Saturday, 18 June 2011

Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test
by Jon Ronson

(Picador RRP £16.99)


Even bloggers are supposed these days to declare an interest when plugging things, so I should perhaps mention that I received my copy of The Psychopath Test from Jon Ronson's own hands when he came to talk about it the other week in Cambridge. He's as entertaining in person as he is on the page, and readers of his earlier books (such as The Men Who Stare At Goats) will know what to expect: a quirky, self-deprecating and highly readable journey through some fairly strange territory.

His subject this time is darker, though it begins in picaresque fashion with the bizarre tale of a lavish, self-published and highly cryptic book which was sent, for reasons that are still unclear (but have nothing to do with psychopathy), to various psychologists around the world. With its jaunty tone and rogue's gallery of eccentrics - a Wall Street raider who fills his house with statues of lions and sharks, a Haitian paramilitary who collects plastic action figures, renegade MI5 officer David Shaylor - this is an amusing book about an unamusing subject. It's a risky venture, even for as subtle a humourist as Jon Ronson, and he doesn't always bring it off. But amid the weirdness there are important issues at stake, about the penal system, about psychiatry, about the nature of journalism itself, and Ronson does not shy away from them.

The Psychopath Test of the title is a twenty-point checklist devised by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare. Widely used in prison systems in many countries (including the UK) the test aims to enumerate the personality traits which together make up the psychopathic (or sociopathic) personality. They include: superficial charm, pathological lying, sexual promiscuity, manipulative behaviour, a lack of realistic long-term goals. The underlying factors, shared by all psychopaths, are lack of empathy and lack of restraint. Someone who scores highly on the Hare scale is likely to be deemed untreatable and a danger to society; they (usually he) may never be released.

Hare's approach emerged in reaction to liberal regimes of the Sixties and Seventies, which in some places involved pumping rapists and murderers full of LSD and encouraging them to emote. Such programmes failed: most of the psychos officially pronounced cured went on to reoffend, sometimes in horrific ways. The Hare formula is, by contrast, thoroughly pessimistic - psychopaths cannot be treated, merely identified and quarantined. There's a suggestion, indeed, that their - and society's - problem is deep-rooted and physiological.

Research suggests that psychopaths have a smaller than average amygdala - the ancient part of the brain that processes basic emotions such as fear. This may explain why they do not respond emotionally to strong stimuli (close-up pictures of horrific injuries, say, or the prospect of being given an electric shock). But there's a difference, surely, between the discovery that psychopaths have small amygdalas and the claim that having a small amygdala makes you a psychopath. What makes you a psychopath is psychopathic behaviour.

Mention of the amygdala reminds me of a strange piece of research a few months ago which claimed to find an association between neurophysiology and political orientation. Among other things, conservatives seemed, on average, to have larger amygdalas that left-wingers. Make of that what you will - or what your political prejudice prefers. Some on the left, characterising the amygdala as an ancient "fear centre", interpreted it as meaning that Right-wingers were primitive, fearful creatures who craved reassurance. But you could equally conclude that the conservatives were more empathic and had more friends, and it was the lefties, with their shrunken amagdalas, who were cold-hearted, unsociable and, maybe, borderline psychopathic.

Problems of definition become much greater when the Hare Test is applied - as it increasingly is - outside the criminal justice system. I first came across this some years ago when it was suggested (by Bob Hare himself, it turns out) that the late Robert Maxwell displayed psychopathic tendencies in his business practices and in his treatment of employees. Its tempting to start looking for psychopaths everywhere. After meeting Hare and going on his psychopath-hunter training course, Ronson gives in to the temptation with all the zeal of a convert. And when you look, you find. It was the same, once upon a time, with witches.

As I read this book, I became increasingly convinced that it is a temptation that should be resisted.

There may well be interesting parallels - and some overlapping personality traits - between psychopaths and people in all walks of life whose lack of empathy makes life miserable for those around them. Let's call them bastards. Robert Maxwell was a bastard, perhaps, but even his worst enemies (or his pension-fund victims) wouldn't claim that he tortured and killed people for fun, or that he had any desire to, or that the thought of torturing and killing people turned him on. But that, if the word means anything, is what a psychopath is: someone who gets off on torturing and killing people, who feels no remorse afterwards and who is, therefore, a continuing danger to society. All psychopaths are bastards, but all bastards are not (except in a colloquial sense) psychopaths.

In the final chapter, Ronson speculates that luck alone - the circumstances of birth, upbringing and life-experience - might make the difference between a murderous sex-crazed psychopath and a successful corporate raider. But as Al Dunlap - the man with the stone tigers - points out, to succeed in life requires self-discipline, something that he has in abundance. That might mean that he is not a psychopath; or it might mean that psychopaths come in very different forms. What I think it means is that the single term "psychopath" is woefully inadequate to describe the wide range of people who score highly on the Hare test.

Once someone has committed violent criminal acts, it is obviously important to ask whether they are likely to reoffend. If they have no remorse, no empathy and little or no control over their responses, it follows that they pose a high-risk of reoffending. Outside the criminal justice system, on the other hand, none of this applies. Calling a ruthless businessman a "psychopath" is, at most, emotionally satisfying.

Psychopath-spotting in business, in politics, even in the world of conspiracy theorists (in the Shaylor chapter, 7/7 survivor Rachel North notes the "complete lack of empathy" shown by the nerdish Truthers who tormented her for months) is misplaced. It devalues the word itself. It misses the point - which is that there is an enormous difference between a psychopathic criminal and someone who is merely a bastard, and it is that difference, not any similarities, that researchers should be focussing on. And it confuses true knowledge and understanding with a box-ticking exercise.

It matters not a hoot, frankly, whether or not Al Dunlop can be defined as a psychopath according to Bob Hare's checklist. It makes no difference to his career or to the people who he put out of work (who would have lost their jobs anyway, because Wall Street demanded it) and tells us nothing that isn't already obvious from his CV or from talking to people who experienced his ruthlessness in business. It's not news - would not have been news to the writers of the Old Testament - that greed and selfishness are often rewarded. It's part of the human condition.

Ronson leaves some fascinating questions hanging in the air. Does the prevailing economic system reward "psychopathic" behaviour and provide an environment in which "psychopaths" can flourish? Is the media world, with its constant source for novelty and sensation, guilty of "psychopathic" behaviour itself, even if the people working in it are not themselves "psychopaths"? Why do some delusional beliefs and conspiracy theories have a greater public appeal than others? (Ronson - or anyone else interested in this question - might like to Google the phrase "minimally counterintuitive") Is the Hare test part of a wider tendency in psychiatry to redefine normal behaviour as medically disordered?

One pressing question, though, is answered by one of Ronson's interviewees: "If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one."

Phew. You are probably suffering from General Anxiety Disorder, though.