The Psychopath Test (2011): Jon Ronson


A few weeks ago I met up with a friend for lunch and she enthused to me about a book she’d been reading: The Psychopath Test. I was peripherally aware of it, but hadn’t read it. ‘You should give it a go,’ my friend said. But I still felt unwilling: there was one thing that had been troubling me ever since I’d first heard of the book. ‘I don’t think I want to,’ I said awkwardly. ‘What if it turns out that I am one?’ My friend laughed at me: ‘Don’t worry. The fact you’re anxious about it means you’re not one.’ That’s a relief.

It begins with a book. Jon Ronson is approached by a London neuroscientist: she’s one of a handful of international academics to have received a mysterious parcel from Gothenburg in Sweden. Inside there is a book, 42 pages long, of which 21 pages are blank. The other pages are frustratingly inconclusive: there are puzzles, words that have been cut out, and unexpectedly beautiful images. Everything looks very expensive. The academics have come together on the internet trying to understand why they have been handpicked to receive this curious book. What does it mean? Why has it been sent to them? What is so special about each of them? How can they solve it? But despite their pooled intelligence, no one can figure out what their next step should be. And so one of their number turns to Ronson for his help. Now, I haven’t read any of Ronson’s other books, though of course I’ve heard of the film The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was adapted from one of his investigations. He specialises in researching people with bizarre theories – people who walk that fluid line on the edge of eccentricity.

As Ronson delves into the mystery behind the book, he is struck by how much chaos one ‘extremely obsessive crackpot‘ has been able to cause in the world of academia. He wonders how much of the world’s energy and business is caused by similar forms of madness. After all, extremely successful businessmen, politicians and CEOs are proportionately more likely, compared to the general population, to be psychopaths: uninhibited by empathy with other people, driven by a lust for power and willing to take risks that everyone else would balk at. Fascinated by these ideas, Ronson sets off  to find out what psychopaths actually are; how they are identified; and how reliable such identifications are.

She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.

Along the way he meets a whole bunch of unusual people. There’s Tony, the young man who was brought up on a charge of GBH at seventeen and, in the hope of getting a cushier prison sentence, claimed to be mad – only to end up incarcerated in Broadmoor for the next twelve years as a potential psychopath (‘Jeepers,’ I thought, ‘has this guy never seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?’). There’s Bob Hare, who created the definitive checklist now used to identify psychopaths, which works by allocating points for a certain number of personality traits. There are Scientologists, who have been campaigning against high-profile psychiatrists, trying to bring attention to the lack of regulation or exactitude in the discipline. There are the instigators of the mind-bogglingly weird Oak Ridge experiment in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where psychopathic inmates of a Canadian mental hospital were stripped of their clothes, given large doses of LSD and forced to spend days at a time in an enclosed capsule giving one another therapy, which their doctors hoped would result in emotional nakedness and a form of cure. Personally I can’t think of anything less calculated to make people sane than a situation:

where nothing made sense, where reality got malformed through LSD, where psychopaths all around you were clawing at the walls, where everyone was suffering sleep deprivation, and Elliott Barker was watching it all from behind a oneway mirror.

Despite its alarming and very serious subject, Ronson’s book is meant to be entertaining – not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way, but in a popular and gripping way. This very fact begins to give him pause, as he starts to think about the way that modern culture homes in on ‘acceptably’ mad people: those who are just mad enough to provide good reality TV or good interview material, without being so mad that the experience poses a threat either to themselves or to other people. But could this tendency be damaging us? As viewers, we’re encouraged to disassociate ourselves from the game-show contestant or the unconventional group of people in the documentary. Watching people get kicked out of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent is a major pastime on a Saturday night for many people in this country. Do we put ourselves in their shoes as we watch, and feel the shame and rejection and humiliation they must feel? Or do we laugh as they head off into obscurity and tell each other that they were never that good anyway and they should just accept that they didn’t have the makings of success? It’s scary to think about the psychological impact such a culture might have in the long run. In a culture which prizes those who are ruthless, able to detach themselves from the emotions of others, and driven purely by the desire for success, the psychopath is king.

Ronson also begins to wonder whether the human mind actually operates on more of a sliding scale than a simple is-or-isn’t basis. If psychopathy is the result of something physically wrong with the amygdala in the brain, can someone be a semi-psychopath? At what stage does someone become dangerous? This sliding scale also makes it worrying that in recent years it has become increasingly fashionable to slap a label on any kind of nonconforming behaviour, even if it’s relatively harmless. What does it say about psychiatry as a field when very young children are being diagnosed with, and being given medication for, bipolar disorders? (Ronson’s book is subtitled ‘A Journey Through the Madness Industry’, so I forgave him the slight deviation off-topic from psychopathy.)

It’s chilling and worrying stuff – or at least it seems that way when you read this book with no experience of psychology beyond one rather anticlimactic A level. As a layman, I was taken into areas I’d never really thought about in any detail – as well as being introduced to some seriously mad people (David Shayler has to take the biscuit there). Fortunately it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to leave me scared to turn out the light, either: this isn’t a gruesome true-crime-style list of psychopathic shockers, but something altogether more intriguing. I’m very glad my friend told me to read it: I might seek out some more of Ronson’s work in due course. He’s an engaging, slightly neurotic presence and I can’t help feeling rather fascinated by his choice of subjects. In retrospect, of course, it’s absurd that I ever worried about the fact I might turn out to be a psychopath. If anything, I am the exact opposite and share Ronson’s overactive amygdala (like him, ‘I have panicked unnecessarily in all four corners of the globe‘); which is comforting to know.

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