The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson
The book is actually about the famous psychopath test that Robert Hare perfected in the 80s. The test is famous as it structures the process of assessing someone on the psychopathy scale from 0 to 40. It is a journalistic enquire into the mind of a psychopath, exploring the traits of such a person while following the authors discussions and travels in searching for answers. The book ends up being vague, at least with certain aspects on how those stories are related to the topic of the book. However, looking back at my notes, Jon Ronson gives the scope of the book at the very beginning.
As the book progresses, we see the attention shifts towards people that are normal but are pushed by different circumstances towards acts of psychopathy. People switch off their empathy in high stress and unusual jobs. Everyone turns into a psychopath. They do it to get the promotion, they do it to reach the deadline, they do it because it seems everyone around them does the same. Most of the times, society does it as a whole for the most vain reason: entertainment. Think of all the celebrities we see every day, struggling with substance abuse, with stories that come day by day about how they feel off the wagon until they OD.
Think of reality TV shows that exist solely for us to get a view into their drama, or their families drama. Then think how many people consume this sort of media on a daily basis, rooting for the worst to happen. I feel this might be the main message of the book. We vilify madness but secretly fuel it and promote it. It’s not good, but we’re stuck in a media cycle. It’s who we are.
Luckily, the book is not out to take us on a guilt trip.
Some of the stories depicted in the book seem to be unrelated to the topic of psychopathy. Initially the book seemed to offer us a glimpse into the lives of those without empathy or capacity to connect with other people – killers, people in power that are able to decide the lives of thousands in a second, just to please their shareholders. But it then blurs the lines into what psychopathy is. In some ways, I understand this is done on purpose, as even with an established tool as the “psychopath test” – where exactly do you draw the line?
Jon Ronson talks about how he feels empowered by this tool, as he feels he can spot psychopaths everywhere now. The test itself is a slippery slope, both for the people who read it, but also for everyone as the processes and the mechanisms that drive the implementation of it on an institutional level have faults that effect almost everyone involuntarily.
While the test is an established industry standard accepted by all experts, the policies of applying it differ in every country. Out of a maximum score of 40, the cut-off for the label of psychopathy is 30 in the United States and 25 in the United Kingdom. That begs the question, if you are a psychopath in the UK, you aren’t one in the US? If you get a score of 25 you are one, but if you get 24 you are not? These questions are implied by the author, by exploring the relation between the facilities that deal with mental disorders and the effect on the general population.
One interesting chapter is where our current society is analyzed through its relation with the pharmaceutical industry. During the 50s, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was at around 65 pages and a manual that nobody took seriously. After a serious of revamps, it got to 494 pages in the 80s. It took countless workshops, countless psychiatrists to sit in a room and discuss the various symptoms of different mental disorders.
They came up with checklists that experts could use to determine the next course of action in treating those disorders. At this point in time, the researchers sent out thousands of questionnaires asking people how they felt. Turns out almost everyone felt terrible, more than 50 per cent of them were suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Another thing that the researchers learned from this is that people love to diagnose themselves! Self-diagnosis is a big business now, especially online.
The manual, DSM-III, sold out in millions of copies. Many more copies were sold than psychiatrists existed. People could finally get validation that there was something wrong with them and it had a name. Needless to say, pharmaceutical companies were delighted, they were able to turn their attention in creating drugs for many of those disorders.
Another unintended consequence of this was that it allowed psychiatrists to assess more quickly, based on industry practices, different mental disorders. Now we have many more children that are diagnosed with autism, attention deficit disorder or are bipolar. Interestingly enough, this led people to believe that the increase in autism today is due to vaccines, not to having better tools to diagnose.
To be honest, I started reading the book to see if I can spot psychopaths. I ended mistrusting the test itself. I feel there is a missed opportunity in assessing the real impact psychopath have on the society. Although the scope of that is broader and probably hard to analyze, it is also more important. I also became convinced that the way the whole industry works is a vicious cycle of self-induced problems. This isn’t the authors fault however.
There is a concept that I found very interesting in the book, the conformity industry – everything that keeps the machine working. Even though the machine, in this case, is not self-aware, the unintended consequences of it affect everyone. If people are unhappy or hopeless, we throw drugs at them hoping for an easy fix. This happens even though the test we use to diagnose those disorders are still being perfected. But a fix is better than no fix.
We want internal validation, that what we feel or go through is indeed normal, it’s written in a book, other people have it so there is still hope that I can fix things. We want external validation that others are worse than us, we encourage the media industry to show us the worst examples the can find, so we can feel better about ourselves. Ads tell us that it’s normal to be unhappy, but we can achieve happiness if we get that product, or the next one next year. Maybe the cause is somewhere else, this industry is just feeding off the symptoms. In the end, I’m none the wiser about psychopaths, but I certainly have more insight and more questions than before around this topic.