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Editor's Choice: The Wisdom of Psychopaths

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton; Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 261 pages ($26). The kinship of genius and madness is actually one of the oldest human ideas though certainly not in the attention-commanding careerist way research psychologist Kevin Dutton puts it in this book's title. For so long, that kinship was the property of poets and storytellers and an occasional philosopher. In the late '60s and early '70s, a social movement pretended to take it up in earnest with R.D. Laing's notion that insanity is simply a logical reaction to insane circumstances, including civilization's garden variety repressions ("hey, let's call Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown and see if they're free for lunch" pretty well summed up the zeitgeist).

Where the possibility of individual happiness fit in with all this theoretical derring-do postulating all therapy as repression for the sake of others was always a murky point. It all sounded wonderful and full of intellectual bravado until confronted with the actual wretchedness and misery of the mentally ill, as well as others around them. (Or, as Dutton might have it, the victims of serial killers.)

Kevin Dutton – a provocative Oxford psychologist in the traditional British intellectual style – is after something else here. His thesis is, in part, that "modern-day humans are pathologically risk-averse" and that "mental disorder can occasionally come in handy – conferring extraordinary outlandish advantages, as well as inordinate distress on its sufferers."

So Dutton has many personal tales to tell – about, for instance, his oldest friend Johnny, a psychopath uncannily able to turn "every situation to his advantage" to whom he administered a test in college meant to "assess psychopathic attitudes, not in incarcerated offenders but in the general population. Not surprisingly he scored extremely high, in particular, on Machiavellian Egocentricity, Carefree Nonplanfulness, Social Potency, Stress Immunity, Fearlessness and Coldheartedness." You might ask, of course, if the title couldn't in fact be turned upside down – what our constant social concern for success in the world tells us about our perennial room for saints, spies, and serial killers.

–Jeff Simon