Psychopaths, Saints or Both?

Bond.  James Bond.  I’ve always been curious about James Bond.  Who is this guy, anyway?  I’ve never been able to figure him out despite seeing many of the movies with my family, who are Bond aficionados.  The latest Bond movie, Skyfall, released in November 2012, is heralded as the finest of all twenty-three Bond movies and is the highest grossing movie in the history of the United Kingdom.




     What kind of person would work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service and be so ruthless, charming, focused, and without emotion?  The answer is simple, according to author and research psychologist Kevin Dutton in his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths; What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach us About Success.  James Bond displays all of the qualities of a psychopath.   


     In popular culture the word “psychopath” is mistakenly used to describe ordinary criminals and sex offenders as well as ax murderers and serial killers.  We also call people “psycho” when they act in crazy or scary ways.  However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition, 2000: fifth edition to be released a week from today) lists psychopathy as a personality disorder, which is defined as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it.”  Approximately 14% of the population has a personality disorder.


     Distinctive psychopathic personality traits include pathological lying, deceit, persuasion, charisma, artificial charm, careful manipulation, a grandiose sense of self-worth, absence of conscience, intimidation, and, at times, violence to control others and satisfy selfish needs.  Psychopaths can dazzle and sweep people off their feet but can also be intensely predatory and take advantage of vulnerability and weakness. 


     Psychopaths have no difficulty turning on people when it benefits them and display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse, or anxiety about any of their actions.  According to Dutton, about 50% of the most serious crimes in the U.S. are committed by psychopaths, and an estimated 20% of the prison population consists of psychopaths. 


     What attracted me to Dutton’s book was the subtitle: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.  Psychopathy, like many personality disorders, is a spectrum.  Not all psychopaths are criminals, serial killers like John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, or “psychos.”  Nor are all psychopaths dishonest, shallow, irresponsible, and exploitative of others.  In fact, many psychopaths, including saints, are highly functioning, displaying characteristics that enable them to be quite successful in their careers, such as intense focus, calm in the face of stress, and the ability to make difficult decisions.


     Research has shown that the brains of psychopaths are wired differently than others.  Psychopaths evidence a deficit in emotional processing, which is determined by the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain.  The result is that many psychopaths are not able to notice emotions in themselves or others.   


     In writing his book, Dutton promoted what he called the Great British Psychopath Survey, the first-ever assessment of the psychopathic tendencies of the United Kingdom workforce.  He used the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale ( to determine which professions have the most and the least psychopathic traits. 


Most psychopathic traits: CEO, Lawyer, Media (radio/TV), Salesperson, Surgeon, Journalist, Police Officer, Clergyperson, Doctor, Accountant


Least psychopathic traits: Care aide, Nurse, Therapist, Craftsperson, Beautician/Stylist, Charity Worker, Teacher, Creative Artist, Chef, Civil Servant                        


Why is it that some psychopathic tendencies can both hinder and facilitate success in our profession?  Let’s look at them through the eyes of clergy. 

·         Compartmentalization: The ability to intensely focus yet remain detached in an emotionally charged pastoral care situation helps us to stay centered.  It can also indicate shocking indifference and an unwillingness/inability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and feel their pain.

·         Low Anxiety: Staying in a difficult conversation without losing our cool can facilitate effective conflict resolution, but it can also result in disaster if we have no conscience and don’t care whom we hurt.  

·         Charisma: Preachers with charisma tend to attract a lot of attention, but charisma can lead to disaster if we use superficial charm to prey on the emotions of others.

·         Persuasion is good if clergy are passionate about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the gospel of themselves.  Persuasion can also be a mask for con artistry.

·         Fearless risk-taking: Clergy can become great leaders by challenging others to go beyond their comfort level in mission and ministry.  However, if we take impulsive risks without a credible plan of action, appropriate benchmarks, and buy-in from the congregation’s lay leaders, disaster may result.

·         Mental Toughness: Clergy who are self-integrated are able to make the tough decisions that no one else wants to tackle.  On the other hand, if we make those decisions solely out of self-interest or ambition, we become ruthless rather than work toward the common good.

·         Mindfulness: Clergy who exercise mindfulness are not distracted and are totally present in the moment, yet they can also neglect the importance of planning for tomorrow and fail to see the entire picture.   

·         Self-confidence: Confidence in clergy inspires confidence in laity unless clergy confidence leads to grandiosity, bullying, or even brutal power that excludes any sense of self-awareness or humility.

·         Non-attachment: Clergy who can separate themselves from their churches keep balance.  However, the tendency of some clergy to always deflect blame to others and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions hinders effective ministry.    

     I am not a psychologist and don’t have the credentials to identify psychopaths or those who have a personality disorder.  Yet in my experience there can be a fine line between function and dysfunction in our clergy and laity as well as in our churches.


     I have seen lay leaders have their way with congregations with no one challenging them because church members are supposed to be nice.  I have seen clergy beguile congregations and take advantage of unsuspecting parishioners, artfully deflecting any criticism from others.  I have also seen congregations bully other congregations and as well as judicatory officials to get their way.     


     Dutton even speculates that the apostle Paul may have been a psychopath.  Before his conversion Paul was a ruthless Jew, intent on murdering as many Christians as he could.  Would Paul’s actions be characterized as genocide today according to the Geneva Convention? 


     Paul had a charisma which made him a great evangelist.  He knew how to speak the language of the people to whom he was witnessing, and his persuasive power occasioned countless conversions.  “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b).


     Paul was a driven man who took enormous risks, was unconcerned for his safety, and was imprisoned a number of times, counting it all but loss for the sake of the gospel.  He could also be calculating and brutally honest with churches and his co-workers.  At the same time Paul would lament his inability to overcome sin.  “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:14-20)


     Dutton writes, “Not all psychopaths are saints.  And not all saints are psychopaths.  But there’s evidence to suggest that deep within the corridors of the brain, psychopathology and sainthood share secret neural office space.”


     Do saints and psychopaths evidence some of the same characteristics, often two sides of the same coin?  Are the best traits of psychopaths exhibited in spiritual leaders: vision, single-mindedness, attentiveness, emotional regulation, immunity to stress, an ability to risk all, and intense focus?  Could it be that the courage to be a prophet, the lone voice in the wilderness standing outside the mainstream, is a gift shared by both saints and psychopaths?   


     Do you share some of the same traits as James Bond, St. Paul, and high achievers in law, medicine, business, and the church?  See for yourself.  In recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, how about taking the Psychopathic Challenge?  





3 thoughts on “Psychopaths, Saints or Both?

  1. Well, it used to be a tongue-in-cheek ‘inside joke’ that we clergy needed to go through a psych evaluation to prove we were crazy enough to serve in pastoral ministry. Maybe the powers that be have known this for a long time. 🙂

  2. Whew! I got a “low” score after taking the “Psychopathic Challenge”…4 out of 33. Great article as always, Laurie…you keep your readers on their toes!

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