on 2 December 2012
First thing to say is that this is very Jon Ronson - if you don't like his journalistic, quite anecdotal, interview-heavy style, you won't like it. I, however, enjoyed his attempts to get the nub of what Psychopaths are and how Society can deal with them.
He gets to inverview some really interesting as well as important figures in the field, and his various digressions are always relevant and valuable. The chatty style doesn't obscure the fact he's really done his homework. In particular, he's really good on the tale of how professional rivalries and experimental treatments by various psychologists since the early 20th Century haven't always been to the benefit of a better public understanding of the condition, or better treatment of it.
His particular focus is the now almost universally used testing criteria for Psychopaths, which turns out to be not as perfect as you might hope considering a positive result can see people incarcerated for large portions of their life. He also investigates how 'Psychopathic' traits can actually be seen in many people who are successful in various fields and have never been involved in any violent crime. There's ultimately a suggestion here that the most terrifying thing about Psychopaths is that they're really not as different from us as we'd like to think, and it is quite possible that your neighbour, boss, political representative, or local policeman (psychopaths, it turns out, love jobs which give them positions of authority) could well be one.
Despite the troubling revelations here, it isn't a sensationalist book trading off shock value. Ronsons tries to understand the condition, which includes spending lots of time and in some cases getting uncomfortably close to diagnosed Psychopaths, and he is always open to dissenting voices. This is a book for the general reader rather than anyone with a professional interest in the topic, of course, but for all that it raises some really interesting questions and gives a better understanding of a topic which effects us as individuals and a society more than we might like to think.
'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.
on 16 July 2011
This is a great read, witty and peppered with amusing self-deprecating excursions. I couldn't put it down - but only a small part of it concerns 'psychopaths'. It also seems that Jon Ronson hasn't quite got his head around the concept of psychopathy/sociopathy, and this is more than a shame - it's a little dangerous.
We start with a mysterious publication that leads Ronson to a neuroscientist who piques his interest in psychopathy. Then we go to someone who is classified as a psychopath but may not be; then to the Hare Psychopathy checklist and a ramble through ways of treating psychopaths in the past. Next step a shallow look at a corporate psychopath...but then it all comes a bit unstuck. We get an account of the unfeeling selection process for reality TV shows; the exceedingly strange behaviour of whistleblower David Shayler; and other stuff that doesn't really relate to the title of the book, or even the critique of psychiatry. If he'd stuck to the topic it would have been excellent. As it is, it really was a fascinating read, but the grasshopper approach to the subject matter seriously detracts from it as an informed study. 3.5 out of 5!
on 30 July 2015
Ronson's adventure with psychopaths begins with an email asking him to investigate a literary mystery. Through this he discovers that psychopaths aren't just Hannibal Lecter but they are more commonly found in the boardrooms of corporations. He interviews people that have been judged insane and being held in institutions indefinitely and he interviews CEOs. Aling the way he also gets some training in The Psychopath Test, a 20 question test used by medical professions to determine if someone is a psychopath.
i couldn't put this down really. I started it at night, read a few chapters, then the next morning sat down to read another chapter with breakfast which ended with me finishing the book. Ronson's writing makes you feel as if you are sitting next to him while he chats and breezily tells you a series of utterly fascinating stories about some utterly fascinating (whether you like them or not) people.
on 3 October 2013
A book about more than the title suggests, but also delivers slightly less than l hoped. It mostly tracks the authors own journey through the subject matter-very much in his usual style. Left me sure l wasn't a psychopath but certain at least one colleague was. Great as a weekend or holiday read but not a serious look at the subject of psycopathy. Also worthy gift for an ex wife or colleague you would prefer to estrange permanently.
on 1 July 2012
A friend who studies psychology recommended this book to me knowing that I've long fostered an interest in psychology. For me, therefore, the book was perfect - having no academic grounding in psychology, I would probably struggle with an academic paper on psychopaths, but I found this book to be very well pitched to the masses. It was as light and accessible as a book with such a serious and delicate subject matter could be.
I have always been fascinated by psychopathy and psychological illness more generally, and it really catered to that interest, with original and intriguing material - a real page turner, which I find is rare in books with a 'heavy' subject. However, even if psychology isn't really your bag, Ronson's style and approach makes it a compelling read, and you'll find yourself freaking out your friends and family with 'so unbelievable it has to be true' type stories for ages.
My only criticism is that I suppose I would have liked him to delve a little deeper, analyse a little more - he frequently touches on the question of whether psychopathy, and other mental illnesses, are simply labels thrust by society onto individuals who don't fit the mould, but he never seems to say anything very solid on the matter. I'd also have liked to have read more case studies of less 'extreme' psychopaths - he seems to go for fairly high profile ones, but claims (I think) that 1/100 people are now considered psychopathic, and I assume (hope!) not all of these are homicidal rapists!
Despite these criticisms, I realise that the book is intended to be a 'popular' read, not an in depth analysis of psychopaths, and indeed Ronson makes it clear that he is in no position to provide such an analysis. This in mind, the book is really fantastic, and I'd recommend it to just about anyone.
on 24 May 2014
Jon Ronson tackles the subject in a clear and entertaining manner. I read the entire book in just two sittings as the content was so gripping and insightful. The big question for me after reading the book is how many people operating at a high level within the commercial world are psychopaths. Read the book if you want to learn to spot them. (Also consider ordering Bob Hare's book 'Snakes in Suits' at the same time, as you may well be working for one.)
Jon Ronson is one of those investigative journalists who gets down and dirty with his subject matter, rather than taking himself out of the equation and writing with a overview, an all-seeing eye which suggests 'objective truth' Of course, the writer will always have an opinion, and be part of what is being observed, whether they make that subjectivity overt or keep it covert.
