Something Completely Different: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Psychopath Test cover The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson’s exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world’s top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he’s sane and certainly not a psychopath.

Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.
I’m pretty out of my depth here reviewing non-fiction books. I only really have three requirements for a “good” one – that the subject be interesting, the book itself not terribly boring, and the conclusions/theories presented within not terribly outlandish or offensive. Still, I couldn’t help but request an ARC of The Psychopath Test from the publisher – more because I wanted to read than review it, but I suppose one goes with the other here, ne? But I mean, the premise is great, right? Who hasn’t suspected at one time or another that the world is run by a bunch of greedy sociopaths? What a fascinating idea for a book: the Men Who Stare at Goats guy going and finding out if they really are.

But The Psychopath Test turned out to be much more than that. Similar to Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Psychopath Test ends up reading like someone’s greatly-researched train of thought, this time on the subject of insanity and the different ways in which it permeates through our society. Ronson starts by researching the strange book mentioned in the summary, perpetrated by a man he comes to believe might be “a little mad”, and from there his journey is set off by a strange realization: that the actions of one, potentially crazy Swedish man set off such a wide-reaching chain reaction that it affected dozens of scientists around the world – affected them to so much that they found one another through the internet, met in person, and ultimately reached out to him, a completely unrelated journalist, to help solve the mystery. The far-reaching actions of one odd man reminded Ronson of the idea put forth by psychiatrists that it is the psychopaths who really “make the world go round”, and bolstered by the impact of anxiety – his own little form of madness – on his daily life, Ronson is inspired to find out just how much madness affects what he’d previously assumed to be our “rational society”.

It’s a nifty concept, and Ronson’s narrative is engrossing. It reads so much like a novel – and some of the stories, circumstances, and conversations recounted are so outlandish – that I occasionally had to do a mental double-take and remind myself that this was a non-fiction title. I mean, when you hear stories of a man imprisoned in an ultra-secure mental health facility with notorious serial killers and rapists because he mimicked various movie portrayals of insanity to avoid jail time, or a CEO who resides in a palatial estate filled with giant gold statues of predators and life-size portraits of himself, they seem too bizarre and improbable and, in the latter case, cartoonish to be true, right? And yet.

I expected the book to consist mostly of Ronson’s expeditions into the corporate world to interview and perhaps weed out the psychopaths, but in fact only one chapter or so is devoted to that sort of interview – the previously mentioned predator-adoring CEO. The rest of the book progresses from a singular focus on psychopathy (or sociopath…y?) – what it means, the history of its progression as a recognized illness, some of the earlier, more bizarre treatments, and of course, Ronson’s introduction to and instruction in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (the titular Psychopath Test), by the man who created it, Robert D. Hare.

From there, though, it takes an interesting turn: like I’m sure many of us would, Ronson goes a little “power mad” with his instruction and administration of the Psychopathy Checklist. He begins noting psychopathic traits in everyone – in friends, associates, and naturally, his interview subjects. Honestly, after reading the checklist, I couldn’t help similar thoughts from poking into my head, noting traits even in shared stories of co-worker’s relatives – people I’d never even met (Item 16: Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions). It’s sort of a natural reaction, to assess yourself and others for traits in any applicable checklist, much less one for psychopathy. Actually, one of the more amusing passages addresses what I’m sure most everyone’s initial concern upon reading the checklist is:

At the end of our conversation she turned to address you, the reader. She said if you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you’re not one.
But after a few chapters of examining others with his newfound knowledge, Ronson’s faced with another realization: he’s spent almost a year chasing people around “rooting out craziness”, disappointed when his subjects didn’t meet all the qualifications of the checklist, and perhaps even occasionally shoehorning them into the mold of a psychopath. Couldn’t even that be considered sort of odd, perhaps even obsessive? This finally puts him on to what turns out to be the ultimate purpose of the book – the thought that this ability to label people, this desire to see people in “absolute terms”, to “define people by their maddest edges”, as the summary so eloquently puts it, could possibly be a bad thing.

As such, the tail end of the book explores the darker sides of the “madness industry” – the misapplication of Hare’s Checklist, the exploitation of troubled people by the media, the seemingly rampant desire of psychologists to classify even possibly normal behavior as some sort of disorder, and so on. It’s probably the most troubling part of the book – necessarily so, given how many accounts there are of falsely accused felons and potentially misdiagnosed “mentally ill” children and drug companies looking to make a profit off well, anything.

The narrative is book ended nicely by revisiting the perpetrator of the hoax that started it all, and Ronson’s final reflections and conclusions are…well, not exactly revelatory, but appropriate considering the journey he’s been on. I suppose that’s my only problem with The Psychopath Test, at least as far as my non-nonfiction-reading mind can comprehend – while the journey is interesting and I learned a lot of new things, the conclusions Ronson comes to are sort of…common sense? Like, “it’s bad to label people”, or “sometimes our madder aspects can be the most interesting”, and “in the wrong hands psychiatry can be misused and misapplied”, etc.

But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, right? And it was a fascinating ride.

four stars


2 Responses

  1. lauriehere

    April 11, 2011 7:24 am, Reply

    This title of the book you reviewed captured my attention. Like you, I think this title would have caught my interest as well! Great review! Sounds like this book somewhat has the reader going in circles a little, but then it wrapped it up. Sounds like this was a VERY interesting read! I’ve often wondered about people in higher positions because I knew one in a high position, which got me wondering one day about this very subject! Interesting!

  2. Kayla + Cyna

    April 12, 2011 5:18 am, Reply

    It’s a great title, isn’t it? Very accurate and attention-grabbing. It does a little, but it’s a natural circle, if you know what I mean? It seems like the same sort of chain of thought anyone would have.

    It is! If you’ve thought about that at all, I think you’ll enjoy it!

    Thank you.

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