The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry – Review


Rating: 3 Stars

This is a story about madness.


After John Ronson talks with a neurologist that received, like many others, a mysterious book in the mail, he embarks on a journey to find the meaning of this weird book and consequently, a journey through the madness industry.

He meets psychopath-researcher Bob Hare and interviews psychopaths, he asks what makes someone just mad enough to be interesting for the media and he meets the man responsible for cataloguing mental illnesses.

The Good

The brain and how it works and especially what happens when it doesn’t work correctly is a fascinating topic. I like reading about it and yes, I like reading about “madness”. I picked this book up mostly because I was interested in learning more about psychopaths. I think most people have an odd fascination with them. They appear in so many films and are often really interesting characters.

Jon Ronson visits a course by psychopath-researcher Bob Hare, the inventor of the psychopath checklist designed to determine psychopaths. Apparently, around 1% of the population are psychopaths, people unable to feel empathy. However, the amount of psychopaths in high-ranking corporate jobs and in cities is higher than the worldwide average.

Like Jon Ronson, I found the checklist utterly fascinating and started thinking about the people I’ve met that might be psychopaths and how they score on the items on the checklist. It’s scary to think that most of us have met psychopaths and the power people who have absolutely no empathy or regard for others can wield. Now, I never met a killing psychopath and hopefully never will. But in some ways, the “ordinary” law-abiding citizens are scarier. Chances are high you’ll meet one of them at some point. A boss, a co-worker, someone who can really screw you up because they are charming and utterly manipulative and have no qualms whatsover in using you or stepping over you.

‘Serial killers ruin families,’ shrugged Bob. ‘Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.

I also found his musings on how madness affects us and the world in general very interesting.

Aren’t you struck by how much action occurred simply because something went wrong with one man’s brain? It’s as if the rational world, your world, was a still pond and Petter’s brain was a jagged rock thrown into it, creating odd ripples everywhere.

It is a thought that never occurred to me: the amount of things that happen because of madness. Bad things, of course, but also some good things.

Suddenly, madness was everywhere, and I was determined to learn about the impact it had on the way society evolves. I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?

The main theme of the book are psychopaths, but he also ponders madness in general as well as how media uses madness for their own purposes. How people have to be just mad enough for them. Once they pass a certain point of madness (believing they are Jesus for example) the media attention dwindles.

Another topic I found very fascinating but which was only mentioned briefly, was how more and more people are diagnosed with some disorder or other, especially children.

The rates of diagnosis of autistic disorder in children went from less than one in two thousand to more than one in one hundred. Many kids who would have been called eccentric, different, were suddenly labelled autistic.

Unfortunately, it was only a short part of the book. It would have been interesting to get to know more about it.

I also really liked Jon Ronson’s writing. It is a creepy and difficult topic, but his humorous descriptions make it easy to read about it.

A stab had clearly once been made at de-uglifying these public spaces by painting a corridor a jaunty yellow. This was because, it turned out, babies come here to have their brains tested and someone thought the yellow might calm them. But I couldn’t see how. Such was the oppressive ugliness of this building it would have been like sticking a red nose on a cadaver and calling it Ronald McDonald.


The Bad

I picked up this book mainly because I wanted to read about psychopaths. However, despite the title and despite psychopaths being a big part of the book, it is not a good book to learn in any sort of depth about psychopathy. It is more like a brief introduction. We get the Hare checklist and some info about how the amygdala of psychopaths is different, but not more.

Mainly, the book is about Jon Ronson.

Actually, I now realized, I had been a somewhat power-crazed madness-spotter for twenty years. It is what we journalists do. It was why I had taken to being a psychopath-spotter with such aplomb. I was good at spotting the diamonds of craziness amid the gloom of normality because it’s what I’ve been doing for a living for twenty years.

I like my non-fiction books to not include the author much. I want to read about the topic, not about how the author did research and went places and met people for the topic and about the authors own problems with anxiety.

Furthermore, the chapters don’t seem very cohesive. Being loosely connected by “madness” is just not enough. We switch about a chapter about a mad guy sending people weird books to psychopaths and then back to a mad guy believing 9/11 was an inside job back to psychopaths and then to children being misdiagnosed with bipolar.

I think it was the book title that brought the main problem, getting me to expect psychopathy and not, as the secondary title states: a journey into the madness industry. Even so, I would have liked this journey to be more structured, topic-wise, and less about Jon Ronson.

The Conclusion

An enjoyable read but if you’re looking for in-depth information about psychopathy or madness, this is not the right book. It is more about lightly touching on certain subjects like psychpathy and about Jon Ronson’s journey.


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