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The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson explores a journalist’s quest for reliable psychopathic measures. Published in 2011, it coincides with the move, in psychiatry, toward “adaptive study” of disorders. That is, rather than studying the ways people depart from the norm, psychiatry is refocusing on the ways people adapt their “non-normal” behaviors toward the norm. Ronson’s narrative vacillates between a description of “abnormal” behaviors, and their measures, and the uncomfortable notion that the experts in charge had “inadvertently created a world in which some ordinary behaviors were being labeled mental disorders…” (251).

Ronson spends a brief amount of time exploring his own fears about being psychotic but is quickly steered away from that line of thought. He is, several interviewees note, feeling too much to be considered psychotic. Basically, if you’re worried you’re psychotic, you’re not. The feeling of worry (concern, anxiety, etc…) isn’t something psychopaths feel.

The author then moves on to chronicle his attempt to document the characteristics of modern-day “psychopathy,” a task that becomes both more nebulous and more interesting as he progresses. His search leads him to interviews with international terrorists, visits to Broadmoor Institution, multiple visits with ground-breaking psychiatrists, and even with one (arguably psychopathic) former CEO.

Psychopathy is a subject that easily turns grim – most of what we know about psychopathy comes from what we know about violent, merciless criminals. The worst of the worst are psychopaths. They are emotionless so we, those who feel emotion, consistently misunderstand and underestimate the moves a psychopath is willing and able to make. Most (all?) psychopaths would say we (the non-psychopathic) are stymied by our emotion, our lack of drive, our inability to act quickly and decisively. Ronson does a fantastic job of navigating the fuzzy world of a non-psychopath attempting to understand just how the mind of a psychopath works.

Perhaps even more delightful than the study of psychopaths is the exploration of how non-psychopaths study psychopaths. There seems to be a level of smug delight in successfully identifying, studying, treating, and “curing” psychopaths among psychiatry, journalism, and the general public.

As I sat there in the tent, my mind drifted to what I could do with my new powers. If I’m being honest, it didn’t cross my mind at that point to become some kind of great crime fighter, an offender profiler or criminal psychologist, philanthropically dedicated to making society a safer place. Instead I made a mental list of all the people who had crossed me over the years, and wondered which of them I might be able to expose as having psychopathic character traits. Top of the list of possibilities was the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair critic A. A. Gill, who had always been very rude about my television documentaries … (108)

Ultimately, this book was a fascinating read, and quick. It introduced me to several other texts I’m keen to study next, not the least of which is some other work by the author himself. For this reason, I give the book a four-star rating. While I’ll (probably) not read it again, it’s opened a whole avenue of “must read more” material.

fourstarWhat about you? When would you have REALLY appreciated a reliable psychopath (or other personality disorder) test?


Psychopath Week: The Psychopath Test
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