Bookshelf: From Psychopaths to Laughter

Book reviews on human predators in the office, the biology of right and wrong, humans and their relationship with jokes and the science of the mind.

By Orli Van Mourik, Jessica Heasley, Brandon Keim, published on September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work

By Paul Babiak and Robert Hare (Regan Books)

Psychopaths are human predators who use charm to disguise a complete lack of conscience, making them dangerous officemates. While psychopaths make up just 1 percent of the general population, they're penetrating the boardroom and now represent 3.5 percent of executives, according to organizational psychologist Babiak and psychopathy expert Hare. Why? Managers often mistake for leadership skills their proclivities for domination and coercion. And increasingly lax business hierarchies allow the psychopathic personality to flourish. These points are piled into the preface, but the book loses course when it veers between stories of corporate subterfuge and an inventory of psychopathic traits. Snakes in Suits also suffers from a lack of practical advice. Babiak and Hare offer up platitudes such as "know thyself" and "lying is hard to detect," in lieu of specific strategies to help readers avoid the snakes' venom.

Only Joking: What's So Funny About Making People Laugh

By Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves (Gotham Books)

A monkey pees on a scientist, then makes the sign for "funny." A sense of humor may not be limited to the homo sapiens in the animal kingdom. But telling jokes? That's upright-walker territory. Culling from history, mythology and psychology, the authors explain perennial mysteries, like why do kids find poop so hilarious? Why do clowns delight some and terrify others? What makes men with a sense of humor so sexy? And why can't women seem to remember punch lines? With these two as comedic guides—Carr hosts Comedy Central's delightfully wicked game show Distraction—this revealing look at our distinctly human relationship with jokes is so full of sharp one-liners and dry-as-bone wit you'll wish all investigations were penned with such mischief.

Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong

By Marc D. Hauser (HarperCollins)

Think you learned right from wrong at Sunday school? Think again, argues Hauser. Moral instinct isn't learned during childhood. It's a part of our biology—and often at odds with the churches, schools and governments we've established for moral guidance. Is euthanasia the same as turning off life support? What is the moral distinction between the intention to kill and succeeding at the act? Hauser navigates the murky and controversial marriage of morality and social structure with provocative, contemporary examples that challenge the reader's own gut reactions, offering a radical take on the nature-versus-nurture debate.

The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing the Way We Live, Work and Love

By Richard Restak (Harmony Books)

It's been more than a century since Italian scientist Angelo Mosso measured a peasant's brain function through a hole in the poor man's head, and researchers now have much more sophisticated means for recording our minds. Yet for all the technical wizardry, scientists have only begun to connect firing patterns with thoughts and feelings. Social neuroscience is at the same stage as the Wright brothers were—though this new field will evolve far more quickly, and with more powerful results. In our lifetimes, Restak asserts, the science of the mind will be applied to everything from politics and marketing to employment and entertainment. It will be used, however imperfectly, to explain our relationships to ourselves and others. Restak avoids both hype and cynicism while providing an enjoyable primer on the future neurosociety.