Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 

 (, Kindle, Kindle, Flipkart ebookmy user review)
4 stars
The world is ruled by psychopaths. Breezy but slightly scattered look at the world of psychopaths

This is a book about the author's self-confessed attraction to the study of psychopaths, its sometimes dangerous consequences, and of course, a look at some psychopaths. This is certainly not a tour or journey through the madness industry - it is too diffused a travel to qualify as such. This book is however a look at the world of psychopaths as seen through the author's interviews and the time he spent with people who may or may not have been psychopaths. The evidence certainly suggests they are, but you never know with the really good psychopaths, do you? After with such an array of impressive skills as pathological lying, ability to con and manipulate people, and superficial charm, how could you ever be sure?

The author is a self-confessed nervous person. I first saw him on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, and his demeanor matches his writing. Writing about psychopaths, interviewing them, and meeting them, sometimes in asylums, can ignite an overwhelming wave of anxiety in most of us. The author is no exception.
I began to yawn uncontrollably around Kempton Park. This tends to happen to me in the face of stress. Apparently dogs do it, too. They yawn when anxious.
While spotting the true psychopath can be difficult, some psychopaths are easy enough to spot, especially when you have this kind of an exchange as evidence.
WOODCOCK: I just wanted to know what it would feel like to kill somebody.
INTERVIEWER: But you’d already killed three people.
WOODCOCK: Yes, but that was years and years and years and years ago.
Perhaps the single most identifying hallmark of a psychopath is lack of empathy. They look at suffering and they feel nothing. If they do observe emotions and people exhibiting human emotions, it is nothing more for them than an opportunity to observe how people react, so they can then be better manipulated.
All those chats about empathy were like an empathy-faking finishing school for him: “I did learn how to manipulate better,” he said, “and keep the more outrageous feelings under wraps better.”
The generally accepted authority on psychopaths, who has studied psychopathy extensively, and who authored the medical profession's generally accepted checklist for diagnosing psychopathy in a person - Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) and Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) - is Bob Hare.
Bob knew we tend to jump a lot higher when startled if we’re on the edge of our seats anyway. If we’re watching a scary movie and someone makes an unexpected noise, we leap in terror. But if we’re engrossed by something, a crossword puzzle, say, and someone startles us, our leap is less pronounced. From this Bob deduced that when psychopaths see grotesque images of blown-apart faces, they aren’t horrified. They’re absorbed.
Rob Hare's Psychopathy Checklist  is a twenty point checklist. A trained practioner is supposed to spend time with a subject, try to evaluate him (or her) on these twenty traits, and assign points.
Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm
Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
Item 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Item 4: Pathological lying
Item 5: Conning/manipulative
Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt
Item 7: Shallow affect
Item 8: Callous/lack of empathy
Item 9: Parasitic lifestyle
Item 10: Poor behavioral controls
Item 11: Promiscuous sexual behavior
Item 12: Early behavior problems
Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals
Item 14: Impulsivity
Item 15: Irresponsibility
Item 16: Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Item 17: Many short-term marital relationships
Item 18: Juvenile delinquency
Item 19: Revocation of conditional release
Item 20: Criminal versatility

    Psychopaths, Bob said, will invariably argue that their victims had no right to complain. They had insurance. Or they learned a valuable life lesson getting beaten up like that. Or it was their own fault anyway. One time Bob interviewed a man who had impulsively killed another man over a bar tab. “He only had himself to blame,” the killer told Bob. “Anybody could have seen I was in a rotten mood that night.”
    They’re the spouse who marries to look socially normal but inside the marriage shows no love after the initial charm wears off.”
    Perhaps the boldest assertion is where the author states that Bob Hare seems to think the corporate world is over-represented by psychopaths at the upper echelons of power. Lack of empathy, pathological lying, superficial charm, manipulativeness - these are all attributes that can contribute to a ruthlessness that can drive psychopaths to success in the workplace. As opposed to the estimate of 1% of the general population and 25% of the prison inmates being psychopaths, it is estimated that 4% of leaders in the corporate world may be psychopaths.
    “Sociopaths love power. They love winning. If you take loving kindness out of the human brain, there’s not much left except the will to win.” “Which means you’ll find a preponderance of them at the top of the tree?” I said. “Yes,” she said. “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you’ll find there.”
    a big study he’d coauthored, “Corporate Psychopathy,” had just been published. In it, 203 “corporate professionals” were assessed with his checklist—“including CEOs, directors, supervisors,” Bob said—and the results showed that while the majority weren’t at all psychopathic, “3.9% had a score of at least 30, which is extremely high, even for a prison population, at least 4 or 5 times the prevalence in the general population.” [Highlight on Page 162 | Loc. 2214-17]
    I was more interested in Bob’s theory about corporate psychopaths. He blamed psychopaths for the brutal excesses of capitalism itself, that the system at its cruelest was a manifestation of a few people’s anomalous amygdalae. He had written a book about it—Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work— coauthored with a psychologist named Paul Babiak. [Highlight on Page 137 | Loc. 1874-76]
    And when it comes to psychopath CEOs, the one name most thrown up is the former CEO of Sunbeam, Al Dunlap. The author goes to meet Dunlap in his Florida home, and spends a most interesting day there. Dunlap seems to have shed more tears for his dog than for the tens of thousands of employees he fired and the utter ruination he wrought upon the town where Sunbeam's factory was located. A high-scoring psychopath for sure.

    This book is short and breezy. There are three of four other persons that the author writes about in some detail; that were suspected of being psychopaths, or were in prison or in mental health institutions because they had been diagnosed as such. There is a particularly interesting account of a person who entered a mental institution, to escape a jail term for assault, by pretending to be a mentally ill person. Once in however, he found it difficult to get out. Catch-22 if you will. These accounts are interspersed with the author's meetings with Robert Hare, Douglas Hofstadter (the bestselling author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I Am a Strange Loop), and others. The book will likely leave you wanting more, and I think some of the books listed below would help provide more details and information.

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