[Spoiler alert: Please be forewarned that I reveal some key plot developments of the popular novel, Gone Girl]
As I read Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book, Gone Girl, I was not expecting to learn much about positive psychology but instead to learn more about what is often discussed in regard to this book – the mind of the psychopath.
Indeed, that is what I got: an incredible, realistic portrait of a devious, manipulative, and revengeful character. Readers learn a lot about the lack of remorse, dishonesty, impersonal sexuality, and striking charm that are characteristics of a psychopath. Flynn offers the world a textbook example with the character of Amy Dunne.
While my signature strength of curiosity was piqued throughout the book (I devoured the book in 2 days), I began to consider the strengths of this psychopath. What character strengths did Amy use to concoct her plan? How did Amy use these strengths to harm others?
As one considers character strengths that are found in all human beings (see this list here from scientists), it is easy to see those strengths that have gone awry in Amy Dunne.
When an individual uses one’s character strengths to do harm to others, we can view this as “strengths misuse” or the “dark side of character.”
If Amy were to take the VIA Survey which measures strengths of character, she would score high on many traits – creativity, perseverance, judgment, prudence, self-regulation, and curiosity. However, that’s only part of the story, because what the VIA Survey does not measure is how we use these strengths. Do we use our character strengths for the betterment of ourselves and others? In the case of Amy, she uses her strengths to enact revenge and cause her husband and others suffering. For example:
- Amy devises a highly original, ingenious, detailed plan involving extensive research, calculation, and configuration. This exemplifies her misuse of prudence and creativity.
- Rather than reacting impulsively to the witnessing of her husband’s infidelity, Amy patiently creates and manages all the possible details, scenarios, and outcomes of her plot over an entire year! Amy is thus misusing her extensive judgment/critical thinking abilities and misusing her strength of self-regulation.
- She observes every nuance of her husband’s behaviors and idiosyncrasies with interest, collecting information that can be later used against him in her scheme (misuse of curiosity and social intelligence).
- Amy keeps her focus on her main goal (the revenge and public humiliation of her husband) and overcomes all obstacles and challenges along the way as she pursues her goal (misuse of perseverance).
Remember, Amy uses each of these aspects of her character to the disservice or outright harm of others. Hence, they are no longer “strengths.” They are, instead, machinations of her psychopathy. To use the phrase, “misuse of strengths,” is certainly not a positive spin, rather it is the presentation of another angle in looking at how what is best in us can turn dark. Really dark.
Whether a psychopath can permanently change for the better is highly debatable. Any positive comments along these lines would be met by significant skepticism from a wide range of scholars. One way to start would be to twist those strengths that are being misused to align with a different purpose – a purpose that brings benefit to others and does not harm anyone in the process.
Learn more about the VIA Institute on Character.
Take the VIA Survey of strengths (this free, validated survey is now only half as long!)