The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths, teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power.
He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath. Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.
©2011 Jon Ronson (P)2011 Tantor
"Engrossing.... This book brings droll wit to buoy this fascinating journey through 'the madness business.'" (Publishers Weekly)
The book is constructed like a travelogue of a journey. The author arrives in one spot and then pursues each thing that catches his interest without any clear plan. This makes for an interesting path through the "madness industry": we meet new people, hear new things, and get quite a bit of the author's own thinking about these people and these things (perhaps too much of the author's thinking) and then the journey is over. Like travel done in this way one is left richer in stories and perspective but there has been no comprehensive survey, no particular goal has been achieved, and all one's evidence is anecdotal.
If you are looking for a critique of, state of, or even definition of "The Madness Industry" you will come away disappointed. If you are interested in one man's introduction to psychopathic behavior and his subsequent adventures with both psychopaths and those who study them it will make for an interesting read.
The Psychopath Test was my first introduction to Jon Ronson, both as an author and as a narrator. And such is the nature of both his idiosyncratic writing style and vocal delivery, that it took me a while to realize that I quite liked it.
This isn't exactly what I was looking for. Again, not being previously familiar with the author (I'm a little more familiar now), I expected a more serious tone. Ronson treats his material seriously, but there is often a tongue-in-cheek aspect to his writing, leaving the reader wondering if the author means EXACTLY what he's saying. Once I got used to the style, I found it enjoyable.
Although this book is full of information about psychopaths, it will leave you even less sure about their nature--if it can even be said that psychopaths have a nature. TPT isn't what I'd call scholarly journalism, but it's an eye-opener nonetheless.
While Jon Ronson reveals a great deal about his own neuroses in this book, he casts little light on the psychopaths he is allegedly researching, though he does give some interesting insights into the "madness industry" of psychologists who have studied, categorized, labeled, and tried to treat psychopaths, mostly without success.
Ronson begins with a strange introduction to the field of psychology and mental illness thanks to a group of Scientologists, who chose him to "expose" the evils of psychology. Scientologists believe that all mental disorders are because of engrams accumulated from past lives or space aliens or some such thing. L. Ron Hubbard had a particular hatred of psychologists. Ronson spends a little time discussing the peculiarities of Scientology, but this book is primarily about psychopaths and what makes them tick... and what makes the people who study them tick.
After reading The Psychopath Test, it is not hard to believe that you have to be a little bit crazy to study crazy people. (Look out for those Abnormal Psychology majors...) From the arbitrariness of what goes into the DSM (did you know that far more copies are sold to interested non-academics/non-practitioners than to mental health professionals?) to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, a diagnostic tool that's become a quick and dirty way to label someone a psychopath, to the Rosenhan Experiment, the history of psychology is filled with enough self-reinforcing bumbling and egomania to make one think the Scientologists may have a point.
While Ronson's book is a collection of interesting anecdotes and observations, digressing into the overmedication of children, misdiagnoses of autism, and the brutality of capitalist devotion to "shareholder value," between interviews with ex-death squad leaders and allegedly psychopathic CEO Al Dunlap, it's a bit weak in its critique of science, and sheds little light on his subjects.
Martha Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door was more illuminating. Ronson does, however, give a bit of a glimpse into the mind of a sociopath in a way that Stout only addressed abstractly: how do sociopaths/psychopaths (there is no technical difference between them) see themselves? Do they recognize that they are "broken"? Do they ever want to be cured, and can they be? (Short answer: no.)
Ronson's interview with Al Dunlap was particularly interesting, as he actually confronted Dunlap with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and the allegations that Dunlap, according to this tool, scored high on the psychopathy scale. Dunlap proceeded to point out that every behavior presented as evidence of being a psychopath could also be interpreted as someone who has a forceful and driven personality who gets things done. True enough, there is a lot of evidence that psychopathy is an asset in positions of power, like boardrooms.
Ronson is able to see how some of his subjects ape normal human reactions and manipulate people the way they'd handle a TV remote control, but others, like Al Dunlap, are more ambiguous. Is Dunlap really a psychopath, or just a merciless SOB? As both Stout and Ronson point out, even genuine psychopaths are rarely serial killers; most live law-abiding, respectable lives, though never out of any actual respect for the law or society.
An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.
I found this book thoroughly enjoyable. The anecdotes are funny and interesting, and you get enough of the science (arguably pseudoscience) to inform the casual reader. I think a seriously scientifically minded person would probably not enjoy this book as the author is not academically rigorous in his exploration of applying the psychopath test--he only selects a few samples and applies the test in a haphazard manner. But I think that is intentional. I think the point of the book is to explore the way that we concieve of and treat madness, using the criteria for psycopathy as a case study. The author interjects just enough of his own opinions while leaving a lot of it open for the readers to reach their own conclusions. I, for one, happen to agree with what I believe he suggests--that while there are many people who have serious mental illnesses that necessitate treatment and therapy, the criteria we have for mental disorders are malleable enough to overdiagnose many others to their detriment. The piece on childhood bipolar disorder at the end is particularly unnerving. I would also note that I listened to this book on audio from audible and it is read by the author who has a great speech pattern. Bit of a British accent makes for nice listening and he uses good emphasis and is a good storyteller. Something fun to listen for is the way he emphasizes responses to questions--"Yes" is said very definitively.
A really intriguing look into the mind of both the psycopaths and the people who study them. Ronson reads his own work here, which is occasionally a little rough but more than makes up for the fact with the added pathos he brings. Great listen.
I saw Ronson appear on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", and immediately added the book to my Audible queue. It was one of the most interesting and thought provoking books I've read in a long time.
Lover of ideas who feels no guilt at all about her pleasures.
This book was the perfect blend of arty, intellectual NPR vibe, Otherwhere, and Twisted Sensibility to accompany my dreaded Sunday cleaning. I loved it It's a highly entertaining pursuit of a fascinating question: Is there an us and a them?
My first introduction to Joh Ronson was an excerpt from this book on This American Life, which I found intriguing. The book has many more surprises.
Ronson is one of those authors who has a distinct speaking voice and it adds another layer to his work to hear him read it. I wish he would record some of his previous books.
Informative, insightful and wickedly funny, this is Ronson at his best. His wonderfully comic self-deprecating humor is refreshing on a topic that could otherwise be quite depressing--and is a welcome change from the self-important tone that typifies so many works of this genre. It also invites you to take a look at yourself, even as you start checking off the psychopathic traits of the people you dislike. Highly recommended!
"The Psychopath Test" takes us on a journey through a host of interesting characters, including scientologists, psychiatrists, patients, and of course "psychopaths", giving us a variety of perspectives and insights along the way. Jon Ronson takes a postmodern approach to his subjects, an underlying skepticism which leads to interesting questions and speculations. While a moral relativism mutes some of the book's passion, this is made for by Ronson???s introspective self-doubt and honestly. Ronson brings some important social quandaries to light ??? what to do with psychopaths, the potentially psychopathic nature of our leaders, the reliability of psychiatric checklists, and the potential dangers of diagnosing and medicating children, to name just a few.
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