Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test is the newest book by Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare At Goats (which was made into a hilarious movie with George Clooney) and Them: Adventures with Extremists.

Ronson’s foray into the world of psychopathology is much more fun than the topic would suggest. Ronson has what he calls a “nebbishy” outlook on life. (“Weak-willed or timid” from the Yiddish nebekh, according to the Free Online Dictionary.) His self-deprecating narrative style brings out the absurd in –- well, everything. And it turns out psychopaths are actually very funny. At least, you know, on paper.

Ronson’s curiosity is initially piqued by a mysterious book called Being or Nothingness, an anonymous tome interspersed with blank pages which was delivered to a number of researchers in different fields. Ronson's attempt to track down the author somehow opens an investigative path leading to Scientologists, Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital, a Haitian killer, and David Shayler, a former British Security Service officer who at one time claimed to be the Messiah. Along the way, Ronson attends a training course on how to recognize psychopaths, which causes him to start spotting psychopathic tendencies behind every bush.

Ronson looks at how the psychopath test is being applied in practice, how we label people, how we define mental health. More broadly, he touches on the explosion of mental illness diagnoses and how that grew out of one man’s desire to provide an alternative to psychoanalysis. There are fascinating threads that don’t have time to be fully developed in the book, like is there really a provable relationship between psychopathology and becoming a CEO or a politician? and where is the line between recognizing and addressing serious mental health issues and overdiagnosing and overmedicating people?

Really fascinating stuff, and Ronson leads us through it with accessibility and humor. I’m putting this guy’s other work on hold.


  1. Would you say that, even though Ronson didn't answer those questions, it was a thorough book? Or did it just skim the topic, and not really propose answers to the questions it raised?

  2. I think it was a broad overview taken from Ronson's unique and entertaining perspective: both of the topics I mentioned are worthy of their own books, so I didn't expect a complete discussion; at the same time, I was a little bit disappointed, as I often am when a good book stops too soon! Ronson's conclusion, that we are as individuals increasingly defined by our "maddest edges," was well-supported.