Posted on April 29, 2017
What is a psychopath? Is it someone cold and unfeeling? Is it someone who can hurt or kill without emotion? Or is it a convenient label for people who society judges by the most extreme parts of their personalities? These are the questions Jon Ronson explores in his book The Psychopath Test.
A good taster for this book is Ronson’s TED talk on his research into psychopaths. I watched that first and it inspired me to get the audiobook out of the library. It’s a great introduction to the topic and to Ronson’s humorous, self-effacing style.
The central topic of Ronson’s book is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a list of 20 personality traits and behaviours that theoretically add up to a person being a psychopath. The list was devised by Robert Hare in the 1970s, and Ronson was exposed to it when he went on a course to learn about psychopathy, and left with a certificate of attendance that technically qualified him as a ‘psychopath-spotter’. The list includes items such as ‘grandiose sense of self-worth’, ‘sexual promiscuity’ and ‘cunning manipulativeness’. After studying the list, Ronson found himself looking for the 20 traits in almost everyone he came across, and this is one of his main concerns in the book: whether a tool like the checklist encourages its users to look for psychopathic tendencies in ‘ordinary’ people.
“Relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.”
Ronson’s writing style is very entertaining. He is funny and unafraid to share his own particular neuroses. I especially enjoyed him explaining how he felt relief when he applied Hare’s checklist to himself, because he is far too riddled with anxieties to be a psychopath. I listened to The Psychopath Test on audiobook, read by Ronson himself, and it was great to hear his words in his voice. Something I found particularly captivating was how he narrates speech. Somehow, in reading out snippets of actual conversations, Ronson manages to make them sound slightly alien, not quite real. It all adds up to that pervading sense of oddness throughout the book.
There is a lot of interesting stuff in The Psychopath Test, from insights into modern drug culture and childhood mental illness, to revelations about experiments carried out on diagnosed psychopaths in the 1960s, involving LSD and nudity. However, I didn’t find myself completely captivated all the way through. This might be to do with the fact that I mostly listened to the book whilst running (and so I was thinking about other things), but sometimes I found it difficult to get completely absorbed in Ronson’s investigation. For me, Ronson’s TED talk was more interesting for its succinct summary of the main points; extended over the course of the book, it lost my interest in places.
I have heard from other reviewers that Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a much more captivating read than The Psychopath Test, and I would like to try that next. However, if you’re interested in this subject, or you just like Jon Ronson, then this one is a decent read.
“I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy The Psychopath Test here.