The Psychopath Test [Book Review]

Author: Jon Ronson | Publisher: Picador

What if society wasn’t fundamentally rational, but was motivated by insanity? This thought sets Jon Ronson on an utterly compelling adventure into the world of madness.

Along the way, Jon meets psychopaths, those whose lives have been touched by madness and those whose job it is to diagnose it, including the influential psychologist who developed the Psychopath Test, from whom Jon learns the art of psychopath-spotting. A skill which seemingly reveals that madness could indeed by at the heart of everything…

Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is both entertaining and honest, unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges.

The Psychopath Test is, as advertised, laugh-out-loud funny. And it does raise some very interesting, and very serious, questions about the “madness industry”. I would say, the book is too short to do justice to every subject, or answer every question, but it’s certainly a good “starter for 10”.

To be honest, I have only the very vaguest of ideas who Jon Ronson is – and I’m not sure if that helped or hindered my appreciation of the book.

I’m a big fan of the TV show Criminal Minds, so The Psychopath Test appealed from that perspective. If that’s the reason you’re reading it, however, you’re going to be disappointed. It barely touches on how psychopaths appear in the annals of criminal history, or how profilers use psychological techniques to identify them. Luckily, by the time you realise that, you’re already hooked so it doesn’t matter.

I’d heard about this “checklist for psychopaths”, and had often wondered whether (had a sneaking suspicion that) I knew a few people who would score pretty highly against it. I was pleased Ronson included the checklist, and I confess, a spent a good 10-minutes gleefully scoring every hated boss, ex-friend, and nemesis, against it. How comforting to think maybe they just had something wrong with their brain…

Hare PCL-R Checklist

  1. Glibness / superficial charm

  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth

  3. Need for stimulation / proneness to boredom

  4. Pathological lying

  5. Cunning / manipulative

  6. Lack of remorse or guilt

  7. Shallow affect

  8. Callous / lack of empathy

  9. Parasitic lifestyle

  10. Poor behavioural controls

  11. Promiscuous sexual behaviour

  12. Early behaviour problems

  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals

  14. Impulsivity

  15. Irresponsibility

  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

  17. Many short-term marital relationships

  18. Juvenile delinquency

  19. Revocation of conditional release

  20. Criminal versatility

I loved the self-aware, Gonzo-style reporting; like a less obnoxious Hunter S. Thompson. I mean, I love Thompson’s work, but I have a sneaking suspicion, if we’d met in real life, I’d have thought he was an arse-hat. Jon Ronson, you have a feeling you’d like. I also thought the snippets from his notebook were a fascinating view into the journalistic process. The addition of Ronson’s personable and amusing commentary gave the book a unique flavour.

‘Item 2: Grandiose Sense of Self Worth’, I had written in my notepad earlier. ‘His inflated ego and exaggerated regard for his own abilities are remarkable, given the facts of his life.’

I thought The Psychopath Test presented an interesting, nuanced and fair view of the different sides of the argument. Like any good documentary, however, the reader is ultimately subtly (or not so subtly) guided to a conclusion which agrees with the writer. I liked his choice of interview subjects, although I felt perhaps he didn’t go far enough. If you’re going to explore the subject of psychopaths, I think you need to not only view the middle, but the extremes. His interview subjects fit a little too comfortably into the box. I also probably wanted them to be a little more recognisably evil, in some cases.

I liked that he chose to include the views of Scientologists. While I’m not a particular fan of their beliefs, it was refreshing not to see them demonised (as they so often are in contemporary book and film). I’m sure they do have lots of wacky edges, and do lots of things that are completely unacceptable, but that wasn’t what he was writing about and so he didn’t try to stuff that in for effect. He presented a fair view of their arguments, and I felt that gave the book more authenticity. A documentary should consider every side as impartially as possible. I don’t want to be told what to think. Or, at least, I like the illusion that I’ve made up my own mind.

The book is a quest to figure out what makes things tick. If the primary focus was supposed to be psychopaths, along the way it diverged somewhat, and began to raise larger questions about society’s reliance on labels, and the drug industry that profits by them; the madness which is fuelled by the internet; and the media’s role in portraying difference. It danced around a bit during Ronson’s journey of discovery, and I don’t think reached a satisfying conclusion. However, I liked that the book raised such important questions – whether or not it always had the answer. I still don’t know whether the reason our society is so screwed is because it’s run by psychopaths, but it has inspired me to read more on the subject.

I’d recommend this book for anyone with an enquiring mind, who likes Louis Theroux and documentaries in general, and for fans of Ben Elton – it had a similarly humorous tone.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

 

7 Comments Add yours

  1. This sounds like a really interesting book- it’s good to know that it’s more of a starter for ten though. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Madam Mim says:

      Thanks! It was a bit too short to do the subject justice, but I thought it gave a good general overview 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! Awesome!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Diana says:

    My heart skipped a bit when you mentioned Criminal Minds which is one of my favorite shows. I will adjust my expectations though if I decide to read this book and not compare it to CM 🙂 This sounds like an interesting read and thanks for sharing the checklist. I can think of some few people too who would check a few of those boxes lol.

    Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Madam Mim says:

      Thank you! Yes, I was hoping for a bit more Criminal Minds… it’s a good list though! Very interesting…

      Like

  3. john l. says:

    Ibegin to think it is essentially rooted in insanity

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Madam Mim says:

      Many things are!

      Like

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