I Still Don't Know How to Spot a Psycho

I was disappointed by The Psychopath Test. I suppose that it’s my fault for approaching it with some preconceptions. I always do that to books; I do it to people too, and after 26 years of proving myself to be a poor judge of character based on my impressions, one would think that I would have learned by now. But this why I came to the book in the first place: I am a poor judge of character and in need someone to teach me how to not be such a sucker.

The Psychopath Test starts out reading like a mystery thriller. A select group of academics from around the world each receive a copy of a slim book that is full of cryptic clues and hints just begging to be unraveled. One of the recipients, after conversing online with a group of the others, contacts the journalist Jon Ronson for help solving the puzzle. Is it a marketing ploy? Nutty religious propaganda? A headhunting campaign?

Mr. Ronson solves the mystery in the first chapter, and then he gets to wondering. Is it true that psychopaths make the world go round? After all, this small book made time, money, and effort cross hands and financial markets. This leads him on a journalistic quest to learn what makes a psychopath and how to identify them.

A few misconceptions are cleared up right away. Psychopaths born with a dysfunctional amygdala, the part of the brain that controls empathy, which means that psychopathy is not a mental illness because it cannot be ‘cured’. As it is not a mental illness, it is not listed in the DSM (the psychology checklist bible).

Ronson takes a weekend course led by Bob Hare, the creator of the Hare PCL-R Checklist (‘The Psychopath Test’), so he can learn from the world’s leading expert himself about how to correctly spot a psychopath. It makes sense that Ronson doesn’t teach us, his faithful readers, how to use the checklist. He is not a psychologist, neither are we (I’m not at least, though I did enjoy my requisite Psych 101 in college), and he spends the remainder of the book giving circumstantial evidence about how checklists, even in the hands of professionals, can be misused and abused.

Multiple chapters are devoted to Ronson trying to apply the Hare checklist to both himself and interview subjects who might be good candidates for scoring high enough on the test to be psychopaths. His results are inconclusive, and he goes off on chapter-length stories about people who got their one minute of fame for being mentally ill. His contention is that we are all a little mentally ill, and these individuals got their one minute because they are a bit more ill than the average.

The penultimate chapter critiques the legitimacy of the psychology field as a true science by briefly describing: how the contemporary DSM was made (by a small group of academic psychologists yelling their opinions at each other in a room), the now-infamous 1970’s Rosenhan experiment of sending sane psychologists into mental hospitals to see how long it took them to get released, an incident of when some sleazy big-pharma reps tried to push drugs on a psychologist who didn’t want to hear about them, how children are being inappropriately diagnosed with mental illnesses based on the word-of-mouth of a few well-known psychologists instead of clinical studies, how an important clinical psychologist was revealed to be in cahoots with Johnson & Johnson, and how some psychologists admit that maybe they are not 100% right all of the time.

The subtitle of The Psychopath Test is ‘A journey through the madness industry.’ If that is the case, this one chapter should have been expanded to be the entire book. If the book is about psychopaths, then it should have spent less time reporting conversations with people with mental illnesses (because as we learned, psychopathy is not an illness). I am conclusively judging the book to be another piece of arm-chair psychology, and I have once again been taken in by appearances.

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