Converse's Reviews > The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
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's review
Nov 28, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: psychology, non-fiction, crime, abandoned

I got to page 182 of this well-written book before I lost interest. The book focuses on the test, which seems to a sort of checklist of behaviors or personality traits, developed by Robert Harr to identify psychopaths. The 20 bullet points include glibness (wish I had that), gradiose sense of self-worth, proneness to boredom, pathological lying, connning/manipulative, lack of remose or guilt, showw affect, callousness or a lack of empathy, impulsivity, irrespnsibility, and promiscuity, among other things. There are some some more objective factors on the list, such as juvenile delinquency or the revocation of conditional release.

The author, Jon Ronson, also interviews someone designated a psychopath in his homeland of Britain, a man confined at Broadmoor referred to as Tony who faked his way into a mental hospital from jail (he carried out a vicious assault) under the mistaken impressions that it would be no harder to get out (he ended up with 4 more years of confinement than his prison term would have been) and that mental hospitals are cushy places to reside. Jon Ronson was steered towards Tony by British scientologists; apparently this church or whatever you call it has a very low view of psychologists and psychiatrists. After observing Dr. Harr's tendency towards confirmation bias, I had some sympathy with them.

Both Dr. Harr and Dr. Martha Stout of Harvard Medical School are eager to push the idea that those in leadership positions are more likely to be psychopaths, though given that the estimate that 1% of the population are psychopaths is little more than a guess it hards to know. To examine this notion, Jon Ronson interviewed former Sunbeam executive Al Dunlap, who is notorious for closing manufactering plants throughout the southeastern United States, devastating many a small town in consequence. Unfortunately, Al, though clearly a man without much empathy, does not really punch all the buttons on the checklist; for example his second marriage has lasted 4 decades. Dr. Harr's response to this is that the data must be wrong.

My opinion is that the notion that a checklist is going to give you an infallible classification scheme is ridiculous. A checklist is just a sort of measurement, and no measurement is perfectly accurate. The checklist appears to me to be a measurement with a large variance; it particular it seems to me that different evaluators would often judge the same subject differently with regard, for example, to how manipulative or callous the subject is. Furthermore, social norms with regarding these things will change; I suspect that the bar for labeling someone as promiscuous was probably a lot lower a few decades ago, particularly when judging women. None of this is to say that there are not some very scary, callous people out there. I just wouldn't care to have my fate decided by someone working through this checklist.


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