Can Psychopathy Help You Get Ahead?

There’s a fine line between enjoying Francis Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s pathologically Machiavellian politician on the Netflix series House of Cards, and wanting to be Francis Underwood—and it’s one an increasing number of us seem eager to cross. How else to explain the growing pile of aspirational pop-psycho lit? This month, M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous blogger behind, releases Confessions of a Sociopath, a memoir about living without fear, empathy, and conscience.

It follows last fall’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths, University of Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton’s pseudo-self-help manual on how psychopathy can help you get ahead, which proffered: “Psychopaths…have a variety of attributes…which often confer considerable advantages not just in the workplace, but in everyday life.” That jibes with mounting evidence, presented by the journalist Jon Ronson in his 2011 book The Psychopath Test, that many politicians, CEOs, and other leaders possess psychopathic traits. And a study published last September in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology linked psychopathy to presidential performance, noting that JFK and Bill Clinton match certain aspects of the profile.

Meanwhile, a casual glance at the most beloved TV dramas of late reveals that psychopaths are becoming cultural icons. According to Adam Kotsko, a humanities professor at Chicago’s Shimer College and the author of 2012’s Why We Love Sociopaths, the popularity of characters like Underwood, Don Draper, and Walter White—never mind Dexter Morgan—reflects our deepening skepticism about societal fairness. “People don’t hold out any hope that the future is going to be better than the past,” Kotsko says. “The conclusion they draw is, ‘The world rewards evil people instead of good people, so I’m going to get mine.’ The natural next step is to read books that help you bring that behavior closer to your real life.” Just hope the guy in the neighboring cubicle doesn’t take it any further than that.• • •

Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What’s the Difference?
Essentially, there is none. The movie Psycho forever linked the word psychopath with serial murder, but the terms are, clinically speaking, interchangeable.

—Timothy Hodler