The Psychopath Test

psychopath testI picked up The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson on pure impulse. I’m a little fascinated by psychopaths (for what reason I couldn’t possibly say — maybe a train-wreck sort of thing), and while I haven’t seen or read Men Who Stare at Goats, I’ve at least heard of it. Good enough, right? I read the book in a single day, and I had mixed reactions. It’s funny — Ronson keeps the jokes coming, and the amazed, goggle-eyed stance — but it left me a little uncomfortable about his journalism. Psychopathy, and the entire mental health industry Ronson calls into question, is a huge and terrifying subject. Doing pratfalls around it is only going to do just so much good, or contribute just so much insight.

The book begins with a fairly long story that’s related to psychopaths only by the thinnest of threads: Ronson is investigating an elaborate prank, a beautiful handmade book that has been sent to neuroscientists and other academics all over the world and appears to be in code. Ronson eventually discovers that there is no code to be cracked: the book is the work of a person who is obsessive and harmlessly mentally ill — a discovery which prompts him to find out how mental illness, and particularly psychopathy, might be the small lever that moves our society in large ways.

From here, the book moves quickly from one notion to the next. Ronson immediately stumbles across Bob Hare’s Psychopathy Test, a supposedly definitive 20-point checklist for the diagnosis of psychopaths. This bit is as much fun for the reader as it is for Ronson: the temptation is to measure it against friends, family, politicians, that guy in the DMV. But in the wrong hands, it’s a powerful weapon, placing people in locked facilities potentially forever, since there is no known cure for psychopathy. (Strenuous attempts during the 1960s and ’70s to cure psychopaths with therapy resulted in worse recidivism rates; these therapy sessions, by teaching the psychopaths how to fake empathy, essentially put them through finishing school.) Ronson’s newly developed skepticism about Hare’s test leads him to Scientology and an acquaintance with “Tony,” a young man who claims he faked his way into Broadmoor by imitating the Dennis Hopper scenes from Blue Velvet. But “Tony” seems like a real psychopath to Ronson. How do you tell?

Ronson meets with several other possible psychopaths, trying to diagnose them himself with Hare’s test: a business magnate who derives pleasure from shutting down factories and firing people; a death squad leader in prison; a conspiracy theorist who eventually claimed he was the messiah. Eventually, Ronson comes face to face with the primary editor of the DSM-IV (coming up on its fifth edition now), Robert Spitzer. This is the man under whose influence we have come to believe that checklists such as Bob Hare’s are all we need for diagnosis of hundreds of pages of disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder (temper tantrums) and relational disorder (unhappy with a relative.) Ronson asks Spitzer whether he thinks the DSM has created a world in which normal behavior and psychiatric diagnoses — with the help of big, hungry pharmaceutical companies — have become perilously blurred. Spitzer thinks. “I don’t know,” he says. It ought to be a punchline, but it leaves me kind of queasy.

In the end, Ronson raises a few interesting questions about an enormous subject, but his analysis is shallow, and he does back-flips over the surface when I’d like him to dig in his heels and get serious. He makes faces for comedic effect and points to peculiar connections between things that turn out not really to be connected at all, or not importantly connected, like two cans with string. This book was fun to read, but to what purpose? If there is a larger proportion of psychopaths at the corporate supervisory level than in the general population, what does this mean and what shall we do? Every psychopath Ronson spoke about or interviewed was a man; is this condition gendered? If we are massively overdiagnosing a condition that doesn’t exist (childhood bipolar), then how did this happen and what is the connection to psychopathy? This was a fun, fast read — but it could have been a podcast. I’d have liked more.

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17 Responses to The Psychopath Test

  1. Laurie C says:

    It sounds like he went too far towards popularizing the science/psychology. It does seem as though he should have taken the subject of psychopathy more seriously, especially as it relates to criminal behavior.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, the psychopaths are bound to get sensationalized, I think; they are actually fairly sensational. It was the lack of cohesion to the whole thing, and the introduction of whole enormous topics (like the power of the DSM-IV and big pharma) that never got discussed or resolved that bothered me. Oh! And the part about “There are more psychopaths in corporate supervisory positions than in the general population and…. um, that’s all.”

  2. I am fascinated by the whole psychopath classification as well. Have you read American Psycho? The fictional king of all psychos.

