The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

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Mad, Mad World: Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test

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I just gave myself a 3 on the psychopath test, which is welcome news for me and anyone I might happen upon in dark alleyways, because I’d have to get at least a 25 before you would worry. The Hare PCL-R checklist, or psychopath test, as it is commonly known, is a list of 20 personality or behavioral traits typical of psychopaths. They include grandiose sense of self worth, lack of remorse or guilt, early behavioral problems, and criminal versatility. For each trait, the subject is scored 0, 1, or 2. With 40 being the highest score, the psychopath range starts in the mid-20s, but really, I don’t want you feeding my cat if you get more than 10 (although, to be frank, I just gave my cat a 22).

The psychopath test was developed by psychologist and author Robert Hare. Besides the test, one of his signature achievements is popularizing the notion that psychopaths are all around us. They are not all famous serial killers. Many are investment bankers, politicians, religious leaders, and – in an instantaneous diagnosis related in the book – a concierge. Hare turned Jon Ronson into something of a psychopath spotter – a hobby that Ronson took up with a convert’s gusto – after Ronson started wondering how much of the society we live in is a result of insanity. The result is Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test.

Psychiatry is a notoriously imperfect science – with disorders coming and going from the DSM, children being over-medicated for basic spunkiness, a history which counted electric shock and LSD among its miracle cures – and Ronson surveys all this with the caution and exasperation it always evokes. But the study of psychopathy is a world apart because many of its experts claim its irrefutability, even untreatability. Robert Hare believes it all comes down to the amygdala – a part of the brain that has something to do with empathy – which in psychopaths is non-functioning. And that’s that, he says. With a bum amygdala you were born a psychopath, and you’ll always be a psychopath.

Psychopaths, he also says, what with their cunning and lack of guilt, tend to be very successful. Maybe one out of every 100 people is a psychopath, but the higher you go up the ladder of power, the more common they are. “This — [Hare] was saying — was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths.”

Could this really be true? Are psychopaths all around us, managing our 401(k)s and the Church of Scientology? Quite, says Hare. So Ronson, armed with a pocket copy of the psychopath test, starts knocking on the doors of those who might pass it.

Jon Ronson talking to psychopaths accounts for the book’s best moments. Ronson is a smart, meticulous, and admittedly anxiety-ridden man who comes across as pliable and eager to agree with whomever he’s talking to, which seems to be why the criminally insane feel comfortable being candid with him. They probably have the impression that they’re completely winning him over (psychopaths always do). When he goes to visit infamous CEO Al Dunlap, he finds that Dunlap’s front lawn is full of statues of predatory animals, which prompts this charmingly bumbling dialogue:

“It’s as if both Midas and also the Queen of Narnia were here,” I said, “and the Queen of Narnia flew above a particularly fierce zoo and turned everything there to stone and then transported everything here.”

“What?” said Al.

“Nothing,” I said.

“No,” he said, “what did you just say?” He shot me a steely, blue-eyed stare, which I found quite debilitating.

“It was just a jumble of words,” I said. “I was trying to make a funny comment but it all became confused in my mouth.”

He also goes to visit a man named Tony, who is in Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. Tony was arrested when he was 17 for beating up a homeless man, and faked insanity so he wouldn’t have to go to jail. Ten years later, he is still committed, trying to convince everyone of his sanity.

As Ronson spends time with these men – the CEO, the inmate, and later a former Haitian death squad leader who lives in Queens, their psychopathic traits jump out at him. Yet he’s not quite comfortable with the inflexibility of Robert Hare’s conclusions about psychopaths. While the men clearly operate under emotional parameters that give no quarter to compassion or generosity (weakness and weakness, they would say), not all of them have proven dangerous to society.

“There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal,” Ronson writes. It’s quite telling that Ronson set out to delve into the world of insanity, and ended up believing that we may pay it too much heed. Psychiatry is meant to help us understand ourselves. But at its worst, it can lead us to understand ourselves only as our aberrant traits. Psychopathy is like high stakes psychiatry. The more items you check off on the psychopath test, the less anything else about you starts to matter.

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