“What characterizes almost every psychopath and part-psychopath is that they are trying to create a new nervous system for themselves.”
Although I haven’t seen any reference to Mailer’s essay in reviews of Dutton’s book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths strikes me as largely an expanded update of some of Mailer’s claims—including one that must have seemed outlandish when he made it: That his hipsters or “White Negroes” are neurologically different from “squares.” “It may be fruitful,” Mailer ultimately concluded, “to consider the hipster a philosophical psychopath.”
Yet by now it is established that psychopaths are easily distinguished from the rest of society by a number of psychological tests—and perhaps genetically as well, if it eventually turns out that MAOA-L, a gene associated with risk-taking, correlates with psychopathy. For Dutton, a British research psychologist, psychopaths are people who score high on a widely used 20-item checklist, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R. Broadly, the traits are fearlessness, focus, Machiavellian egocentricity, superficial charm, blame externalization, stress immunity, cold-heartedness, risk-taking, and impulsivity.
Dutton emphasizes that there is a continuum among human beings on all these traits. And, Dutton says, “the borderline between functional and dysfunctional psychopathy depends not on the presence of psychopathic attributes per se, but rather on their levels and the way they’re combined.” Just below the surface of his book is the idea that psychopaths are just another variety of person and not ill or imperfect versions of the rest of us. In fact, Dutton’s insistence that the behavior pattern that is tagged as “psychopathy” can have survival value has propelled his book up the Amazon charts.
Some of the same aspects of psychopathy that appealed to Mailer appeal to Dutton, who says with evident admiration that the ultimate dividing line between psychopaths and everyone else is that psychopaths “don’t give a damn what their fellow citizens think of them.” Dutton writes: “In a world in which image and branding and personal reputation are more sacrosanct than ever, this constitutes, no doubt, one of the fundamental reasons why they run into so much trouble. And, of course, why we find them so beguiling.”
There’s more than a whiff here of the valorization of the psychopath as an alternative to corrupted, commercialized culture that Mailer drew upon. And when I read Dutton I thought about all the glamorous, charismatic psychopaths I’ve loved or been infatuated with. The guys who drove 120 miles an hour on the East River Drive! The guys who parachuted hundreds of times! The skydivers, the marijuana dealer, the former resistance fighter. And it occurred to me—in the midst of trying to decide whether I was tired of having psychopaths as love objects—that not one of my favorite psychopaths was a Jew.
Dutton references a surprising number of studies that compare the performance of individuals high on psychopathic traits on tests requiring them to pick out crime victims by their gait, to identify pictures or words with emotional valence at high speed, and to play investment games. The differences seem to be hard-wired. On one test, “psychopaths may be reliably differentiated from non-psychopaths on the basis of as little as five- and ten-second exposure sequences.” It turns out that carriers of MAOA-L actually make better choices in investment games, because they are able to continue making rational decisions past the point where “normal” people adopt irrationally conservative behavior. One researcher found that brain waves associated in most people with drowsy or meditative states, theta waves, occur during normal waking states in psychopaths. Dutton doesn’t extrapolate from this, but I wonder if this means that psychopaths are more relaxed, even happier, than normal people, especially in stressful situations similar to those under which humans evolved, and whether this might not have been among the evolutionary advantages to psychopathology that he discusses.
Dutton says nothing about the roles of race, culture, and ethnicity in determining who becomes a psychopath and alludes in just one paragraph to the fascinating fact that nearly all psychopaths are men. But the reason he gives for the predominance of men among psychopaths might also explain cultural tendencies: “girls show earlier development of linguistic and socio-emotional skills than boys, which may in turn predispose them to the emergence of more effective behavior inhibition strategies.”
This is about when I realized that Mailer’s essay is, among many other things, an argument with bien pensant Jewish culture, obsessed as it was with “the Jewish science,” a blow in an internal quarrel within Jewish culture, good boys versus bad boys. “The psychopath knows instinctively that to express a forbidden impulse actively is far more beneficial to him than merely to confess the desire in the safety of a doctor’s room,” Mailer wrote. “The psychopath is ordinately ambitious, too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.”
So many of the hipsters of 1957 were Jews—like Lenny Bruce—yet Mailer never mentions Jews by name. This is especially odd because Mailer began his essay not by evoking black-clad Village beatniks, but by alluding to the “psychic havoc” of the concentration camps and atom bomb and the threat of meaningless mass death:
[I]f the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness.
