The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Published: 2011

I read it: July 2015


Four days ago I was not reading this book, and now I’m already finished. It was prompted by a coworker bringing up some Ted Bundy facts, and then a few of us trying to remember the difference between psychopath and sociopath. My wife had this book on our shelf for years after she read it, so I figured it was finally the time to catch up.

Jon Ronson puts the “journey” in “journalism,” framing his book around his own somewhat accidental plunge into some strange corners of psychology and psychiatry. It starts with a mystery and speeds along from there, as Ronson tries to figure out what’s behind psychopaths. These people, as defined by Bob Hare (who made the psychopath test or checklist), are:

“Predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.”

We know these types from movies and TV (think of the horrific killers from the British drama Luther). An early statistic from the book is that possibly one in one hundred people in the regular population are psychopaths, and that the prison population probably has a higher percentage. This is all strangely disconcerting to both Ronson and the reader, and there are some fascinating yet grisly tales around the people he researches and interviews. It makes you want to look over your shoulder while walking down the street.

Ronson spends a lot of time prying into the hypothesis that psychopaths thrive at the top levels of the corporate world, and also wonders whether journalism itself has a hand in putting mad people on display. Ronson tries to strike a good balance between believing that psychopaths are indeed identifiable and questioning whether over-diagnosis is a particular problem. There’s a lot of gray in here, and the book ends with few tangible conclusions. For example, the stat about one person in every one hundred being a psychopath, while memorable and used on the back of the book, is never verified in the slightest. Even our initial question went unresolved:

You may be wondering what the difference is between a psychopath and a sociopath, and the answer is, there really isn’t one. Psychologists and psychiatrists around the world tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Another reason this book struck me as the right one to read was its loose parallel with Incognito by David Eagleman. Both are unintimidating paperbacks with yellow covers, and both try to pull back the curtain between what we know and what we think we know about the brain (though Eagleman’s is a lot more scientific). Also, I was reading Incognito in the hospital in the days leading up to Isaac’s birth two years ago last week, and I remember hoping so much that he would have a more or less normal brain. Now we’re preparing for the second baby and I’m hoping the same. It goes without saying that there are crazy, dangerous people out here in the world. I apologize in advance, my son.

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