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BOOK REVIEW: Taming Toxic People – The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home by David Gillespie

| 18 March 2018 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Taming Toxic People – The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home by David Gillespie

Pan Macmillan Australia
July 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Self-Help & Personal Development / Popular Psychology


There is a high possibility that you either know or have encountered a psychopath. These un-empathetic, toxic individuals are reported to make up between 5% and 10% of the population, and as many as 20% of corporate leaders. Not all of these people are criminals or prisoners, many are high-functioning and successful people you encounter at work, school and when you go out. David Gillespie has penned a guide to these individuals and gives readers some tools to help identity and deal with psychopaths in his highly readable volume, Taming Toxic People – The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home.

This is the book I wish I’d had when I encountered my first (and my second and my third…) psychopath. In it I have dissected the evidence on what we know about these callous and parasitic humans. But, even more importantly, I have used that evidence to create a plan for dealing with them.

Gillespie has previously written best-selling books about sugar, fat, diets, and children’s schools. He is a former corporate lawyer who managed to lose a lot of weight following his own nutritional advice. He is able to deconstruct quite complex and challenging topics into simple and engaging prose. This simplification of topics works in some instances more than others, but it is important to remember with this current work that he is neither a psychologist, academic, nor a doctor. This book is based on the results of his own meticulous research and personal encounters with people he deems to be psychopathic.

The word psychopath has almost as many different meanings as there are people writing about the person it describes. If you are a criminologist it means people who are just as likely to chop off your hand as shake it (and who feel roughly the same way about both options as long as there is a benefit to them). If you are a psychiatrist the word is meaningless because it isn’t defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the book of acceptable psychiatric diagnosis. If you are a human resources manager it means micromanagers and workplace bullies. If you are a psychologist it probably means someone who is a little bit worse than a sociopath, who in turn is a little bit worse than a narcissist. (And to make matters worse, the definitions of both of those terms are more than a little fluffy themselves.) To everybody else it means any, or all, of those things, but it is definitely not a compliment. Largely thanks to Hollywood, to most of us now a psychopath is a violent serial killer. And while some of them probably are, there is a much more dangerous version that we are more likely to encounter every day.

As Gillespie notes, the DSM currently does not recognise psychopathy as its own distinct disorder. These emotionally manipulative and remorseless traits come under the umbrella term of antisocial personality disorder. There is presently a checklist that was developed by Robert D. Hare to diagnose psychopaths and Gillespie includes this here among his commentary. Gillespie also cites different pieces of research but it seems that the majority of the studies to date have involved psychopaths that were male prisoners. This indicates that more research in this field is required for better understanding and diagnosis.

Psychopaths are what we look like without empathy, morals and impulse control.

This book focuses primarily on the biological factors that contribute to psychopathy. Gillespie describes how these toxic individuals have differences in the brain’s amygdala function when compared to empaths or regular people. They also lack spindle cells which connect the amygdala to the anterior prefrontal cortex- just like patients with frontotemporal dementia. It is interesting to read how these differences in brain structures can contribute to the development of psychopathic traits.

It’s also important to realise that many psychological phenomena are described as a result of both nature (i.e. our biology and DNA) and nurture (the environment you live and grow up in and how it contributes to your propensity to develop something). One may inherit a genetic predisposition but that does not necessarily mean that they will inherit a particular disorder for certain. It seems that more research also needs to be done to see how the environment contributes to creating psychopaths (something Gillespie only briefly touches on when he talks about the rise of psychopathy in individualist rather than collectivist societies).

This book does get a little repetitive at times. A recurring theme is that a psychopath is a person who possesses a distinct lack of empathy. Gillespie goes over the psychopaths’ traits and motivations multiple times. This is perhaps best summed up by the following:

To a psychopath, narcissistic behaviour is a means to an end: obedience.
In the psychopath’s world, other people are one of three types: sheep to be fed and farmed until they are no longer useful; supporters who need to be flattered and cultivated until they provide something the psychopath needs; and enemies, people who must be destroyed if they get between the psychopath and their goal.

Like Gillespie’s other works, this book isn’t without some controversy. The most shocking part of this volume is where Gillespie describes some real-life psychopaths. Some of these examples are unsurprising to readers, like Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. But religious readers will be shocked when they read Gillespie’s thoughts on Saint Teresa of Calcutta, AKA Mother Teresa, and Jesus. They might find that this section undermines an otherwise engaging and informative book.

Taming Toxic People is a highly digestible and informal look at psychopathy and the taming of every day, toxic individuals. It offers some interesting food for thought at times while in other moments it highlights a greater need for more research in this field. This topic is ultimately an important one because psychopaths can leave a tidal wave of destruction to the people, organisations and countries they encounter. It’s ultimately quite scary and sobering stuff.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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