This might have been a natural place for Mailer to ask whether Jews were therefore more apt to develop the reflexes of the existentialist—a term Mailer sometimes used as an alternative to “hipster.” Instead, Mailer says that the African American was the first to embody the psychology that since World War II has become the cultural property of a much larger group. Yet surely, for hundreds of years, this was also the experience of European Jews. I would argue that because of the need to discern and deflect possible danger, both African Americans and Jews tend to be higher in empathy and emotional sensitivity and—contrary to Mailer’s statements—lower in Dutton’s psychopathy profile than other groups. Both blacks and Jews have adopted niche coping strategies of humor, artfulness, and private language.
An argument can be made that Jewish culture emphasizes and rewards verbal skills and emotional sophistication and that Jewish children grow up better able to control their impulsivity, to defer gratification and to get what they want through more elaborate strategies. It is also possible that if there are genes that predispose to psychopathy, they got weeded out of the Jewish gene pool after the diaspora began. While psychopathic traits served King David well, they weren’t so useful to a culture that valued the ability of young boys to sit still and study Talmud for hours on end. Of course there are Jewish psychopaths who become criminals—Bernie Madoff, for instance. But they tend to commit elaborate financial crimes, I’d bet, rather than violent ones.
As for the useful psychopathic traits Dutton discusses, it’s easy to see how coolness under pressure would be good in the military and in finance, fields where social rituals, patterned behavior, and superficial regimentation make it easy for those with lower social skills to at least appear to fit in. If you wear a uniform every day, you don’t have to figure out what’s appropriate to wear—and this more or less goes for Wall Street, too.
But it’s also easy to see that the emotional tone-deafness that accompanies these traits can lead to disaster. The so-called London Whale and other errant or rogue traders who in recent years have nearly brought down several brokerage houses lacked some traits that normal people have, like empathy, fear, and the ability to see themselves realistically. Psychopaths are missing an understanding of social context that can undermine their other unusual abilities—and their grandiosity and impulsivity precipitate their downfall.
Poor impulse control seems to be the bane of the high-functioning psychopath. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus are probably in this category—Petraeus less obviously so than the famously eccentric McChrystal. Their unusual traits took them very far up the ladder. But they were ultimately brought down by stupid stuff, mistakes many less-intelligent men wouldn’t make. How hard is it not to criticize your political superiors to a reporter? How hard is it, at 60, to avoid having an affair with the kind of woman who hijacks your email account?
Those who have mastered impulse control and have some psychopathic traits can rise very far. Many of those who disliked Mitt Romney on personal grounds adduced what they took to be cold-heartedness and an absence of empathy. The consensus on President Barack Obama is that he also is cold, tends to egocentrism, and has a remarkable degree of stress immunity. (This might be the place to note that no Jew has ever run for president, much less been elected.)
It’s hard not to like Dutton’s book, unless you, like me, tend to dislike books that are too ingratiating—and I liked it even so, for offering a corrective to the usual politically correct idiocy. Dutton, like Mailer, is waging war against the bien-pensant. And I’m with him. Life would be more fun if more people cultivated their inner psychopath. I’m tired of being told to wear a bike helmet (it would make more sense, statistically, to wear one while driving a car); I’m tired of being frowned on for having two cigarettes a week, or for pointing out that the odds of getting AIDS from unprotected sex for white heterosexuals are about those of dying by choking (look it up).
But I know something I think Dutton doesn’t: how frustrating it is to love a psychopath. Dutton, though he confesses that his father and his childhood best friend were psychopaths, probably hasn’t dated any. Psychopaths stand you up for no apparent reason. Or they show up at your house in the middle of the night having happened to be in the area. They never send love letters, and if they buy you flowers, it’s an ironic gesture. On their way to spend the night at your house, they let it slip that they’re moving in with another woman. They propose marriage just when you have met someone new. And if you accepted, they’d likely leave you at the altar. (Luckily, I never got that far.) What’s more, they will do these things again and again. It wears one down.
Dutton’s book is worth reading—though Mailer’s essay, for those who haven’t seen it, is a better read. It is a guide to what to expect in the future; Dutton suggests, correctly I think, that our society is becoming more psychopathic, partly due to the rise of celebrity culture that sets up charismatic individuals with psychopathic traits as role models. And remember, girls, if you buy it for your favorite psychopath, it won’t change a thing about him.
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