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Book Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Kylie Sturgess

May 9, 2011

Ronson often investigates, usually with a gleeful sense of adrenalin-addiction, topics involving the fringes of mainstream society that spook him out.

Book Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

Having collected Jon Ronson’s works for some time (starting with Them: Adventures with Extremists and continuing with The Men Who Stared at Goats and What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness), I am not surprised in the slightest at his choice of subject matter for his most recent book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry.

Ronson often investigates, usually with a gleeful sense of adrenalin-addiction, topics involving the fringes of mainstream society that spook him out. However, some of the findings he makes during his investigation into the term psychopath and Robert D. Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) kept me intrigued throughout Psychopath Test beyond the usual bemusing accounts of his passionate obsession with whatever topic he’s reporting upon at the time of writing.

As I suspect might be true of most people, much of my previous knowledge of psychopaths comes from horror novels, films, documentaries about serial killers, and news reports. The word is even used in the opening voiceover of the popular television show Castle: “There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better.”

On the basis of such pop-culture accounts, I developed the opinion that psychopaths are essentially potential or actual murderers. They have no interest in other human beings apart from what use they can be in fulfilling entirely selfish goals (the character Valerie in the House episode “Remorse” seduces and poisons her coworker); they might have had early childhood experiences that led them to be psychopaths (from Harris’s Hannibal Lecter to Stuart MacBride’s Halfhead). The term could even be applied to companies who “kill off” the competition and stifle progress in exchange for profit (Achbar and Abbott’s 2003 documentary The Corporation). In addition, it seems people can blithely throw around the term psycho to assuage their own prejudices against someone for acting in a way they don’t like; a popular insult to easily label another’s opinion as crazy.

Ronson essentially kills off some of these misconceptions via what begins as a rather mad-seeming prank by a very creative fan of the work of Douglas Hofstater: “Suddenly, madness was everywhere and I was determined to learn about the impact it has on the way society evolves. I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?—and in addition, who makes such a judgement and how?”

The book’s back cover blurb informs potential readers that “The Psychopath Test is a deeply honest book” —which to me distinguishes it in no way from every other book or article Ronson has written. Whether he’s pondering the onset of gout by attempting to reconstruct James Bond’s Aston Martin-driven gastronomic journey in Goldfinger or dithering merrily among the specially designed boxes of Stanley Kubrick, Ronson never holds back when it comes to being frank about his emotional states.

This is probably why I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that upon getting a hold of a copy of the DSM-IV-TR (an 886-page manual—not “textbook,” as Ronson puts it—published by the American Psychiatric Association that lists every known mental disorder), Ronson promptly starts investigating the descriptions of various disorders and “instantly diagnosed [himself] with twelve different ones.” This reminded me of a relative who also derived a similar enjoyment from perusing an ancient medical dictionary—with conditions ranging from tinea to Black Death—and used it to explain his rapidly occurring conditions (he is probably now joining the many legions of online “cyberchondriacs”).

Ronson’s regular meetings with the actual Psychopathy Checklist-Revised creator, Robert Hare, are among the most intriguing parts of the book, as they dovetail with the history of diagnosing psychopathy, which has led to the incarceration of some of Ronson’s interviewees. His treatment of the mismanagement and politics behind diagnosis of psychopathy in individuals is somewhat balanced by a wider investigation into how possible psychopaths manage in wider society. Ronson’s analysis of the eventual collapse of the Sunbeam factory as the combination of the desires of a likely psychopathic need to satiate ambition and the greed of share-holders dilutes the notion that it’s easy to blame one person for any potential disaster that might result from such pathological tendencies.

Ronson isn’t an unknown figure in skeptical circles, having appeared at TAM London in 2008. His friendly interaction with scientologists (which included a tour) while researching psychopaths might therefore raise some eyebrows. As a part of wider research into popular criticism of psychiatry, Ronson cites some of scientology’s popular mythologies (such as BF Skinner’s treatment of his children) along with a number of other prejudices. However, Ronson’s discussion is not without a quirky (and ill-timed) joke about the reverence scientologists have for L. Ron Hubbard.

Talking to scientologists about what a diagnosis of psychopathy might mean leads Ronson to visit an incarcerated man, known only as “Tony,” who has spent much of his youth committed as a psychopath. This is despite Tony’s claims that his diagnosis was built upon his practice of acting out popular-culture portrayals of the condition rather than a genuine reflection of his mental state. Ronson raises the question: When someone is diagnosed as a psychopath, what happens to him once he’s been recorded within the criminal justice system—and how does he get out if he is not one? “I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family,” Ronson ponders. After all, poor people are “crazy,” but rich people are merely “eccentric.”

Ronson’s accounts of various aspects of his investigations into mass murderers, conspiracy theorists, and even fellow journalists and reality TV producers is framed by the ongoing saga of a “cryptically puzzling book” that a neurologist received in the mail. I found myself wondering about the place for creativity and imagination, which easily leads to great novels and films being made about madness yet does not condemn their creators as mad. The power of labels and diagnosis via testing must have its limitations, as Ronson demonstrates with a chapter on false epidemics in America, such as the diagnosis of bipolar disorder among children, which is apparently of great concern to many of the neurologists and child psychiatrists that he interviews.

In another interview, Hare discussed the entrapment of people who are then blamed for horrific murders on the basis of manipulative lures and a mere Certificate of Attendance for a psychopath identification workshop. “I think [Hare] saw his checklist as pure—innocent as only science can be—but the humans who administered it as masses of weird prejudices and crazy predispositions.” Hardly a vote of confidence for a system, despite my prejudice against scientology and what its members claim about psychiatry.

It also must be very exhausting to be an investigator such as Jon Ronson, whether or not his kind of obsession is something that can be diagnosed as a particular condition. The number of aspects he tries to cover certainly makes for a wide-ranging, if at times slightly jarring, read. Even though Ronson continually second-guesses his opinions of potential psychopaths, his conclusion that “if you recognize some of those [psychopathic] traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one” must be as great a comfort to himself as to his readers.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.