"Psychopath" is a term with extremely negative connotations. When most of us hear it, we likely envision bloodthirsty and murderous individuals, like Hannibal Lecter, Ted Bundy, Dexter Morgan and Charles Manson.
We also throw the word around in social settings on a pretty frequent basis. If a person is acting aggressively or impetuously, we say something along the lines of "you're being a psycho."
We don't usually mean the person is a literal psychopath, we're using the word hyperbolically to add emphasis.
People do this with a lot of words. To borrow from the comedian Louis CK:
As humans, we waste the sh*t out of our words. It's sad. We use words like 'awesome' and 'wonderful' like they're candy. ...You use the word 'amazing' to describe a goddamn sandwich at Wendy's. What's going to happen on your wedding day or when your first child is born? How will you describe it? You already wasted 'amazing' on a f*cking sandwich.
The man has a point. We overuse a lot of words without thinking critically about their meaning.
But, when it comes to the word "psychopath," there actually might be some validity behind its colloquial application.
In other words, some of us might have more psychopathic tendencies than we realize. And when our friends say "you're a psychopath, dude," they may be more correct than they even realize.
This shouldn't necessarily be viewed in a negative light, though, as there's a great deal of evidence possessing psychopathic traits has a number of benefits.
Actually, you could make the argument many of the most successful leaders and individuals in history were psychopaths in some respects.
Being a bit of a psychopath can help you achieve success in many walks of life, as crazy as that sounds (no pun intended).
Not all psychopaths are bad.
Almost anyone you know could be a psychopath, but that doesn't mean they're bad people.
Dr. James Fallon, a successful neuroscientist, discovered he's a psychopath when comparing brain scans of psychopathic murderers to scans of his own brain.
Psychopaths have decreased activity in portions of the frontal lobe associated with morality and empathy, and Fallon's brain exhibited the same anatomical patterns.
Fallon has never committed a crime in his life. He's a family man and extremely respected in his field.
The difference between him and psychopathic killers is he can switch off all the negative qualities of psychopathy at will -- aggression, carelessness, coldheartedness -- while maintaining the positive qualities, such as charisma.
Thus, psychopathy is linked to genetics and neurology and occurs in various degrees.
According to Kevin Dutton, research psychologist at the University of Oxford, we've being perceiving and defining psychopaths in far too absolute terms. As he puts it:
There's no one thing that makes a psychopath. You want to think of those traits being like the dials on a studio mixing desk, that you can turn up and down in different situations – if they're all turned up to maximum, then you're a dysfunctional psychopath. Being a psychopath isn't black and white; it's a spectrum, like height and weight.
So even if you possess qualities similar to psychopaths, it doesn't necessarily mean you're destined to become a cold-blooded serial killer.
If you're a full-blown psychopath, that's obviously problematic. But if you embody some of the associated characteristics, research suggests you're naturally suited for leadership.
Leadership requires some psychopathic traits.
Psychopaths have a wide range of personality traits: deceptive charm, the innate ability to lie, remorselessness, unrealistic goals, a lack of empathy and impulsivity, among others.
Thus, it feels somewhat counterintuitive to argue anyone with such attributes could make a good leader. How can a person lead others when he or she is reckless, apathetic and irrational?
Well, as we've noted, there are shades of grey to being a psychopath.
For example, psychopaths on the extreme end of the spectrum lack one of the most important qualities to strong and effective leadership: empathy.
If you can't relate to others and don't have a high degree of emotional intelligence, you're not in a good position to guide other people.
But if you're on the less extreme end of the psychopath spectrum, you can still exhibit empathy while also possessing psychopathic qualities that present an advantage in terms of leadership.
Andy McNab, a retired SAS sergeant who's worked alongside Kevin Dutton, has argued psychopaths achieve success because they have the ability to turn off the empathy switch when necessary.
They're not always completely coldblooded, but can be ruthless in the appropriate context. In McNab's words:
You don't want to be a Gordon Gekko character, screwing people over all the time. They get hurt once but you get hurt forever because they'll never trust you again. That's the difference between a good and a bad psychopath: knowing when to turn that up and when to kill it.
Emotional intelligence is vital to accomplishing your goals in both your personal and professional life. But part of this process involves establishing a healthy equilibrium between being too sensitive and too unfeeling.
People want to know you'll be there for them during tough times, but they also want to see you can handle yourself under pressure.
When you've conquered your emotions, you can do anything. It appears many psychopaths have this advantage.
Some of your favorite presidents were psychopaths.
According to research, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all possessed psychopathic characteristics.
Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University, led a study that assessed the personalities and rated the performances of US presidents.
Ultimately, the research revealed presidents were more successful when they possessed fearless dominance, a quality frequently attributed to psychopaths.
As Lilienfeld explains:
An easy way to think about it is as a combination of physical and social fearlessness. People high in boldness don't have a lot of apprehension about either physical or social things that would scare the rest of us. It's often a kind of resilience because you don't show lot of anxiety or frustration in the face of everyday life challenges.
Simply put, psychopaths are intrepid and audacious individuals who keep calm under pressure, qualities imperative to impactful leadership.
Correspondingly, there's evidence psychopaths can be fundamentally heroic. Their impulsivity makes them less hesitant to take risks in dangerous situations.
This makes a lot of sense: While heroism is often linked with selflessness, you also have to be somewhat reckless to sacrifice your own safety for that of others.
This all goes to show we live in a relative world. Something that is seemingly negative can lead to great and wonderful things.
In the words of the late, great Robin Williams:
You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.
So the next time someone calls you a psychopath, thank them for the inadvertent compliment.
Citations: Why psychopaths are more successful (The Telegraph ), Psychopathic Traits What Successful Presidents Have in Common (Time ), What Do Heroes and Psychopaths Have in Common (Psychology Today ), What Is a Psychopath (Psychology Today ), Psychopaths how can you spot one (The Telegraph ), The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath (Smithsonian ), Dr James Fallon Makes Being a Psychopath Look Like Fun (Vice News)