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The Benefits of Psychopathy for The Military and Heroism

Angel is currently a first-year student at university studying psychology.

American soldier Ronald Spiers risked his life to give orders to a company stranded on the opposite side of a German-occupied town by running through it, and past the German lines during WWII. This lack of fear saved the lives of his platoon and helped them take over the town. Although Spiers may not have been a psychopath, he demonstrated psychopathic fearlessness when running into danger. This is just one example of how a lack of fear and empathy could be useful for psychopaths on the battlefield when experiencing the horrors of combat.

A fictional favourite among many is the charming super-spy, James Bond. Although he is a fictional character, Jonason (as cited in Dutton, 2012) points out that he is a perfect example of a psychopath who works as an agent for the government. Looking at the PCL-R, he fits into many categories: superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, need for stimulation, cunning, lack of remorse and sexual promiscuity. In the real world, a spy with the 007 characteristics would be successful in such an environment. Despite this, Bond is not necessarily a true reflection of the real world; a lack of empathy and criminal versatility leads us to question whether such an ally would remain loyal to a national cause, and instead choose to spiral towards their own selfish needs. This leads into research about differences in psychopathic levels and whether this has an affect on whether a psychopath is a successful soldier or not.

In a more recent (and real) example, decorated soldier Andy Mcnab claims to have psychopathic traits. To put this to the test, Mcnab and Kevin Dutton (Dutton, 2012) compared electrical activity in their brains. Both were shown grotesque images whilst being monitored by an EEG. Dutton's readings were a reflection of how 'normal' people would react, with an increased cardiac and emotional response; in contrast, Mcnab's ratings presented very little change. These results indicate that psychopaths are less reactive to disturbing images; implying that they are naturally built to deal with grotesque environments better than a typical individual. Mcnab declares that he has many psychopathic behaviours and speculates that he may be one. In his book 'The Good Psychopath's Guide to Success' (2014) he explains that such behaviours have helped him and can help others in achieving their goals.

Mcnab and Dutton (2014) formulated a dial diagram to show how the right combination at the optimum level of traits can create a functioning psychopath (see figure 1). They use an example of when Mcnab's patrol in Iraq were spotted by a boy. They had the choice of killing him to save themselves, or allow the boy to live who would then reveal them to a nearby group of Iraqi gunners. They decided to let the boy live and got caught as a result. He proposes that in that situation a psychopath would need high levels of fearlessness, self-confidence, focus, coolness under pressure, mental toughness and empathy. They would need lower levels of ruthlessness and impulsivity.

Figure 1. Dutton and Mcnab (2014)

Figure 1. Dutton and Mcnab (2014)

Although this is based on McNab's subjective experience, it demonstrates how individual differences can affect the functionality of a psychopath. The context of the situation and which characteristics are at play may act as the threshold between a successful and unsuccessful soldier.

The concept of heroic psychopaths leads us to question whether it is possible for a psychopath to be moral, or even more moral, than the rest of the human population. Can psychopaths be heroes... saints even? Mahmut (as cited in Dutton, 2012) found that in certain conditions, psychopaths can be more altruistic. In their study, they tested volunteers for psychopathy and sorted them into high or low level groups. Confederates asked the unaware participants for help in varying degrees. The first activity involved a confederate asking participants for directions. The second was less explicit, a woman drops her papers in front of the participant, and the third activity involved a 'researcher' with a broken arm who struggled to complete simple tasks such as opening a water bottle. For the first part, the non-psychopaths were more helpful and provided directions. In the second part, psychopaths and non-psychopaths were equally helpful towards the woman who had dropped her papers. What was most surprising, was the final section in which psychopaths were more helpful than the 'normal' participants.

If psychopaths can in fact be more helpful in certain situations, perhaps they can also be more moral. Bloom (2016) argues that empathy can make people crueller. He goes as far as rejecting empathy altogether and claims humans can actually be kinder through logical thinking; according to his argument, psychopaths have a greater potential to be kind as they lack empathy. He gives the example of the trolley problem, where individuals are offered an ultimatum, kill one person to save five, or let the five die. Mathematically, it seems logical to kill one person to save five. But when given a more personal dilemma, for instance, to save the five people you would have to physically push someone in front of a train, people would find it more difficult to offer an answer. Psychopaths, however, would have no difficulty in deciding that one should die to save five because emotions aren't calculated, just the numbers.

