Kevin Dutton is the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths -- What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (Scientific America/FSG, $26)
Psychopaths are everywhere. You might even be reading the words of one right now! But how can you tell?
In the aftermath of the corporate chaos that marked the last decade, this question is becoming ever more important. If recent estimates are true -- that one in ten CEOs are psychopaths, the same probability that any one person may at any one time be carrying the common cold -- then if you've worked in a total of ten different places during the course of your career (and that's about average) you're bound to have run into one.
But, like the common cold, are there tell-tale signs and symptoms of psychopathy -- the psychological equivalents of a sore throat and runny nose? Are there general giveaways that can help us keep our distance?
The answer is yes... and no. Any starter pack for would-be psychopath-spotters should begin with a word of warning.
Just as the common cold may be defined by any number of symptoms -- runny nose, sore throat, tickly cough, headache, lack of energy, temperature etc. -- so psychopathy is characterized by a variety of different personality traits. But these traits -- ruthlessness, fearlessness, charm, persuasiveness, egocentricity, impulsivity, and the absence of conscience and empathy -- need not all be present to the same degree for a diagnosis to be made. Just as no one cold is ever identical to another and may vary according to the presence, severity, and duration of the symptoms, so there is no such thing as the definitive textbook psychopath.
Profiles may fluctuate across the various composite traits -- indeed, there's evidence to suggest that it's relatively low levels of impulsivity, for instance, which separate out so-called functional from criminal psychopaths -- but as long as the aggregate level across all of the principal features exceeds a pre-specified norm (as determined by scores on specialized psychometric tests) then the psychopath light flickers on.
That said, however, there are a number of tells for which any serious psychopath-spotter should keep their eyes open on the trail of their quarry in the workplace.
Here are eleven tells that pretty much all of the species displays.