Review of Jon Ronson’s THE PSYCHOPATH TEST

the psychopath test hardcover

There’s something that annoys me about journalists who ultimately make the story about themselves. We see it a lot with Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock: both of these documentarians try to make a point, but they end up involving themselves in the movie to the point where they movie is more about their own narrative rather than the issue at hand. British journalist Jon Ronson falls into a similar vein but with one distinct difference: where some journalists/documentarians are fueled by ego, Ronson is definitely fueled by the thrill of the chance. One thing that has characterized all of Ronson’s books is his need to get to the bottom of whatever he’s researching in. In THEM!, he tried to get to the bottom of all of the zany conspiracy theorists/extremists. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, he tried to unravel the truth in a bizarre series of events in the US Military. In The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011), Ronson attempts to discover what psychopaths are, why they are, who they are, and how we know.

The Psychopath Test is funny, informative, and even suspenseful. I want to point out the first chapter in particular: the first chapter might be the best thing Ronson has ever done as a writer. The book begins with Ronson learning about a series of self-made books that have been distributed to an exclusive group of people internationally. The people who receive these books are primarily academicians and intellectuals, but no one can quite discern WHY they received this cryptic book. The book itself seems to be a coded message, and many of its passages are ominously foreboding. Ronson attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery, and it launches him into search for what makes a psychopath. This first chapter was such a joy to read, and things become so crazy and strange — Ronson makes for a good character to lead us down this rabbithole. If you are on the fence regarding this book, sample the first several passages on Amazon, and that should be your litmus test.

The story that is told in the first chapter ultimately serves as the smoking gun for what comes later. Ronson interviews alleged psychopaths in a mental ward, researchers who pioneered work in psychopathy, the man who developed the current scale used to diagnose psychopaths, a psychopathic millionaire CEO, one of the first criminal profilers, and the man who devised the current form of the DSM (more on that in a bit). I do a lot of work in the field of psychology, so a lot of this information was not particularly new. However, with that said, the materialthat wasn’t new to me was still fun to revisit. Ronson retells a lot of this information with incredulously wide eyes and in a dry, witty way that’s hard not to love. If you’ve read any of Ronson’s work before, you know that the man is a very anxious, neurotic individual. This trait is accentuated here as Ronson travels among murders and other unhinged individuals. As Ronson becomes more involved in the subject matter, the more neurotic and paranoid he gets. Is he himself a psychopath? Are psychopaths going to find him and kill him for exposing him?

Interestingly, I found that most of the best moments in this book came from when Ronson was interviewing the perfectly “sane” people — the researchers who have spent their lives trying to pinpoint the identity of psychopaths seem to show the most psychopathic traits. This point is overtly made in one of Bob Hare’s seminars. Hare is the inventor of the current scale used to assess for psychopathy, and one of the members of his audience stands up and proclaims the man to be a psychopath himself. Hare, along with some of the researchers in the field all exhibit strange, quirky mannerisms, and their curious interviews were more interesting than, say, when Ronson interviews a mass murderer later in the book. To that point, hearing about the creation of the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (or DSM; the handbook on which ALL current abnormal psychological disorders are diagnosed and informed) was one of the highlights for me. When this interview comes late in the book, it feels only tangentially related to the main thread of The Psychopath Test, but as someone who works in the field, I was captivated by the story behind the influential manual.

jon ronson at the daily show

Including The Psychopath Test, I’ve read four of Ronson’s books. Out of these four, The Psychopath Test is the best written — while it can’t compete content-wise with THEM or The Men Who Stare at Goats, the book itself is a little more coherent than his past work. Don’t get me wrong, these chapters are disjointed, but Ronson has been able to link them together narratively so that the transitions mostly feel natural. With that said, the book is still pretty scattered, and it shifts between the personal narratives of Ronson’s travels and more expositional, historical accounts. The ending of the book is also pretty unsatisfying — Ronson tries to tie it all back together, but he is never really quite able to make it whole. This rickety conclusion is made worse by the lack of content of the book — even at nearly 300 pages, the book doesn’t feel very substantive. Of course, this is both a compliment and a criticism: the 300 pages really fly by.

Even though the book left me somewhat vaguely unsatisfied, the adventure was a lot of fun. There’s a ton of information for those who are both new and familiar with the field, and it is all synthesized in a way that is easy to digest and fun to read. If you’ve never come across a book/article by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test makes for a good place to start. In fact, I might even say that this is the best place to start; the book may be one of his funniest, and it is probably the least scattered/disjointed. If you are at all interested in psychopaths or the madness that lurks behind normal people, give this book a go.

A word about the Audiobook: If you enjoy listening to Audiobooks, the author himself narrates this book and does a wonderful job. Much like his other books, Ronson phrases and paces his own book terrifically. Because many points of the book involve Ronson introspecting, his own narration makes the book feel more personal than it already is. The length of the audiobook is approximately 8 hours (maybe 8 and a half), so it’s not too long. Additionally, its chapters are all about 45 minutes or so, and they make a great natural stopping-point for those who have long commutes / jogs. The Psychopath Test is currently on for relatively cheap, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an informative, breezy, fun listen.

Here is Ronson’s TED Talk (sigh) regarding much of what makes up the content of The Psychopath Test.

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