This month's issue of Scientific American features an
excerpt from Kevin Dutton's new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2012). In
the excerpt, Dutton, a research psychologist at the Calleva Research Center for Evolution and Human Science at the University of Oxford, explains how many of the personality traits and thinking
styles that characterize psychopaths are also hallmarks of successful surgeons, politicians and military leaders. Sometimes, it's helpful to think like a psychopath. You can assess your own
psychopathic traits by participating in The Psychopath Challenge.
To get a sense of what it's like to interact with a psychopath—and how the psychopathic mind works—read the transcript of an interview with a psychopath below. The transcript also appears in
Dutton's previous book, Split-Second Persuasion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Secure Unit, Summer 1995
"What are you doing tonight?"
"Don't know. Going out probably. Pub. Club, maybe? Why?"
"What are you going to do there?"
"What do you mean, what am I going to do there? Usual stuff, I suppose. Meet up with some mates. Have a few beers..."
"Pull some birds?"
"Yeah, I guess. If I'm lucky."
"And what if you're not?"
"There's always next time."
He nods. Looks down. Looks up again. It's hot. This is a place where the windows don't open. Not because they won't. But because they can't. Don't try to outsmart him, the psychiatrist had said.
You've got no chance. Your best bet is just to play it straight.
"Do you think of yourself as a lucky person, Kev?"
I'm confused. "What do you mean?"
He smiles. "Thought so."
I swallow. "What?"
Silence. For about 10 seconds.
"There's always one, isn't there, Kev? The one you think about as you're eating your hot dog on the way home. The one that got away. The one you 'never got round to' because you were just too
fucking scared. Scared that if you did get round to her, you'd end up doing exactly what you end up doing every other Friday night. Eating shit. Talking shit. Feeling shit."
I think about it. He's right. The bastard. Sort-of. A sea of faces strobes across my brain as I stand in the middle of an empty dance floor somewhere. Anywhere. What am I doing there? Who am I
with? The promise of emptiness yanks me back to the present. How long have I been gone? Five, 10 seconds? I need to respond. And fast.
"So what would you do?" I say. Pathetic.
"The business." No hesitation.
"The business?" I repeat. I'm on the ropes here. "And what if she's not interested?"
"There's always later."
"Later? What do you mean?"
"I think you know what I mean."
Silence. Another 10 seconds. I do know what he means and it's time to wrap things up. I rummage around in my briefcase and power down the laptop. A nurse looks in through the glass.
"Mike," I say, "it's time for me to check out. It's been good talking to you. I hope things go okay for you in here."
Mike gets up. Shakes my hand. Coils his arm gently around my shoulders.
"Look Kev, I can see that I've offended you and I really didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry. Enjoy yourself tonight. And when you see her—her, you'll know who she is—think of me."
He winks. I feel a pulse of affection and am filled with self-loathing. I say: "I'm not offended, Mike. Really. I mean it. I've learned a lot. It's brought it home to me just how different we are.
You and me. How differently we're wired. It's helped. It really has. And I guess the bottom line is this: That's why you're in here and I'm (I point at the window) out there." I shrug, as if to say
it's not my fault. As if, in a parallel universe, things could just as easily have turned out different.
Suddenly, I'm aware that there's a chill in the room. It's physical. Palpable. I can feel it on my skin. Under my skin. All over me. This is something I've read about in books. But have, up until
this moment, never experienced. I stand for five agonizing seconds in a stare 40 below. Ever so slowly, as if some new kind of gravity has been seeping in unnoticed through the vents, I feel the
arm vacate my shoulders.
"Don't let your brain piss you about, Kev. All those exams—sometimes they get in the way. There's only one difference between you and me. Honesty. Bottle. I want it, I go for it. You want it, you
"You're scared, Kev. Scared. You're scared of everything. I can see it in your eyes. Scared of the consequences. Scared of getting caught. Scared of what they'll think. You're scared of what
they'll do to you when they come knocking at your door. You're scared of me.
"I mean, look at you. You're right. You're out there, I'm in here. But who's free, Kev? I mean really free? You or me? Think about that tonight. Where are the real bars, Kev? Out there?" (He points
at the window.) "Or in here?" (He reaches forward and, ever so lightly, touches my left temple)