The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Have you ever looked at a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly referred to as the ‘DSM‘)? It’s a reference book published by the American Psychiatric Association, and it is used by clinicians for diagnosing mental illness. Each ‘disorder’ is described using a number of diagnostic criteria, risk factors, cultural and gender considerations, differential diagnoses and so on. It makes for very compelling reading, as Jon Ronson discovered in his exploration of psychopathy, The Psychopath Test.

I was much crazier than I’d imagined. Maybe it was a bad idea to read DSM4 when you’re not a trained professional…

Yes, even on a good day, I could browse through the DSM and slot myself into a whole bunch of disorders (today for instance, sluggish cognitive tempo disorder, otherwise known as lack of motivation).

Ronson presents a number of case studies alongside an understanding of ‘psychopathy’ from a social, historical and clinical perspective. Notably, psychopathy is not listed in the DSM as a stand-alone disorder (rather, people who are referred to as psychopaths are generally diagnosed with disorders such as antisocial personality disorder and narcissist personality disorder).

Much of the book is devoted to Ronson’s observations about the Psychopathy Check List, a diagnostic tool developed by criminal psychologist, Dr. Robert Hare. Ronson humorously applies the Check List to journalists (he recognises traits such as the need for stimulation; being cunning and manipulative; being charming, in himself), to demonstrate that like the DSM, the Check List is seductive in its simplicity. But applied out of context or inappropriately, the Check List could have disastrous consequences, leaving a person labelled for life.

I was underwhelmed by the case studies, with the exception of that of ‘Tony’. Tony ‘acted insane’ to get a lighter jail sentence for a crime he had committed. He drew inspiration from various movies featuring psychopaths and as intended, was sentenced to a high security British psychiatric institution rather than a jail. The plan back-fired spectacularly – Tony either had to prove his sanity (difficult to do); be considered ‘untreatable’; or take the middle road, which is to be treated, declared ‘cured’ and then released. This took many, many more years than if Tony had gone to jail.

…what would I do if I had to prove I was sane? I’d like to think that just being my normal essentially sane self would be enough but I’d probably behave in such an overly polite, helpful and competent manner, I’d come across like a mad butler with panic in his eyes.

Ronson’s intention may have been to show that one person’s ‘normal’ is the next person’s ‘crazy’, however, he joins dots that can’t be joined (for example, the parts about increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as bipolar is really interesting but inclusion in this book implies a link between bipolar and psychopathy – an unconsidered conclusion might therefore be that with increasing bipolar diagnoses in children, we’ll have more psychopaths wandering around in the future. Huh. That’s crazy.).

3/5 Some chapters were better than others.

15 responses

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  2. I went to the private launch of this at the offices of Picador in London and he read out a passage about how you can always pick the psychopath in the room because they’re wearing a pinstriped suit. My Other Half was with me and he’d rushed to make the event straight from work and… guess what… he was wearing a pinstriped suit! It was funny at the time. We chatted to Jon about it afterwards; he’s a really lovely (nerdy) guy. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the book though!

    • Haha! That’s very funny and will be more so when you read the book (the guy who was trying to prove his sanity wears a pinstripe suit in the mental institution – as you can imagine, it looked quite out of place!).

      Not sure if you’ve read any of his other stuff but if not, start with So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – it’s really good.

  3. I really like Ronson but I’ve never fancied reading this. I think it’s because the stuff about those at top level power positions being more likely to be psychopaths is just too depressing. And that was before this week when our PM changed, I definitely can’t face it now!

  4. Not a book that stands up to much professional scrutiny by the sound of it. I’d echo Madame Bibi about people in power although I comfort myself with how little power the new PM really has.

    • It’s always a balance, isn’t it – read a book by an expert and the style might be as dull as ditch water but read a book by a journo on a topic they have no expertise in and the evidence can seem a little shaky. I never thought that with his other book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but I guess because I know a little more about the subject of this book, I had trouble with some of his conclusions.

  5. This has been on my to-read list for a while — I enjoyed Ronson’s book about public shaming, and have listened to a couple of his Audible originals as well. (He’s so much fun to listen to as a narrator!).

    • It’ certainly worth a read – the case studies were interesting as stand-alone case studies but I’m not sure that they helped his overall thesis.

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