Can you spot a psychopath?

Jon Ronson

First aired on Day 6 (05/21/11)

What makes a psychopath? An entire genre of entertainment has been built around this question, everything from Alfred Hitchcock's classic films to television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds. We are fascinated by how the mind of a psychopath works, and how that mind came to be.

Acclaimed British journalist Jon Ronson spent the last two years with psychopaths and psychiatrists to delve into the mind of a psychopath. He travelled from mental institutions to the corridors of power in search of the true meaning of madness and turned this experience into his latest book, The Psychopath Test

"One thing this book taught me was there are people out there who aren't like us, they're missing a really important thing and that thing is empathy, and in the absence of empathy, twisted trees grow," Ronson told Day 6 host Brent Bambury in a recent interview. With the help of renowned Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare, Ronson said he learned "how to become a professional psychopath spotter," adding that the newfound ability turned him "power-crazed. I became very cold and slightly psychopathic myself."

Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist, which is a list of 20 items that indicate traits such as a grandiose sense of self worth, proneness to boredom and callous lack of empathy, among others. Subjects are ranked on a scale of zero to two, depending on how much of each characteristic they show. The percentage of people with psychopathic tendencies in the general population is slightly less than one per cent, while in prisons the number rises to 25 per cent. CEOs and heads of business, at four per cent, do not rate as high on the scale as prison inmates but rank higher than the general population. "I think that capitalism at its most ruthless is the physical manifestation of psychopathy," Ronson said.

For The Psychopath Test, Ronson sought out Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap, a famous corporate downsizer of the 1990s, who had previously been pegged as a psychopath of the corporate world by the business magazine Fast Company. In his meeting with Dunlap, Ronson discovered that the businessman was missing several important items on the checklist and had redefined others into business positives. Ronson said he "felt really disappointed when he didn't fit into all the items."

In his book, Ronson writes that "people in the middle shouldn't necessarily be defined by their maddest edges." However, he is wary of drawing attention to mental illness deniers, and likens them to people involved with the 9/11 truth movement. Ronson believes that psychopathy and mental illness are very real, but cites childhood bipolar disorder as a recent case of misdiagnosis. He commented, "Kids as young as two and three years old are being diagnosed as bipolar because they seem to fit the items on the bipolar checklist. But, in fact, all that's happening is that they're having temper tantrums."

The Psychopath Test will make you think about mental illness, but Ronson doesn't want to anyone to feel bad or embarrassed about their own mental state. "We are living in an increasingly conformist age," he told Day 6. "You don't have to feel bad about being anxious; you don't have to feel bad about being imperfect. It's kind of fine, we all are."

A Widows Story

The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson

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From Penguin Canada:

"The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry."


Read more at Penguin Canada

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