SATURDAY’S CHILD: Psychos among us
WHILE ATTENDING her mother’s funeral, a woman meets a man she’s never seen before. She quickly believes him to be her soul-mate and falls head over heels. But she forgets to ask for his number, and when the wake is over, try as she might, she can’t track him down. A few days later she murders her sister. Why?
If the first answer that springs to your mind is some variation of jealousy and revenge – she discovers her sister has been seeing the man behind her back – then you are in the clear. But if your first response to this puzzle is “because she was hoping the man would turn up to her sister’s funeral as well”, then by some accounts you have the qualities that might qualify you to be a cold-blooded killer – or a captain of industry, a nerveless surgeon, a recruit for the SAS – or which may well make you a commission-rich salesman, a winning barrister, a charismatic clergyman or a red-top journalist. The little parable purports to reveal those qualities – an absence of emotion in decision making, a cold focus on outcomes, an extremely ruthless and egocentric logic – which tend to show up in disproportionate degrees in all those individuals.”
The story, featured in a book review by Tim Adams of the British Guardian newspaper, is about Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths. According to Dutton, a research fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford University, the ten professions most likely to be psychopathic are a chief executive officer (CEO), lawyer, TV/radio personality, salesperson, surgeon, journalist, police officer, clergyperson, chef and civil servant.
Psychopaths, we learn, are the ultimate optimists; they always think things will work in their favour.” In the book, Dutton cites a 2005 study that compared the profiles of business leaders with those of hospitalised criminals to reveal that a number of psychopathic attributes were arguably more common in the boardroom than the padded cell: notably superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence and restricted focus. The key difference was that the MBAs and CEOs were encouraged to exhibit these qualities in social rather than antisocial contexts.
So what about the newsroom instead of the boardroom? Lawyers are easily understood, CEOs even, surgeons, chefs, police officers and public servants we know can and often display all the traits of psychopaths. Salespeople and tv stars too, but journalists? I was looking through a book of anecdotes of American journalism called If No News Send Rumours. It includes some interesting insights such as a comment by Donald Jones, the former Ombudsman of the Kansas City Star and Times, “You get a quart of sour milk at your local grocery store . . . take it back to the check-out counter and say the milk is sour and the guy will say to you either, ‘Get a new quart’ or ‘Here’s your money back.’ The equivalent of taking a quart of sour milk back to a newspaper is you’re lucky if they don’t pour it on your head.” Edward R. Murrow, the former CBS reporter noted for his integrity and honesty admitted, “The Press does not have a thick skin; it has no skin.” Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post demonstrated this when responding to a reader who had pointed out an apparent error in his newspaper, “Bastards like us might check things more were it not for our conviction that bastards like you would do it for us.”
There are many newsroom examples in the Caribbean of the qualities that psychopaths and journalists share, especially where owners or editors, acting as CEOs or chairpersons of the board, stamp their authority with leaden feet. A recent case in Trinidad demonstrated that freedom of the Press belongs to those who own it. The statement that best demonstrates the link with psychopaths is by Adolphs Ochs, a former owner of the New York Times: “Unless I am in absolute control of the property and of all who are employed therewith, I would not undertake the management at any price, for I am certain I could not succeed as manager with any abridgement of almost autocratic power.”
When asked why one of his editors had to retire at 65, Ochs said, “Because I say so.” As an aside that is as illustrative as the response by Ochs is a reply by Chicago Daily News reporter Jay McMullen who was “dating” a city hall official and future Chicago mayor, Jane Byrne, “Anybody who wouldn’t [have sex with] a dame for a story is disloyal to the paper.”
Dutton sees a strong societal need for psychopaths. He believes that for a society to thrive about ten per cent of the population should consist of psychopaths or people with emotionally detached minds like bomb disposal experts and those who, like customs officials, can spot anxiety in others.
Tim Adams, in his review of Dutton’s book, ends with: “In this sense it is hard to know which is more chilling: the scene in which Dutton weighs a serial killer’s brain in his hands and reveals it to be in no way tangibly different from yours or mine, or the research that shows the ability of American college students to empathize with others has, in the past 30 years, reduced by 40 per cent.”
The end-note to all this is that, as Adams says, “When Dutton tried the question and story at the beginning on some real psychopaths, not one of them came up with the ‘second funeral’ motive. As one commented, ‘I might be nuts but I’m not stupid’.”
• Tony Deyal was last seen saying there is a joke about a strip of black tarmac refusing to join a strip of red tarmac in a bar. “No way,” the black tarmac said, “he’s a cyclepath.”