The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

56 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

The Psychopath Test is as funny as it is unnerving.

Watch this video to get an idea of what the book is about.

I found it all pretty fascinating. Jon Ronson set out to investigate how common psychopathy is, what psychopaths look like in the board rooms as well as in the prisons and psychiatric hospitals, and how often people are actually misdiagnosed as psychopaths. He interviewed psychologists, Scientologists (who are very much anti-psychological diagnosis and treatment), as well as crazy people of all descriptions.

He starts out with a guy named Tony who has been in psychiatric lock down for 15 years after committing a violent crime. Tony decided that he could get off for the crime if he faked mental illness. He answered all of the questions from psychologists with lines from movies featuring serial killers. He was declared mentally incompetent and sent to a mental hospital. His original crime might have kept him in jail for 3-5 years, yet because of his diagnosis, he was still locked up 15 years later even though his counselors agreed that he had indeed faked his way to his original diagnosis. The very act of faking mental illness pushed up his score on the psychopath checklist.

Tony is just one of many psychopaths or at least supposed psychopaths investigated in this book. I was particularly interested in Ronson’s investigation of a Sunbeam executive responsible for shutting down a plant in Mississippi and basically putting an entire town out of work. It takes an utter lack of empathy to do something like that, which is why psychopaths are often highly successful in business. Corporations often cultivate ruthlessness in order to see to the needs of their investors over the needs of their employees.

Ronson suspects that the only difference in successful corporate psychopaths and psychopaths serving prison time for violent crimes is the luck of having been born into more privileged circumstances. He also suspects that it would be easy enough to diagnose a lot of people as psychopaths who don’t necessarily deserve to be defined by their worst characteristics.

The problem of over-diagnosis, he discovers, is a pretty big problem. It’s especially troubling when he looks into children being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Ronson talks to several psychologists who tell him there is no reason whatsoever to consider a child’s mood swings to be evidence of mental illness, yet thousands of children are medicated — even heavily medicated — for bi-polar disorder. The medications at that stage of development could themselves cause lifelong struggles with mental illness. Still, our culture of thinking everything can be fixed with a pill leads parents to medicate children away from behaviors that are really just normal emotional reactions to childhood. So your 3-year-old has temper tantrums and destroys toys only to later claim the damage was done by an imaginary friend? That’s not bi-polar. That’s called being 3. The trend toward medicating away the fact of being 3 is downright frightening.

These types of trends in psychology do lead Ronson to question whether some people have been wrongfully labeled as psychopaths. On the other hand..

There was this one guy who nearly destroyed this woman’s life by leading an Internet attack on her after she blogged about a near-death experience. Ronson later found him claiming to be the Messiah. Yes, that’s right. The actual Messiah.

Then there was a study done back in the days before we had so many regulations on human testing. A psychologist gave painful electric shocks to patients diagnosed as psychopaths. He counted down so that they would know when the pain was about to hit. He repeated the process over and over. Normal people would cringe and tense up and sweat and swear and experience surges in blood pressure. Normal people would feel intense anxiety. The psychopaths showed no reaction. They felt the physical pain of the shock, but they did not feel the normal human anxiety leading up to it. That part of the brain was just not functioning properly. It’s the part believed to also control empathy.

There’s plenty of evidence that psychopathy is real and dangerous, that people do exist who are incapable of feeling empathy and anxiety in the same ways the rest of us do and are therefore capable of committing atrocities most people could not. Psychopaths are real. Psychopaths are everywhere. They are in the prisons, and they are in the workplaces. They are untreatable, and they are devious.

The problem is simply this. Psychopaths are diagnosed based on a checklist of characteristics. People can score very high on that checklist without ever actually doing any of the crimes we fear most from psychopaths. Maybe we can have a pretty good idea of who is a psychopath by studying behavior over time, but at the same time people who are simply manipulative and egotistical might come across as psychopaths even under expert scrutiny when in fact they are just being normal jerks.

It turns out then that Ronson’s initial questions about psychopaths are somewhat unanswerable. He finds a lot of evidence to support the current system for identifying psychopaths, but he also finds lots of reasons to question it. In the end, he seems okay with the idea that we can’t really know everything.

I enjoyed reading this book. I found it fascinating. I also found myself wishing I could assign it to a class. It’s sort of a perfect model for an I-search project. He started out with a question he personally wanted answered. He researched it. He questioned his research. He dug up more information. He did a lot of interviews and found a lot of anecdotal evidence. He questioned his own role in the research. He did more research. He followed up on the people he used as his original case studies. He drew his own conclusions. He related it all in a truly amusing tone. Who wouldn’t want to read this from students?

I’ll have to ponder how I might work psychological research into a class. Meanwhile, read this book. It’s funny. And eye-opening too.

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