on May 12, 2011
'People who are psychopathic prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get what they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include: lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.'
- Robert Hare, Ph.D
I've been hooked on Jon Ronson's writing since 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' was first published. Ronson cuts right to the heart of important topics by having the guts to ask the difficult questions. His literary style is equal parts journalistic rigour, deep compassion and incisive observational humour that often shines the light of ridicule on darker human behaviours. 'The Psychopath Test' explores psychiatry, psychopathology, medication and incarceration of 'dangerous' individuals. The book reads like a mystery novel, which - driven by Ronson's compelling prose - makes it difficult to put down.
The story begins with a meeting between Ronson and a history student who has received a cryptic book called 'Being or Nothingness' in the mail. The same book has been received by several individuals around the globe, most of whom work in the field of psychiatry. The book contains 42 pages, every second one blank. (This made me wonder...in 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', the ultimate answer to life, the Universe and Everything was 42. Was this relevant? Was the mysterious author of 'Being or Nothingness' implying that his cryptic messages, if decoded, could lead to enlightenment?)
Ronson's journey leads him to 'Tony' in Broadmoor, who - when charged with GBH and facing prison 12 years earlier - had faked insanity in the hope of being sent to a comfortable psychiatric hospital. Instead, he had been sent to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital (home to Britain's most dangerous psychotic prisoners), where he was being held indefinitely. Tony explains that he had picked characteristics of various movie lunatics then pieced them together into his 'insane' persona. Getting into Broadmoor had been easy, but getting out was proving immeasurably harder. A senior psychiatrist admits to knowing that Tony isn't insane, as a truly insane person wouldn't manufacture a new personality in the hope of avoiding prison...but a manipulative psychopath would.
Ronson meets Bob Hare, creator of the PCL-R Test, a 20-step Psychopath Checklist which gives individuals scores between zero and forty; the higher the score, the more psychopathic the person. Hare reveals that inmates at prisons and psychiatric institutions aren't the only ones who score highly on his 'psychopath test': many CEOs and directors of corporations qualify as psychopaths too. This prompts Ronson to wonder '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.'
Al Dunlap closed Shubuta's Sunbeam factory (the economic heart of that community), showing no empathy while firing workers and effectively killing the town. While laying off employees, he even spouted jokes such as, "You may have a sports car, but I'll tell you what you don't have. A job!" Bob Hare flags Dunlap as a psychopath, so Ronson sets out to meet the man. When Ronson asks probing questions based on the PCL-R checklist, Dunlap's responses mark him as a textbook psychopath.
Hare explains the science of psychopathology: a part of the brain called the amygdala doesn't function in psychopaths as it does in other human beings. When a regular person experiences extreme violence or carnage (or even photographs of such scenes), his amygdala becomes overstimulated, provoking an extreme anxiety response in the central nervous system. When a psychopath experiences the same stimuli, his amygdala does not respond: no anxiety response occurs. This explains the psychopath's lack of empathy.
'The Psychopath Test' is a compelling read. Ronson's fluid style is the perfect balance of rigorous research, keen observation, poignancy and humour. Congratulations to Jon Ronson on another phenomenal achievement.
I was absolutely engaged by this book--kept me hoping for more from beginning to end, and though it's written with verve and enthusiasm, although perhaps a bit too breezy from time to time, it never quite lives up to its promise, or, in fact, the startling possibilities of its unsettling premise. That premise is stated succinctly on page 112 (of my Kindle edition). Drawing heavily on the pioneering work of Bob Hare, Ronson provides us with a tentative answer to some of the most perplexing we face in life: "Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths. That part of the brain that doesn't function right....We aren't all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They're the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond."
I audibly gasped when I read that paragraph because it seemed like so much common sense. Our world is as screwed up as it is not because of global warming and corrupt political systems, but because the individuals running it, economically, politically, and socially, are irresponsible, self-absorbed, selfish, egotists who have a grandiose sense of themselves and care little or nothing about the impact of their decisions and actions on others. They have virtually no sense of empathy and are generally pathological liars. They are impulsive and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Usually, they demonstrated behavior problems early in their lives and have conned and manipulated their way through it.
