The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (London: Picador, 2012. 288 pp)

Jon Ronson is a Welsh journalist, author, and documentarian. He studied at Westminster University. Ronson’s most known work, The Men Who Stare at Goats, became a feature-length film.

Making Soup

As an impressionable teenager, I had the opportunity to learn a few valuable tips about teaching and public speaking. The biggest, and most important, point I’ve continued to hold dear is the principle of illustrate and elevate. That when you have an idea to convey, you want to find a story, a metaphor, or a joke to give the audience an idea about the direction of your discussion.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Copyright: Creative Commons

During this learning experience, I gained an engrained concept of never telling the audience about the process, or, “not divulging how you made the soup.”

In other words, an audience doesn’t want to hear how you stayed up late night after night forming the lecture.; an audience doesn’t care if you struggled with the topic; an audience doesn’t really think those “eureka!” moments matter that much. So an opening illustration should never touch these subjects.

Yet, Jon Ronson seems to break this code throughout his book, The Psychopath Test.

Psychopathy as Soup

An exploration of madness and how it influences our world, the entire book reads as the expanded notes of his journey from the first iteration of the idea to his final conclusions on the topic.

The style of the manuscript strictly follows an autobiographical narrative. Granted, Ronson is really funny and the style certainly accentuates is humor. Consider this anecdote:

Write something about Narcissus, I added on a fresh page. Write something about the moral barrenness of padding around a mansion that’s much too big for just two people, a mansion filled with giant reflections of yourself.
I smiled to myself at the cleverness of my phraseology.
‘You understand, right?’ said Dunlap. ‘You’ve had some success. You’re like me. When you reach a certain level, jealous people go for you. Right? They lie about you. They try and cut you down. You did what you had to do to get where you’ve gone. We’re the same.’
Also write something about the Queen of Narnia, I wrote” (169).

But ultimately, Ronson recounts every interview in the process of making this book, and ultimately The Psychopath Test feels like a recipe for how he made this batch of soup.

A Journey into the Madness Industry

Ronson’s work, here, begins with a question. Hired to solve some sort of odd puzzle plaguing academics worldwide, he runs into the issue of psychopathy:

“I thought about my own over-anxious brain, my own sort of madness. Was it a more powerful engine in my life than my rationality? I remembered those psychologists who said psychopaths made the world go around. They meant it: society was, they claimed, an expression of that particular sort of madness” (32).

This premise, honestly, intrigued me to pick up the book. Is there a high percentage of our world leaders—politicians and CEOs alike—prone to psychopathy? Is it possible that the pain and depravity we often attribute to humanity ought to be associated with the decision makers in society?

Seemingly, yes. Ronson’s investigation leads him to Bob Hare, a criminal psychologist who developed a psychopathy checklist. If a patient scores high on this test, he or she is deemed an incurable psychopath who ought to be locked away. To Bob, administering this test was the closest thing to righting the wrongs in the world. Ronson notes,

“This —Bob was saying — was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty? The answer: psychopaths” (117).

With checklist in hand, Ronson seeks out potential psychopaths to test his theory. From an ebullient person who accidentally faked his way into a mental institution, to a cutthroat capitalist, to a Haitian war criminal.

Ultimately, Ronson concludes there’s a little bit of madness in all of us. Hare’s checklist helps profilers quickly diagnose extreme cases of psychopathy, but any of us could find ourselves testing well on that list with the right circumstances. Ronson suggests,

“I think the madness business is filled with people like Tony, reduced to their maddest edges. Some, like Tony, are locked up in DSPD units for scoring too high on Bob’s checklist. Others are on TV at 9 p.m., their dull, ordinary, non-mad attributes skillfully edited out, benchmarks of how we shouldn’t be” (281).

Searching for More

Nevertheless, I found The Psychopath Test lacking. In the media run paralleling the book, Ronson often mentioned the hypothesis that our business leaders are all psychopaths. Considering my profession as a business consulting analyst, this premise intrigues. Yet, Ronson never truly dives deeply into this premise. It exists as an interesting hypothetical, but Ronson’s analysis doesn’t run much deeper.

Sadly, The Psychopath Test often explains the process of making soup, not evaluating the soup itself. The premise is excellent—Ronson write with witty aplomb—but the book could’ve been much better.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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3 Comments Leave a comment
  • Jessie

    Why do all writers need to follow a cookie-cutter mold? I haven’t actually read any of his books, rather I prefer listening to him tell the stories. I find him incredibly engaging and fascinating. Does he have to answer the question? Or rather can it be a spring board for the reader to consider? I am “reading” (listening) to “Lost at Sea” right now and am highly engrossed.

    • Donovan Richards

      Jessie, you raise an excellent question and I would agree that writers ought not always follow a cookie-cutter mold. In this instance, however, I would argue that I’d rather read a book than read about the process behind why the book was written. Ronson is incredibly engaging in his interviews and his passion for the subject during his media blitz, in concert with your recommendation, led me to the book in the first place. Perhaps my thoughts would be different were I to listen to the audiobook versus reading it. I have much respect for Ronson and I enjoy his humor. This book just didn’t live up to the expectations I had for it. And of course, that’s a bit unfair to Ronson. I just picked this book up expecting something else.

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