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December 2013 Issue
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Is your tramping buddy a psychopath

Some of your favourite backcountry companions could well have psychopathic tendencies – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Photo: Mark Banham

Most people know that great adventurers are often a little bit nuts, but the latest psychological thinking says that psychopaths might be much more common among high-achieving outdoors people than you think

Good tramping companions are hard to find. They need to be motivated, adventurous and cool under pressure; anyone who chooses to stay home or flips out when things get a bit tricky clearly isn’t a goer. Plus they’ve got to have a bit of a personality; spending days in a hut with someone whose conversational territory doesn’t extend beyond real estate speculation is just depressing.

And that’s just for a weekend away. If you want to tackle some really audacious goals, then you’ll need to look even harder.

If you’re planning to get into big-league stuff; to push on into the high-stakes and thin air of cutting edge adventure, then you’ll need someone impulsive enough to drop everything and go when the conditions are right, and ruthless enough to elbow competing teams out of the way for sponsorship dollars.

But before you set off into the wilderness with that person, it might interest you to know that psychologists like Kevin Dutton consider those personality traits: confidence, risk-tolerance, charisma, focus, impulsiveness and ruthlessness, to be the traits of a psychopathic personality. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Dutton, who’s the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, says despite popular belief, psychopaths are not necessarily violent. He says psychopathic personality traits are a bit like the dials and sliders on a music studio mixing desk. “Push them all right to the top and you get a soundtrack that’s of no use to anyone”, he says.  But ease back on a few of them and you get some of the world’s highest achievers, “individuals running not from the police, but for office”.

He says psychopaths have had a pretty bad rap, ever since the very inception of the idea, when in 1801 the French physician Philippe Pinel scribbled the phrase ‘manie sans delire’ (madness without delusion) in his notebook after watching a man calmly kick a dog to death in front of him. Pinel didn’t have the technology to understand what was going on in that guy’s head, but regardless, in three words he described it pretty accurately.

Psychopathy (as opposed to psychosis which is losing contact with reality; hearing voices, seeing visions and stuff) is a condition where you’re still in touch with the world, you just don’t really care about it quite as much as everyone else.

That slight difference in circuitry can show up as everything from apparent fearlessness, to a tendency to blink less often. But according to Dutton, the ‘killer’ difference between psychopaths and the rest of us is their lack of empathy.

However, he argues it’s not quite as simple as that. Psychopaths do have empathy; they just think it rather than feel it.

Take these two scenarios for example:

* There’s a railway carriage out of control with five people on board, it’s heading towards a chasm. You can save the people by flicking a switch to divert the train onto a different line. But there’s a catch – there’s maintenance being done on that line and if you divert the carriage onto it, you’ll kill the person doing the maintenance. Do you flick the switch?

Most people say yes. It’s unfortunate about the maintenance guy, but losing one person is better than losing five.

Now consider this slight variation on the scene:

* Again you have a railway carriage out of control with five people on board, again heading towards a chasm. But this time you’re standing on a footbridge over the railway line with a fat man next to you. If you push him off in front of the train, his considerable bulk will stop the carriage and you’ll save the five people, but of course you’ll kill the fat guy. Do you give him a shove?

About ninety per cent of people say that, in truth, they probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Although the situation on the surface is just the same – kill one, save five – physically pushing the guy off the bridge is just a bit too personal.

The reason according to Dutton is how we think about the two situations. When normal people consider the second scenario, our amygdala and related brain areas responsible for emotion “light up like a pinball machine”, whereas for psychopaths, it remains dark.

Basically, for psychopaths there’s no difference between the two scenarios; they’ll roll up their sleeves and push hard into someone’s sweaty back fat and listen to the dull squelch as he hits the tracks as easily as we’d flick a switch.

That’s earned them a reputation as being cold blooded killers, but in the case of non-lethal, “high-functioning psychopaths” it actually makes them quite desirable folk to have around. History has repeatedly shown that having people who are somewhat divorced from their emotions on an expedition can be a very good thing.

Take for instance Sir Ernest Shackleton’s decision to risk his men’s lives sailing to South Georgia Island, then to march them across the island’s glaciated interior (and that was after the ‘manie sans delire’ incident where he ordered the sled dogs to be killed and eaten!). What about Simon Yates’ decision to cut the rope connecting him to Joe Simpson – a decision that violated the supposedly ‘sacred’ bond of the rope but ultimately saved both their lives (and gave Simpson a great story!); and of course Captain James Cook’s decision to take the Hawaiian king hostage to recover a stolen longboat which although not lifesaving, was certainly psychopathic.

What we now know is that psychopathy is not so much an island of mental illness, but rather a peninsula of personality. At its most remote storm-swept coastlines you’ll find Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, but come back towards the mainland of normality and you find people who’ve tackled the highest peaks, paddled the wildest rivers and sailed the angriest oceans.

So although sharing a tent with a full-blown psychopath might not be desirable, having one or two low grade ones in your team – perhaps even leading it – can be a good thing. Just don’t forget to pack the Chianti and fava beans.