These are a handful of the 20 items on Hare's Psychopathy Check List (PCL) which was first published in 1991 and has been translated into a dozen languages and has been the subject of many conferences, scholarly articles, workshops, seminars, books, and is generally regarded as the diamond standard of the profession. It has its detractors, of course, and though Jon Ronson touts it mightily throughout his "journey through the madness industry," even he has some reservations drawing the line between normal and psychopathic behavior.
The problem is that our society, especially certain elements of it, reward may of these traits. Corporate executives, for example, who devastate the employees of the companies they manage, and in fact even "enjoy" firing them are awarded large bonuses because profits matter more than people in much of the corporate world. Taking care of number 1 is an American virtue, and the novelist Ayn Rand built a reputation telling her readers how noble selfishness is, just as the 80's hit film, Wall Street made a mantra from the phrase, "Greed is Good."
Had Ronson stuck to his central idea and focused on helping us to understand how psychopaths have screwed up the upside-down world we live in today I think he would have produced a major work with universal application. While he does cross several fields (usually providing one or two examples from each) he could
have given us a wider range of examples that don't differentiate much between serial killers and business fraudsters (Hare remarks "Serial killers ruin families...Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.")
As it is, the book seems to flit around from one subject to the next with less cohesiveness than it should have. Ronson flies to Germany to follow up leads, haunts the halls of mental institutions, interviews many Scientologists (who have an ax to grind against psychology and psychiatry). On the one hand, psychopaths are responsible for all the world's woes; on the other, he questions whether they really exist at all. He rehashes many of the critiques of the psychiatry DSM-IV volume which underscore how virtually impossible it is to accurate describe any aberrant behavior--then reminds us that the manual says nothing at all about psychopaths.
This book is a valiant effort, and I think Ronson is on to something. But like Einstein's search for a unifying theory of physics, a unifying theory of destructive human behavior is still a bit beyond our grasp.
on May 18, 2011
I think it's safe to say that British journalist Jon Ronson is obsessed with obsessives. Known for the book behind the film, The Men Who Stare At Goats, he turns his attention in this book to psychopaths'the rare, incredibly manipulative individuals who are devoid of normal human emotion and spend their days treating people as play things to manipulate for their own gain.
In the book, Ronson takes us into the fascinating world of psychopaths by speaking to the experts and having amusing conversations with the psychopaths themselves. His conversations with psychopaths provide the book's best moments. Ronson comes across as anxious and easy to manipulate, which really gets the psychopaths to open up with him. He's also quite funny, which makes for some great interviews.
One in a hundred people are psychopaths, and those who aren't locked up in prisons can be hard to identify if you don't know what you're looking for. The book includes the actual test developed by Candadian psychologist Robert Hare that determines whether a person is a psychopath. Thankfully, I passed the test and it's quite fun to take it and see how you score on the traits typically seen in psychopaths: a lack of remorse, pathological lying, superficial charm, sexual promiscuity and extreme, self-serving manipulation.
When I bought the book, I was disappointed to see the Search Inside feature wasn't available, so here's the Table of Contents for those interested:
1 - THE MISSING PART OF THE PUZZLE REVEALED
2 - THE MAN WHO FAKED MADNESS
3 - PSYCHOPATHS DREAM IN BLACK AND WHITE
4 - THE PSYCHOPATH TEST
5 - TOTO
6 - NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
7 - THE RIGHT SORT OF MADNESS
8 - THE MADNESS OF DAVID SHAYLER
9 - AIMING A BIT HIGH
10 - THE AVOIDABLE DEATH OF REBECCA RILEY
11 - GOOD LUCK
The book's strengths:
- In a nutshell, the book is a highly entertaining series of stories and interviews.
- It's a great read for those interested in psychology and the study of society's outliers.
- Ronson is quite funny.
on December 26, 2011
Ronson's book is a very quick and entertaining read, but his "research" on psychopathy is so poorly done as to be laughable. Before Ronson's fans respond in defensive outrage, let me be clear: I am a psychologist and a clinical researcher. If you don't want to read evidence of Ronson's many mistaken assumptions, then move now to a more favorable review...
