Journalistic nonfiction makes an unspoken promise to readers: it doesn’t just tell a tremendous story, it forces readers to question and examine current cultural practices and societal values. A strong journalist knows how to write articles that do more than just expose the facts. Many call it an ethical code, but I call it a mark of skill, developed over the years by knowledge of craft and lots of experience. Making a strong case for both of these claims, quirky journalist and self-proclaimed humorist Jon Ronson exposes more than just the facts in The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry (Riverhead, 2011). With two titles under his belt (Men Who Stare at Goats and Them Adventures with Extremists) and a curiosity that might just get him killed, Jon Ronson delivers on the unspoken promise. Journalist Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test

After a series of curious events involving an excursion to Europe and a mysterious manuscript, Ronson sets out to explore insanity. He wants to know how insanity is determined and why some people are considered more or less insane than others. More specifically, he strives to answer a question: what makes someone a psychopath? Why is it that some people – Wall Street business executives, for example – are considered “driven” and “motivated”, while others – a young man in Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric facility, who claims he feigned mental illness – are considered “psychopaths”?

At its heart, The Psychopath Test questions the authenticity of labels – those which others give us and those which we give ourselves. When we worry about behaving abnormally and feeling “crazy” or “mad”, are we contributing to the social disease – this overuse of labeling, categorizing, and diagnosing?

“We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.”

And the general public loves reading about eccentrics. So it is delightfully suitable that Ronson is a bit of an eccentric himself, which is what makes his voice and humor so endearing to the reader. As begins his journey through the madness industry, meeting psychologists and neurologists to figure out precisely what makes someone a psychopath, Ronson bares his neuroses to the reader and sets us up to consider our own. In a fit of anxiety, he searches WebMD for a preliminary diagnosis, wondering if he exhibits signs of mental illness like the patients he has been interviewing. In order to locate the source of his anxiety, Ronson must reduce specific behaviors and life circumstances down to selectable symptoms and factors for disorder and disease. The greatest implication of Ronson’s self-examination via the Internet is how psychology is being reduced to a business of conformity: serving up the crazy people to show the public what they shouldn’t be like. Think The Jerry Springer Show, Maury, Cops – and in more recent years, Hoarders and Alcatraz.

“Practically every prime-time program is populated by people who are just the right sort of mad, and I knew what the formula was. The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we’re becoming, and in a recognizable way. We might be anxious but we aren’t as anxious as they are…. We are entertained by them, and comforted that we’re not as mad as they are.”

Gauging psychopathy has been reduced to a calculated number of factors, a subjective scoring system that is widely accepted in psychiatry in spite of the assessment’s controversial and unreliable science. Circumstance, it turns out, determines much more of madness than hard science because our society knows so little about the human brain and the source of human behavior. Ronson becomes certified in the Hare Checklist, the reigning guide in evaluating psychopaths since the mid-70s. He meets with Robert Hare, its creator, to interview him about the Checklist and discovers that they share the same concerns about the future of psychology and mental health diagnostics today. Where is the line and can any of us – especially journalists and mental health professionals, worries Jon Ronson – see and distinguish it?

Even more worrisome, Ronson questions whether diagnoses are affected by socioeconomic circumstances. Hare Checklist factors listed under “juvenile delinquency” – abusive parents or siblings, early promiscuity, frequent unauthorized absences from school, defiance of authority figures, among others – strongly inform diagnoses of psychopathy in adults. But how many of us adults can cite some of these same factors in our own childhoods? Is it fair for crappy childhood circumstances to tip the scales toward madness when adult behaviors are the subject of assessment?

“I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.”

Take the case of Rhinotillexomania, a nose-picking disorder. It sounds like it shouldn’t be a disorder, right? That is, until you read the DSM-IV classification which explains that individuals diagnosed with Rhinotillexomania pick their noses until their facial bones are exposed. Since it falls under the category of self-harm, it deserves to be included in the DSM-IV. It is a compulsion, dialed up high, crossed over past the line of healthy human behavior. But how about Child Bipolar, Autism, or Attention Deficit Disorder? Are these genuine disorders that require a medical diagnosis and regimented medication? How do we separate erratic behavior from that which may cause us and others harm?

Ronson leaves readers with more questions than answers and explores arguments from both sides in a relatively balanced, unbiased way. As all journalists ought. The final chapters of The Psychopath Test, though, send a clear warning – a whisper of Ronson’s own opinion on the matter – to readers: what is stopping the madness industry itself from going mad?

8 thoughts on “Skirting the borders of madness in Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test

  1. And a good reviewer, who is a non-expert in the field, avoids making broad claims, i.e., the system for scoring mental illness has “zero” validity; we know “so little” about the human brain.

    • Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for the note. To clarify, I am paraphrasing there from Ronson’s book. Ronson and Hare sit down to discuss the scientific reception of the checklist, which has undergone many critical examinations for use as a reliable scientific method to assess psychopathy.
      You might be interested in my perspective, especially if you look at this book from the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law in which the PCL is called a “false prediction of future dangerousness” because of its wide margin of error in assessment (likely due to its subjective nature). The Journal also calls research and evaluation of the PCL as “complicated”, however. Violence risk prediction is an inexact science and is widely regarded as such, so I don’t believe I’m making broad claims in my review. We have made leaps and bounds concerning the study of human behavior and our understanding of the brain is much improved even within this past decade, but by no means do scientists believe we know enough about the human brain for assessments such as the PCL to be the best, most reliable metric. For now the PCL stands up as a method of assessment, but it is not scientifically valid or reliable – it’s “complicated”.

  2. Ronson seems to offer a contemporary argument that follows from that of Thomas Szasz in his 1970s classic, The Myth of Mental Illness.

  3. Then you should state: “According to Ronson . . . .” The text reads as if you were making these statements on your own.

    • I love seeing this dialogue among colleagues. Ruth’s editorial suggestions and Danielle’s responses demonstrate best practices for social media for authors. Readers like to know more about what the author intended, and comments add a critique worth noting. Blogging is a forum for testing the waters for one’s ideas and writing. Feedback is an important part of the writing process. I liked the ideas Danielle expressed in her review of this timely book on psychopaths. Ruth’s editorial comments are offered in the spirit of constructive criticism. The best part of blogging is the engagement with the readers. What do you think?

      • I would be very much interested to hear Ruth’s take on the book, should she choose to read it. I hope that this debate inspires visitors to this blog to buy his book!

    • Ruth,
      I suppose I must respond by agreeing with you. I found that, reading Ronson’s book, I concurred with many of his sentiments about using the Hare Checklist to singly define psychopathy in men and women. The Checklist is perhaps the only measure – indeed, the industry standard – of psychopathy today. There is no other test used as widely. And, since it is an assessment and not a medical examination, it is neither subject to government review nor routinely evaluated for margin of error among certified Checklist practitioners. I paraphrase Ronson in words but also in sentiment, but I also agree with his opinions and, as such, they are entangled with my own!

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