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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

“Hey,” he says insistently. “You don't get it, do you, boy?” He looks at me. “I said I wouldn't kill you. And I didn't, right?”

And it hits me that Larry may not have been bluffing. The curtain comes down on the football game. Danny zaps it off. He leans back in his chair.

“So a book, eh?” he says.

“Yes,” I say. “I'm interested in the way you guys solve problems.”

Danny eyes me quizzically. “What kind of problems?” he asks.

“Everyday problems,” I say, and I tell him about some friends of mine who were trying to sell their house.

Ruthless People

How to get rid of an unwanted tenant? That was the question for Don and his wife, Fran, whose elderly mother, Flo, had just moved in with them. Flo had lived in her previous house for 47 years, and now that she no longer needed it, Don and Fran had put it on the market. Being in an up-and-coming area of London, the house had drawn quite a bit of interest. But there was also a problem. The tenant. Who wasn't exactly ecstatic at the prospect of hitting the road.

Don and Fran had already lost out on one potential sale because he couldn't, or wouldn't, pack his bags. But how to get him out?

“I'm presuming we're not talking violence here,” inquires Danny. “Right?”

“Right,” I say. “We wouldn't want to end up inside now, would we?”

Danny gives me the finger. But the very fact that he asks such a question at all debunks the myth that violence, for psychopaths, is the only club in the bag.

“How about this, then?” rumbles Jamie. “With the old girl up at her in-laws, chances are the geezer's going to be alone in the house, yeah? So you pose as some bloke from the council, turn up at the door and ask to speak to the owner. He answers and tells you the old dear ain't in. Okay, you say. Not a problem. But have you got a forwarding contact number for her, cuz you need to speak to her urgently?

“By this stage he's getting kind of curious. What's up? he asks, a bit wary, like. Actually, you say, quite a lot. You've just been out front and taken a routine asbestos reading. And guess what? The level's so high it makes Chernobyl look like a health spa. The owner of the property needs to be contacted immediately. A structural survey has to be carried out. And anyone currently living at the address needs to vacate the premises until the council can give the all clear.

“That should do the trick. With a bit of luck, before you can say ‘slow, tortuous death from lung cancer,’ the wanker will be straight out the door.”

Jamie's elegant, if rather unorthodox, solution to Don and Fran's stay-at-home tenant conundrum certainly had me beat. The idea of getting the guy out so sharpish as to render him homeless and on the streets just simply hadn't occurred to me. And yet, as Jamie quite rightly pointed out, there are times in life when it's a case of the “least worst option.” Interestingly, he argues that it's actually the right thing to do.

“Why not turf the bastard out?” he asks. “I mean, think about it. You talk about ‘doing the right thing.’ But what's worse, from a moral perspective? Beating someone up who deserves it? Or beating yourself up who doesn't? If you're a boxer, you do everything in your power to put the other guy away as soon as possible, right? So why are people prepared to tolerate ruthlessness in sport but not in everyday life? What's the difference?”

Winning Smiles

Jamie's solution to Don and Fran's tenant problem carries undertones of ruthlessness. Yet as Danny's initial qualification of the dilemma quite clearly demonstrates—“I'm presuming we're not talking violence here, right?”—such ruthlessness need not be conspicuous. The dagger of hard-nosed self-interest may be concealed, rather deftly, under a benevolent cloak of opaque, obfuscatory charm.

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