    • Jenny says:

      I have not! It has never appealed. Have you read it? Should I?

      • Jenny says:

        I haven’t read it because I’m too frightened of it! Doesn’t the main character kill someone with a chainsaw or something? And eat them maybe? Am I exaggerating this very vague memory?

      • Jenny says:

        Well, that doesn’t necessarily trouble me if it’s only part of a compelling novel. I did read Silence of the Lambs, after all.

  3. Teresa says:

    Well, this is weird. I semi-randomly picked up a copy of this at the library a couple of weeks ago. (I say semi-randomly because a friend did recommend it.) It sounds like about what I expected and worthwhile enough for a quick read. Ronson did do a This American Life podcast about his encounter with Tony. It was really good!

    • Jenny says:

      You know, T, it really was worthwhile for the amount of time I spent on it — entertaining and amusing. If I want more on psychopaths (which, don’t we all) I might read either Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door or Paul Babiak’s Snakes In Suits (about psychopaths in the corporate world, an idea I find compelling.)

      • Teresa says:

        The same friend who recommended this also recommended The Sociopath Next Door, so take that for whatever it’s worth. Alas, someone has put on hold on the copy of this that I have from the library, so I won’t be able to renew it and doubt I’ll get it read before it’s due. Maybe I’ll get the Sociopath book as an alternative.

  4. Leah says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while — the cover is gorgeous, and the premise sounds fascinating. I’m a little bit hesitant after your review, though. I think, like you, I’d want more depth and fewer jokes. Thanks for the review! Very enlightening :)

    • Jenny says:

      You know, it was a fun, quick read, so I wouldn’t want to dissuade you. I don’t think he said anything bad or demonstrably false. It was just pretty shallow. It’s probably a good launching spot, so there’s that.

  5. gaskella says:

    Ronson is very entertaining on the radio – I was listening to him last night on a programme (from his latest book I think ‘Lost at Sea’) about ‘confirmation bias’ – in its simplest sense can be a serendipity which gets out of hand but can add up to something much more serious, which was fascinating, but very light-hearted. I’ve not read his books, but would like to.

    • Jenny says:

      I bet he would be great on the radio! Some of his writing reminded me of Roald Dahl (Dahl’s adult stuff, I mean.)

  6. cbjames says:

    Judging from your review, sounds like this one smacks of pop-science and should be avoided if you’re seriously interested in this topic. (Good review, by the way.) As a teacher, I do the checklists for various behavoiral issues on a regular basis. If the author suggests that these are all that is needed to diagnose anything, he’s simply flat out wrong. They are part of a process, but by no means the be all-end all tool.

    As for books about pyschopathy, Dave Cullem’s book Columbine is the best one I know of. His account of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters, is as chilling as it is fascinating. After reading it, you’ll have a very solid understaind of pyschopathy and how difficult it is to deal with.

    Don’t you think this whole trend of “lots of psychopathic people as corporate leaders” is going to be something we’re embarrassed to admit we believed 20 years from now?

    • Jenny says:

      I think what Ronson is suggesting is that the DSM tries to remove as much human judgment from the process as possible and make it into science. This, in turn, makes it easier for pharma to enter the picture. These are sweeping generalizations, yes, but that was actually my complaint!

      You know, though, the argument about psychopaths as corporate leaders is not that there are LOTS of them, just that there are more of them than in the general population. (Like, 4% rather than 1%.) The idea is that this would be a strong social mover. Even if it’s true, which it may be, you’re probably right that it’s a scapegoat rather than a real reason for the way capitalism functions. I think capitalism works the way it works because of human nature, not psychopathy. I just think it’s intriguing that apparently corporate leadership is kind of a welcoming environment for high-functioning psychopaths.

  7. Does anyone remember the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack? He developed a checklist test for alien abduction. Or did the checklist belong to someone else? The 1990s were so long ago. It turned out that, following the checklist, a surprisingly high number of people had been abducted by aliens.

    • Jenny says:

      Checklists are like this: easy to check off. Look at the Bob Hare test and see how many of your friends, neighbors, and family members are budding psychopaths (wait, do they bud?) I wonder if there is any overlap in the alien-abduction department. And was this checklist developed in the X-Files era? It’s all linked. (Now I sound like a conspiracy theorist. Where’s that in the DSM?

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