Aside from relying almost entirely on lucky interviews that form a series of entertaining anecdotes, Ronson really provides the reader nothing of substance. Granted, this was not intended to be a scholarly work, and I concede that for sheer entertainment readers could do worse. But what I couldn't get past were his glaring omissions and misunderstandings. First, the DSM is an imperfect instrument and I know no one who would argue that it is infallible. But one saving grace -- a point that Ronson had to notice -- is that every diagnostic category shares a specific criterion (worded variously): EVIDENCE OF IMPAIRMENT. This is the definition of mental illness, and explains why homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1980. But rather than spend even a brief parenthetical sidestep explaining this to his reader, Ronson leaves this foundational prerequisite completely unmentioned. Psychopathy (antisocial personality disorder) and all the other DSM categories require that the person or those around them experience serious problems, either physically, academically, socially, legally, or vocationally, whether or not the individual themselves recognizes or admits it. By leaving this important caveat out, Ronson allows the lay reader to potentially believe that the Scientologists are correct: All mental disorders are a figment of psychiatrists' and drug manufacturers' self-serving imaginations. Without the impairment criterion, it is also easy to believe that the DSM is just a series of behavioral "checklists," as Ronson says, and that 50% of the public could be easily diagnosed with... well, something. Except for the pesky fact that the vast majority of folks live healthy, productive, and rewarding lives, complete with meaningful interpersonal relationships. Psychiatrists (and psychologists) recognize this, believe it or not, which is why we START with questions of impairment whenever a mental health diagnosis is suspected.
Second, best practices in psychiatry and psychology require that diagnosis is based on a multimodal assessment strategy, meaning that it is highly implausible that "Tony" was held against his will on the basis of the PCL-R alone. Without having access to his file, I can guarantee that in addition to a medical history, interview, etc., he also completed a global personality assessment, which over the years have been amazingly accurate at detecting malingering and lying. Although no single instrument is perfect, the collection of multiple instruments, interviews, histories, etc., ultimately paints a coherent story with time, and unless Tony had specific training or unless the intake clinicians were woefully incompetent, Tony's intentional malingering should have been caught at some point. (BTW, this makes Ronson's ongoing joke of being a qualified psychopathy hunter after his one workshop even more silly than he realizes.) The reason Tony would have received a battery of assessment instruments, ironically, is partly explained later in the book when Ronson retells the story of the Rosenhan experiment. After those researchers were able to fake their way into psychiatric hospitals back in the 1970s, new intake criteria were proposed and now it is actually quite difficult to get hospitalized unless you provide undeniable evidence of imminent harm to self or others. As a result, people who SHOULD be hospitalized are turned away every day. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that very ill individuals are routinely kicked out into the streets armed only with prescriptions.
But perhaps most disturbing is that Ronson undoubtedly heard everything I just said in his interviews with psychiatrists/psychologists. I'm not saying anything here that every graduate of a Psychology 101 course doesn't already know, so I'm wondering why this information never found its way into the story -- even for a cameo appearance? I think the reason for that is actually provided on page 168 (hardback): "We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose." I guess maybe the truth proved too damn boring and Ronson didn't want to wrinkle his readers' foreheads.
on May 26, 2011
The power to label is intoxicating. That's what Jon Ronson found after taking a 3-day training that gave him license to diagnose people as psychopaths. Armed with a 40-item checklist, the journalist went gallivanting around the globe, sniffing out prospective psychopaths from convicted murderers to corporate job-slashers and Haitian war criminals.
Ronson's chronicle of his two-year quest for the elusive psychopath is at times whimsical, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and always riveting.
Those in the field of psychology will be perhaps most intrigued by Ronson's interviews with Robert Hare, inventor of the faddish Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), Robert Spitzer, the psychiatrist at the helm of the biggest diagnostic explosion of all time, the DSM-III development, and reclusive figures from back in the old days who choreographed naked, LSD-infused encounter groups for psychopaths at the Oak Ridge hospital for the criminally insane in Ontario, Canada.