The initial premise of this well-written book starts out looking like something far-fetched from The Celestine Prophecy - a mysterious manuscript which has been sent to various academics, one of whom asks Ronson to investigate where it came from and what it means. These investigations lead him into looking at the sort of personality which might be inclined to want to manipulate others, and quite quickly he gets drawn into that journey, looking particularly at psychopathic behaviour, what a psychopath is. Most of us probably consider psychopaths to be people who commit horrific crimes such as rape and murder, but as Ronson discovers, there is a continuum in reaching the diagnosis, and there are many 'normal' people in society, who do not rape and murder, but nonetheless have certain character traits and behaviours which may be part of the check-list of a clinician who is trying to ascertain 'is this person a psychopath?' Ronson's journey takes a look at some of the history of psychiatric medicine - including some of the excesses of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 60s and 70s, and the backlash of overdiagnosis and that checklist of the DSM - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. There is also the teasing throwaway that though psychopathic tendencies may exist in about 1% of the population at large, there are a statistically larger number of these 'members of the general population' with psychopathic tendencies to be found as CEOs of major organisations. Makes a horrid kind of sense really, given the cultivation of ruthlessness which seems to be required, fostered and encouraged in programmes like 'The Apprentice'
Ronson making his own journey a central part of this exploration of mental health and psychopathy in particular, has both great strength - but also weaknesses. The strengths are an immediacy of having an engaging, articulate, witty companion as your guide, as you read the book, who asks some of the questions which you, the reader might have, as you try to gain some understanding of what a psychopathic personality might be. The weaknesses are that there are interesting questions raised,which don't really go anywhere, and he doesn't really follow through with them. Such questions as: what 'normal' is; why both 'empathy' and its lack, might exist; the strengths and the weaknesses of having an 'artist's' view of mental health (analysis, therapy, allowing the story/the gestalt of a person to happen ) versus the scientific/statistical 'observed' presentations of the DSM. There's a teasing nod to this in his account of a partial conversation with his friend Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker, who is critical of the direction Ronson is taking in his investigations for this book - looking at how inevitably the investigator gets drawn into investigating the 'on the edge' peculiarities, the weirdly extreme, so that the investigator (and the reader/viewer) can feel safely superior, without really looking at aspects within oneself. I probably wanted Ronson to be closer to Curtis, and to look more at what all this means for society at large - how the attempt to over-diagnose mental illness has led to a flattening of what it means to be human, a tighter and smoother and more conformist view of 'normal', and mass medication, via the pharmaceutical industry, of normal, human variation. Perhaps the difference is that Curtis is a man with an agenda, and Ronson may not be. Curtis's libertarian stance may give him a certain blinkered vision, but it also brings focus and cohesion. Ronson is more scattergun, not quite following through.
I also would have liked to have seen something about where cultivating 'lack of empathy' may work to society's advantage - for example, within certain branches of medicine. It strikes me that the surgeon, if he or she allowed themselves to really engage with the pain and suffering of the patient, might be too overwhelmed to make that healing incision. There are professions where the fostering of empathy is crucial - nursing for example, and professions, like surgery, where it is most helpful if a certain ability to ringfence, or even inhibit, empathy is present
Jon Ronson's latest book seems to follow the meandering path of "Them: Adventures with Extremists", as he meets and talks to what appear to be diverse and unrelated, but all fascinating, people at the fringes of society or the fringes of normal behaviour. In this case he's looking at various aspects of what he calls "the madness industry". Although sweeping and scattershot at first glance, concentrating on the amusing and odd, what emerges is a well balanced book that raises serious and focused questions about how we recognise and deal with "madness" in society.
Ronson is remarkably open and relatively non-judgmental in his approach. He rightly finds issue with the current and disturbing trend of over-diagnosis in psychiatry (the rate of rise in the number of children in the USA with "mental illness" is frightening until you realise it's simply the result of a new diagnosis, not new illness) while also being harsh on the other extreme, opponents of any form of psychiatry such as the Scientologists. In a key part of the book, Ronson comments on a Scientology leader laughing at the idea of giving children drugs to stop them picking their nose, which would be a ridiculous thing to do until you realise the children in question were picking their nose so violently and so frequently they produced deep wounds allowing facial bones to show through.
There's much discussion of the psychopathic personality especially the observation that psychopaths are unable to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings and rights. While clearly this personality defect is present in a number of serious criminals, Ronson delves into the realm of corporate pyschopaths too. Not being able to understand that other people have feelings, let alone caring about those feelings, is a rather useful trait if your job is CEO of a company saving money by cutting jobs. Amusingly Ronson also sees psychopathic traits in AA Gill, mainly because he gives bad reviews of Ronson's TV shows - something that may not change if Gill reads the book!
The book is perhaps strongest on how we use "madness" in entertainment and how little we've moved from the pre-Victorian organised tours of asylums for amusement. Ronson describes the callous and deliberate way people are selected to go onto the daytime Jeremy Kylie-style TV shows as well as the new type of talent show that glories in the early "eccentric" and terrible auditions, the people selected being far from mentally stable and yet not so unstable they would be off putting to the baying audience. Likewise Ronson describes the sad story of David Shayler: in demand on radio and TV when he was just irrational enough to be a "9/11 truther", talking about holographic planes around cruise missiles hitting the World Trade Centre, but kept well away from the media spotlight when he continued to slide into more serious illness and proclaimed himself the second coming of Jesus.
Ronson has written a funny, and simultaneously serious, book. Highly recommended.
on 28 May 2016
Jon Ronson's book is a witty and informative journey through psychoanalysis. It shows a system that labels and controls abnormal behaviour, some of it dangerous and some of it merely eccentric. Fascinating and funny.