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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

Wisdom from Psychopaths?

A scientist enters a high-security psychiatric hospital to extract tips and advice from a crowd without a conscience

We emerge from the mazy, medicinal bowels of the hospital to the right of a large, open-air enclosure, topped off with some distinctly uncooperative razor wire. “Er … I am going to be all right, aren't I?” I squeak.

My guide grins. “You'll be fine,” he says. “Actually trouble on the DSPD wards is relatively rare. Psychopathic violence is predominantly instrumental, a direct means to a specific end. Which means, in an environment like this, that it's largely preventable. And in the event that something does kick off, easily contained.

“Besides,” he adds, “it's a bit late to turn back now, isn't it?”

Getting to Know the Locals

We enter one of Broadmoor's ultrasequestered DSPD wards. My first impression is of an extremely well appointed student residence hall. All blond, clean-shaven wood. Voluminous, freshly squeezed light. There's even a pool table, I notice. A man named Danny shoots me a glance from behind his Nintendo Wii. Chelsea are 2–0 up against Manchester United. “We are the evil elite,” Danny says. “Don't glamorize us. But at the same time, don't go the other way and start dehumanizing us, either.”

Larry, a gray, bewhiskered, roly-poly kind of guy, takes a shine to me. Dressed in a Fair Isle sweater and beige, elasticized slacks, he looks like everyone's favorite uncle. “You know,” he says, as he shakes my hand, “they say I'm one of the most dangerous men in Broadmoor. Can you believe that? But I promise you, I won't kill you. Here, let me show you around.”

Larry escorts me to the far end of the ward, where we stop to take a peek inside his room. It looks like a typical single-occupancy hospital room, though with a few more creature comforts such as a computer, desk space, and a raft of books and papers on the bed. Next is the garden: a sunken, gray-bricked patio affair, about the size of a tennis court, interspersed with benches and conifers. We then drop in on Jamie.

“This guy's from Cambridge University,” announces Larry, “and he's in the middle of writing a book on us.”

Jamie stands up and heads us off at the door. A monster of a man at around 6′2″, with char-grilled stubble and a piercing cobalt stare, he has the brooding, subsatanic presence of the lone, ultraviolent killer. The lumberjack shirt and shaven, wrecking-ball head don't exactly help matters.

“So what's this book about, then?” he growls, in a gangsterish Cockney whisper, arms folded in front of him, left fist jammed under his chin. “Same old bollocks, I suppose? Lock 'em up and throw away the key? You know, you've got no idea how vindictive that can sound at times. And, might I add, downright hurtful. Has he, Larry?”

Larry guffaws theatrically and clasps his hands to his heart in a Shakespearean display of angst. Jamie, meanwhile, dabs at imaginary tears.

“I happen to think that you guys have got something to teach us,” I say. “A certain personality style that the rest of us can learn from. In moderation, of course. That's important. Like the way, just now, you shrugged off what people might think of you. In everyday life, there's a level on which that's actually quite healthy.”

Jamie seems quite amused by the idea that I might be soliciting his advice. “Are you saying that me and Larry here have just got too much of a good thing?”

Back at other end of the ward, Danny has just been named Man of the Match. “I see he hasn't killed you, then,” he says casually. “You going soft in your old age, Larry?”

I laugh. More than a little nervously, I realize. But Larry is deadly serious.

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