Ronson, a journalist, film director, humorist, and author of the bestselling The Men Who Stare at Goats, was able to gain the confidence of his interview subjects to the point that they let down their guards and confided some of their concerns about psychiatric diagnosis and the misuse of psychopathy in the legal world.
In particular, Hare expressed chagrin about how his PCL-R instrument is being used as a basis for civilly detaining convicted sex offenders in the United States after they have finished serving their criminal sentences, for acts they might commit in the future:
" `PCL-R plays a role in that," Bob said. "I tried to train some of the people who administer it. They were sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, rolling their eyes, doodling, cutting their fingernails - these were people who were going to use it.' ... He told me of an alarming world of globe-trotting experts, forensic psychologists, criminal profilers, traveling the planet armed with nothing much more than a Certificate of Attendance, just like the one I had. These people might have influence inside parole hearings, death penalty hearings, serial-killer incident rooms, and on and on. I think he saw his checklist as something pure - innocent as only science can be - but the humans who administered it as masses of weird prejudices and crazy dispositions."
The Psychopath Test only skims the surface, and Ronson's meandering and tangential style feels almost schizophrenic at times. I also found myself disappointed that in the end--after all of his skepticism--he seems to buy into the overrated concept of psychopathy. But I would still recommend the book to anyone interested in a fast-paced and humorous romp through the psychiatric labeling industry.
THE PSYCHOPATH TEST is somewhat better described by its subtitle -- "A Journey Through the Madness Industry" -- than it is by that flashy title, which leads the reader to expect a lot about psychopaths and how to detect them. The central spine of the book -- the most interesting, compelling sections -- are about psychopaths, and possible psychopaths, and the question of determining who is a psychopath, from ex-Sunbeam CEO "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap to a young man Ronson meets in the British high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor, but that's only one aspect of Ronson's larger goal.
Unfortunately, Ronson's larger goal is somewhat amorphous: he wants to investigate how people get tagged with psychiatric categorizations, and how useful that process is, and whether those categorizations really correspond to the real world. This was partially driven by his contacts with Scientologists, who famously dislike the psychiatric profession, since they have their own alternative theory of human behavior and mental illness.  And it was partly driven by Ronson's own general bent of research -- he is, after all, the author whose last book was The Men Who Stare at Goats, about military applications of supposed mental powers (which also became an odd movie), and, before that, a book called Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson clearly has a tropism for the quirkier and more colorful sides of the human imagination, and THE PSYCHOPATH TEST sees him trying to apply that more systematically, to see if the major system of taxonomy of those quirks and bits of color (the DSM-IV) makes sense and does what it's supposed to.
Ronson is a reporter of the go-talk-to-people school, which makes his books colorful and deeply readable, but some readers may wish that he had a stronger strain of sit-there-and-read-deeply to give more background and depth to his interviews and experiences. He doesn't really have a thesis to test, just an area to explore, and that area is so large that there's no obvious point at which he can say that he's explored it "enough." So THE PSYCHOPATH TEST is a collection of excellent chapters, ideas, and thoughts that don't precisely add up to one thing -- it's a constellation of thoughts about sanity, moral sensibility, and mental disorders rather than a systematic investigation of any one thing or explication of a specific theory. Ronson, though, is so engaging and immediate a writer that many readers won't even notice that he's bitten off more than any man could chew, though I expect many readers will wish that he'd been a bit more focused on the psychopaths, since they're the ones we want to know the most about.
