emotionally from your patients.
‘I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,’ one leading neurosurgeon told me. ‘That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theatre I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. Emotion is seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.’
Soldiering is another profession in which it seems reasonable to expect some unusual settings of the dials and in 2010 I got a chance to do a radio interview with Andy, the UK’s most famous trained killer.
Some time later, he agreed to be subjected to one of the gold standard tests for psychopathy, which involves measuring subjects’ brain activity as they are bombarded with nauseating images of road accidents, torture and death.
Most people associate the word ‘psychopath’ with infamous serial killers and fictional characters such Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, played by Christian Bale. But psychologists refer to a much wider group who have a distinct cluster of personality traits
In most of the population, these images have the grey matter firing like the brain’s answer to Guy Fawkes’ night. But Andy’s graphs were as flat as a pancake. The explanation lies in a little peanut-sized structure within the brain called the amygdala.
Ancient and steeped in evolutionary tradition, it regulates those emotions that are chiefly related to survival, including fear, anger and pleasure, and it’s where the big instant decisions, such as fight or flight, are made.
In psychopaths, like Andy, a section of the amygdala, the part that corresponds to fear, is underdeveloped and, when I explained this to him, many things about his life slotted into place.
‘Even as a kid, I never thought of anything as dangerous,’ he told me. ‘I thought of it as fun, like going through the levels on a video game.
‘In fights, I felt detached, like I was watching myself in slow motion and thinking clearly about what needed to be done and how I was doing to do it. There was no fear, no emotional connection to what was happening.’
While you might not identify with those feelings, there is evidence that psychopathy — like height and weight — lies on a spectrum. Sure, at the sharp end you may well find your serial killers and axe-murderers. But all of us have our place at some point along the continuum.
You can get a general indication of where your psychopathy dial is set by taking the test on the facing page. And remember, there is no objectively ‘correct’ setting at which your mixing-desk levels should be set.
That will always depend on the particular circumstances you find yourself in, and with our help you can fine-tune your individual dials to ensure you get what you want out of life, starting with the first and most important principle of being a good psychopath:
JUST DO IT… NOW
There are many ways to avoid success in life, but few beat procrastination. With the advent of modern technological distractions — Xboxes, Facebook, Twitter and the like — it’s steadily on the increase.
In the late 1970s, roughly 5 per cent of the population thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators, whereas today that figure hovers around 25 per cent.
Procrastination costs billions of pounds a year in lost profits, decreases personal effectiveness and destroys teamwork by shifting your responsibility on to others, who become resentful. It also has a negative effect on health, with studies suggesting that students who are chronic procrastinators have weaker immune systems and report more cold and flu-like symptoms than those who aren’t.
But there is one group of people who never put things off. Psychopaths.
This is down to their under-strength amygdalae. As I’ve explained, the amygdala is involved in many of our emotions and motivations. And it’s this hedonistic, spur-of-the moment part of our neuro-anatomy which sees us dreaming instead of doing, and turning on the telly instead of filing that report.
To over-ride your own amygdala, try these practical steps:
In psychopaths a section of the amygdala, the part that corresponds to fear, is underdeveloped
Research shows that when we imagine doing something — playing tennis, for instance — the same areas light up in the sensorimotor region of our brain as if we were doing it for real. So close your eyes and visualise yourself doing what you want to do. Picture yourself carrying out the task, and executing it successfully — avoiding interruptions and focusing on the job at hand.
This is one of the methods used members of the SAS’s Counter-Revolutionary Warfare team when training for hostage rescue scenarios in the Killing House, a building at the SAS barracks in Hereford used as a mock-up for terrorist situations. ‘Before storming the Killing House, we would go through in our heads the precise drill for engaging the enemy and getting the hostages to safety,’ says Andy.
‘Lobbing in a flash-bang, a stun grenade . . . quick scan of the room . . . short burst — tap-tap — of machine-gun fire if necessary . . . room clear, move on.’
2. Focus on the future
Their dictatorial amygdalae cause procrastinators to fold in the face of immediate challenges, opting for short-term pleasure over long-term gain. So next time you find yourself putting off something important, stick your feet up in a quiet corner, and ask yourself this: Is how bad I’m going to feel when I have to rush this task under pressure going to be anything like how great I’ll feel when I’ve got it under my belt in good time?
3. Downsize your time
Procrastinators wait for large, unbroken, marble-smooth slabs of time upon which to get started instead of rolling their sleeves up and making do with more temporary, makeshift, rough-and-ready surfaces.
That’s very different to Andy, who once told me that he hammered out large chunks of his books not in some big comfy armchair at home or some sun-dappled villa on the Algarve, but in train carriages and in the food courts of motorway service stations.
‘I spend a lot of time on the move,’ he said, ‘and you just have to work when you can.’
Much of that work has gone into collaborating with me on our no-nonsense guide to being a good psychopath.
Over the course of the series from 2014, we showed you how to use psychopathic principles to get served first in a busy bar, win over that girl or guy of your dreams, and get the promotion you deserve.
From the serialisation, you can also learn why talking to telephone cold-callers can be to your advantage, get tips on effective dressing from Barack Obama and discover why taking a cold shower might help you get a raise.
But of course none of this will be of any use if you don’t get on and do it and, on that subject, I’ll leave the last word to Andy.
‘We used to have a saying in the Regiment,’ he says. ‘Leave till tomorrow only the stuff that you’re prepared never to do.’
The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success by Andy McNab & Professor Kevin Dutton (Transworld Publishers Ltd, £10.99). © Andy McNab and Professor Kevin Dutton 2014. To order a copy for £9.89 (offer valid to 09/03/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.