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'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.
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Federico (Fred) Moramarco
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I was absolutely engaged by this book--kept me hoping for more from beginning to end, and though it's written with verve and enthusiasm, although perhaps a bit too breezy from time to time, it never quite lives up to its promise, or, in fact, the startling possibilities of its unsettling premise. That premise is stated succinctly on page 112 (of my Kindle edition). Drawing heavily on the pioneering work of Bob Hare, Ronson provides us with a tentative answer to some of the most perplexing we face in life: "Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths. That part of the brain that doesn't function right....We aren't all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They're the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond."
I audibly gasped when I read that paragraph because it seemed like so much common sense. Our world is as screwed up as it is not because of global warming and corrupt political systems, but because the individuals running it, economically, politically, and socially, are irresponsible, self-absorbed, selfish, egotists who have a grandiose sense of themselves and care little or nothing about the impact of their decisions and actions on others. They have virtually no sense of empathy and are generally pathological liars. They are impulsive and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Usually, they demonstrated behavior problems early in their lives and have conned and manipulated their way through it.
These are a handful of the 20 items on Hare's Psychopathy Check List (PCL) which was first published in 1991 and has been translated into a dozen languages and has been the subject of many conferences, scholarly articles, workshops, seminars, books, and is generally regarded as the diamond standard of the profession. It has its detractors, of course, and though Jon Ronson touts it mightily throughout his "journey through the madness industry," even he has some reservations drawing the line between normal and psychopathic behavior.
The problem is that our society, especially certain elements of it, reward may of these traits. Corporate executives, for example, who devastate the employees of the companies they manage, and in fact even "enjoy" firing them are awarded large bonuses because profits matter more than people in much of the corporate world. Taking care of number 1 is an American virtue, and the novelist Ayn Rand built a reputation telling her readers how noble selfishness is, just as the 80's hit film, Wall Street made a mantra from the phrase, "Greed is Good."
Had Ronson stuck to his central idea and focused on helping us to understand how psychopaths have screwed up the upside-down world we live in today I think he would have produced a major work with universal application. While he does cross several fields (usually providing one or two examples from each) he could
have given us a wider range of examples that don't differentiate much between serial killers and business fraudsters (Hare remarks "Serial killers ruin families...Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.")
As it is, the book seems to flit around from one subject to the next with less cohesiveness than it should have. Ronson flies to Germany to follow up leads, haunts the halls of mental institutions, interviews many Scientologists (who have an ax to grind against psychology and psychiatry). On the one hand, psychopaths are responsible for all the world's woes; on the other, he questions whether they really exist at all. He rehashes many of the critiques of the psychiatry DSM-IV volume which underscore how virtually impossible it is to accurate describe any aberrant behavior--then reminds us that the manual says nothing at all about psychopaths.
This book is a valiant effort, and I think Ronson is on to something. But like Einstein's search for a unifying theory of physics, a unifying theory of destructive human behavior is still a bit beyond our grasp.
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Ronson's book is a very quick and entertaining read, but his "research" on psychopathy is so poorly done as to be laughable. Before Ronson's fans respond in defensive outrage, let me be clear: I am a psychologist and a clinical researcher. If you don't want to read evidence of Ronson's many mistaken assumptions, then move now to a more favorable review...
Aside from relying almost entirely on lucky interviews that form a series of entertaining anecdotes, Ronson really provides the reader nothing of substance. Granted, this was not intended to be a scholarly work, and I concede that for sheer entertainment readers could do worse. But what I couldn't get past were his glaring omissions and misunderstandings. First, the DSM is an imperfect instrument and I know no one who would argue that it is infallible. But one saving grace -- a point that Ronson had to notice -- is that every diagnostic category shares a specific criterion (worded variously): EVIDENCE OF IMPAIRMENT. This is the definition of mental illness, and explains why homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1980. But rather than spend even a brief parenthetical sidestep explaining this to his reader, Ronson leaves this foundational prerequisite completely unmentioned. Psychopathy (antisocial personality disorder) and all the other DSM categories require that the person or those around them experience serious problems, either physically, academically, socially, legally, or vocationally, whether or not the individual themselves recognizes or admits it. By leaving this important caveat out, Ronson allows the lay reader to potentially believe that the Scientologists are correct: All mental disorders are a figment of psychiatrists' and drug manufacturers' self-serving imaginations. Without the impairment criterion, it is also easy to believe that the DSM is just a series of behavioral "checklists," as Ronson says, and that 50% of the public could be easily diagnosed with... well, something. Except for the pesky fact that the vast majority of folks live healthy, productive, and rewarding lives, complete with meaningful interpersonal relationships. Psychiatrists (and psychologists) recognize this, believe it or not, which is why we START with questions of impairment whenever a mental health diagnosis is suspected.
Second, best practices in psychiatry and psychology require that diagnosis is based on a multimodal assessment strategy, meaning that it is highly implausible that "Tony" was held against his will on the basis of the PCL-R alone. Without having access to his file, I can guarantee that in addition to a medical history, interview, etc., he also completed a global personality assessment, which over the years have been amazingly accurate at detecting malingering and lying. Although no single instrument is perfect, the collection of multiple instruments, interviews, histories, etc., ultimately paints a coherent story with time, and unless Tony had specific training or unless the intake clinicians were woefully incompetent, Tony's intentional malingering should have been caught at some point. (BTW, this makes Ronson's ongoing joke of being a qualified psychopathy hunter after his one workshop even more silly than he realizes.) The reason Tony would have received a battery of assessment instruments, ironically, is partly explained later in the book when Ronson retells the story of the Rosenhan experiment. After those researchers were able to fake their way into psychiatric hospitals back in the 1970s, new intake criteria were proposed and now it is actually quite difficult to get hospitalized unless you provide undeniable evidence of imminent harm to self or others. As a result, people who SHOULD be hospitalized are turned away every day. In fact, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that very ill individuals are routinely kicked out into the streets armed only with prescriptions.
But perhaps most disturbing is that Ronson undoubtedly heard everything I just said in his interviews with psychiatrists/psychologists. I'm not saying anything here that every graduate of a Psychology 101 course doesn't already know, so I'm wondering why this information never found its way into the story -- even for a cameo appearance? I think the reason for that is actually provided on page 168 (hardback): "We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose." I guess maybe the truth proved too damn boring and Ronson didn't want to wrinkle his readers' foreheads.