 I will studiously avoid characterizing this theory, since it's outside the scope of this review, and I don't intend to seek out trouble. But those who know anything about that theory may be able to guess my opinion of it.
on August 1, 2011
I, too, raced to buy this book after seeing the author on The Daily Show. Big mistake. While Ronson is witty and spins a good tale about his book on TV, his pitch has absolutely nothing to do with what's contained within the pages. I can't describe how disappointing this book is. It really isn't about anything and meanders aimlessly without really going anywhere. About halfway through I realized that I had been had, but soldiered on hoping for a big comic finish at least. Didn't happen. The author in his banter with Jon Stewart led us to believe that this book was about the surprisingly high number of people we all know or who lead our society who are actually psycho/sociopaths--and how to recognize them. An intriguing idea. If someone would actually write that book, I'd like to read it.
on April 20, 2013
"The Psychopath Test" is a fast read written in a style that I found a little off-putting. If you want a book that focuses on identifying psychopaths read Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door which is mentioned in Ronson's book but is far more about the subject where this book is really about the author. That's why I found it off-putting. It's a little narcissistic.
We are invited in to Ronson's self-effacing but self-absorbed world as he travels around identifying psychopaths. It reads almost like a travel journal. Here is me in front of the Eiffel Tower. Here is me in front of Big Ben. Here is me again. Only it's him with this or that psychopath or this or that doctor, with the author always in the foreground.
It's an easy read, though I can't say I'm sure it's worth your time. I did learn a few things--like how producers chose their subjects on those crazy reality shows and how journalists too pick subjects that are crazy enough to get our interests but not so off the deep end that we can't relate.
The overall subject and the idea that our country is run by psychopaths because exploitation and manipulation pays dividends is an important one, though that piece is only touched on in this book. I am simultaneously reading The Untold History of the United States which, after reading this book but especially Stout's, what has gone down in history makes more sense to me. (Stout says something like, when you start asking why--when you don't understand the motivation for the cruelty--you're probably dealing with a sociopath.)
I'm unsure what the distinction is between a sociopath and a psychopath is and for all my googling and reading of the two books I really couldn't see a distinction, despite the claims of there being one. One thing is for sure though, we all need to be aware that they are out there and be alert to them because the damage they do in our personal lives and on the world stage is horrific.
on June 26, 2011
"The Psychopath Test," while engaging and unpretentious, lacks direction. Ronson's book is reminiscent of a Michael Moore documentary, in so far as it's interesting enough, but fails to make any definitive points. Ronson asks the right sorts of questions about the field psychiatry, but doesn't offer anything more than disconnected, anecdotal evidence to support his half-constructed theories.
During his journeys he visits an patient at a mental hospital, who may or may not, have been misdiagnosed as a psychopath. Ronson uses this example to illustrate the essentially subjective nature of the psychiatric profession. Too much of the book is wasted on Ronson's speculations about whether or not many CEO's may or may not be psychopaths. Such speculation ultimately leads to few insights, considering his brief interactions with the interviewees and his lack of expertise on the subject of psychopathy.
It's an interesting read with many fascinating anecdotes, but not as informative as I had expected.
on June 26, 2011
A superficial, self-referential, glib, and extremely annoying book. The wrap-around mystery--some people are being sent some so-called book of 42 pages, 21 of which are blank,--is irrelevant to anything else in Ronson's book and, really, not all that interesting. He darts off to Sweden to discover the source of this puzzle and somehow ends up becoming an expert on a patchwork of psychiatric topics.
Mainly he learns a template for psychopathology and applies it to random people who agree to be interviewed by him. Those people are a varied lot and so the book hops from one topic to the next with little if any time set aside for analysis.
There's some attempt made, in an afterward to the book, to source Ronson's claims, random thoughts, and observations. But it's sporadic and not at all inclusive. By the time I had made it to the near-end of the book I came onto this bit: "And indeed, during the ten years that followed [the founding of Britain's DSPD units for apparently unredeemable and psychopathically violent criminals], hardly anybody was ever released from one. Once you were a DSPD patient, there seemed no way out." All I could focus on was the "hardly anybody". The natural question here is not whether any or all of them should be released; it's "What the hell does 'hardly anybody' mean?" The core of the book is whether a specific inmate, "Tony", is being wrongly held. So who DID get out of the DSPD units, and why them? (and how many and from where and when and with what diagnosis...) It's just a little thing, I know, but the whole book is riddled with the like.
Ronson claims to be a journalist. That should imply certain standards. People have said they think this book is funny. Ronson does have a show in Britain categorized as comedy. Fine. He should write funny novels.