Book Review: ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book where you read this and about five pages in think, ‘Wow, Ronson is a solid journalist!’ And he does actually delve more into his own process here, which gives a better picture of what makes him great at his job. He has this very self-effacing style that makes it sound like he’s stumbling onto big stories and running into fascinating conversations with elusive people by accident, but a little bit of that façade falls away here.

Also, Ronson makes me giggle. It’s just something about the borderline absurdity of how he tells things. He sets himself up a complete paranoiac, and then completely diffuses the situation. Which is a lot of fun. Also, as with ‘Lost at Sea,’ the sense that he does have strong opinions about his subjects even while keeping the interviews and the actual words on paper fairly neutral.

So what is this one about, anyway?

While psychopathy is the framework and does dominate the background, especially once Ronson goes through Hare’s course on using the PCL-R (‘psychopathy checklist,’ the psychopath test) and then a power trip (evidently, a checklist is a very powerful thing), don’t forget that the rest of the title mentions the ‘madness industry,’ which ranges from an exploration of psychiatrists and Scientologists (the leaders of the anti-psychiatry movement) and even how the media, Ronson included, exploits the extremes of personality for the sake of entertainment.

The story itself is strung together and appears to jump from place to place, but of course there is an underlying narrative that he does a better job of bringing together at the end. I’ve a feeling his narrative style is somewhat loose (see ‘Lost at Sea’ again), and I did feel like this book would be strengthened by a stronger stance on the matter of psychopathy or at least the way society looks at mental illness, as opposed to a recounting of human behavior that is fairly open to interpretation. Ronson is almost too good of a journalist here, refusing to take the center stage in his own narrative.

© Gary Larson

There is this amusing bit where he gets the DSM-IV-TR (that’s ‘text revision;’ it was taking so long to come up with the DSM-V that the board released an interim version) and ends up self-diagnosing himself with about eighteen different things. If you’ve ever taken a psych class you know this is exactly what happens, and it’s kind of fun to read it from someone else’s view, especially when that person isn’t immediately jumping into so much academia that he’s over it a day later. Ronson also brings back points from the ‘psychopath test,’ looking for ways to label people he doesn’t like as psychopaths. Of course, he sees some of these traits in himself. Which is one of the things you learn about psychology early on (and what ruins self-diagnosis): people with psychological disorders don’t have traits that don’t exist in the standard population. They have those traits, or are unable to regulate those traits, to such a degree where it interferes noticeably with normal life.

The one real downside to this book for me, though, was actually the fact that the DSM-V’s updated criteria for behavioral disorders have been released, and the new stance on things like antisocial personality disorder and socio/psychopathy (they’re almost synonymous) would have been interesting to discuss here. The matter of trying to quantify something as complex as a psychological disorder with something as simple as a checklist is interesting, not least because it’s the closest to objectivity you can get. The revised standards for behavioral disorders have, as far as I know, been met with acclaim, but unfortunately this book has to use the DSM-IV-TR. It’s not Ronson’s fault, of course, but it would be cool if updates could be made here.

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