Research shows that psychopaths are ruthless, manipulative and emotionless machines, but does this mean that they are an evil of American Psycho proportions? These characteristics are often associated with negativity and fear yet they are also commonly found in heroes depicted by the media such as James Bond, but also in real life such as Andy Mcnab. Psychopathic characteristics associated with 'evil' and 'heroism' overlap. There is only a thin threshold between the two, take for instance the Venn diagram of spiritual and psychopathic traits (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Dutton (2012) the relationship between psychopathic and spiritual traits

Figure 2. Dutton (2012) the relationship between psychopathic and spiritual traits

At what point does a psychopath become a hero? What is the threshold between a criminal and a saint? One can never really know for sure, but small individual differences are key to becoming a hero or villain. Admittedly, it's not as clear-cut as 'good' and 'bad', black and white; perhaps, just like everyone else, psychopaths lie in the grey area in between.


Bloom, P. (2016) Against Empathy. Published New York, HarperCollins publishers.

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Dutton, K.. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths: lessons in life from Saints, spies and serial killers. Published London, William Heinemann.

Dutton, K. , McNab, A. (2014) The Good Psychopaths Guide to Success. Published online, available at to_Success.html?id=FEmG AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp read button&redir esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=f

For more information on psychopaths see this article here.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Angel Harper


James W Siddall from Cleveland on June 15, 2020:

Interesting article. Keep up the creative writing! Jim

Angel Harper (author) on June 15, 2020:


Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate hearing about your opinion and experiences, especially as this is something I could never understand first hand. It is fascinating to learn about the different types of people you encountered I can imagine you have a lot of interesting stories to tell.

Thanks again and I wish you the best.

Kyler J Falk from California on June 15, 2020:

A very interesting article, and on a topic widely discussed between those of us who have served in the military. Often times, and usually only when around my brothers, I discussed the differences between all of us. Most specifically, when it came to ending the life of an enemy, I wanted to know why it was some of us could stop reliving it, others would relive it over and over again, and some would crave for more.

So, being the emotionless inquisitor I am, I would discuss this with every one of my brothers. The ones who were negatively haunted by their memories, often waking up in their rack screaming and sleepwalking, would do their best to deflect the topic. To the ones who weren't bothered or seemingly not dwelling in the slightest, the most common response was that it was, "necessary," or, "just a job."

It was those of our brothers who savored the experience of war, and all it had to offer, that had the most varying and interesting answers. For some it was the power that ending a life brought that they loved, as if taking a life was an injection of God straight to the veins with the same effect as a hefty dose of heroin and epinephrine at the same time. Then there were those who were deathly loyal to their leaders, willing to lay it all on the line regardless of what that order may be; I accredited this to the constant Sunday sermons that always told us how much God loved Marines and the US, and the religious militancy of the US military is a big part of the training (they 'force' you to pick a religious service by threat of physical punishment if you don't upon enlistment). Finally, the scariest and strangest of them all, these were the few who seemed to be like robots that could know nothing more than the fight.

Now I say they were like robots but that isn't wholly true. They had their interests, like women or having a drink every now and again, but these guys rarely went out of their way to do anything more than discuss, read about, and immerse in the knowledge of war at every turn. They aren't the leadership type, intelligent, high-energy and rah rah, but like a sieve that would separate war from any other experience they could take part in. They dissociated from anything you brought them, and only wanted to discuss war.

A very interesting article, indeed, and one that has made me think deeply about topics I had long left behind in favor of not dwelling. If it came down to my opinion, which is relatively valueless, for a soldier these traits are not benefits, they are a necessity that every warrior gets instilled with during basic training and solidifies in the heat of combat; or conversely the warrior loses them in pursuit of higher knowledge and a better paying/safer MOS.

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