It feels like it has been forever since I last made an entry into the Scott Drotar Literary Review. This week’s book, like many of the works I have reviewed, was something that I read as a result of my ever-growing TED talk addiction. I watched a talk by the best-selling author of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” Jon Ronson, about psychopathy, and I was so intrigued by what he had to say that I quickly went to www.Amazon.com and purchased the book that spawned his talk, “The Psychopath Test.” The text version was even more interesting than Ronson’s talk had been, to the point that I had a hard time putting it down. This book is so thought provoking because it examines the pivotal question, and one that as a psychologist I have spent countless hours pondering, “How do you know you are sane?”
In “The Psychopath Test” Ronson takes you with him on his journey to examine the idea of sanity. He does this by looking more specifically at the mental disorder, psychopathy (sometimes called sociopathy). While technically psychopathy is not found in the DSM-5, the handbook containing all diagnosed psychological disorders, it is often lumped in under anti-social personality disorder. It is generally described as having a complete lack of empathy and conscience that allow individuals to function “normally” in society. These individuals are the epitome of “looking out for number one,” and they are often masterful social chameleons who can be deceptively charming, charismatic, and intriguing to achieve their goals. Since these people are incapable of conscience, they feel no remorse for their actions, and this means they will do anything and everything to get what they want. It is believed that psychopathy is untreatable, which means that once you are labeled a psychopath (which is done by taking a mere 20 question checklist), you will be treated as one for life. If the facts that psychopathy is not defined as a mental disorder and that a one-time, 20 question survey can give you this label forever doesn’t raise some red flags about the nature of this disease, and determining sanity in general, I don’t know what will.
While I don’t want to give away too much, Ronson uses these vague definitions and at best mediocre diagnostic criteria, as a jumping off point for his investigation into the world of insanity. He interviews a diagnosed psychopath who allegedly faked having a mental disorder to use the insanity defense to get out of a lengthy prison sentence, but ended up being diagnosed as a psychopath, which is lifelong and untreatable, and served over a decade in a maximum security hospital for the insane. He meets with a hugely successful former Fortune 500 CEO who, although never diagnosed with psychopathy, scored well above the threshold on the diagnostic test. It is actually believed by many that while in the general population the rate of psychopathy is about 1%, in the cut throat world of CEOs and hot-shot Wall Street brokers, where a lack of conscience is often an asset, the rate is as high as 4%. Ronson even meets with a convicted murderer, drug kingpin, and diagnosed psychopath for a polite lunch interview during his quest for the truth. These individuals are just the tip of the iceberg however (can you say scientologists?), as he leaves no stone unturned on his pursuit of uncovering the truth about what it means to be sane.
If the subject matter and the ramifications of the possible results of this journey through the world of psychology are not enough, the writing style of “The Psychopath Test” is also worth the price of the book. Ronson uses his unique, conversational style to put the reader inside his head to hear his thought process throughout the book. This is both entertaining and informative as you get to share in his inner dialogue as he converses with these criminally insane individuals over coffee. This style also does a great job of complementing the frequent dialogue depicting the many intriguing interviews he conducts with psychopaths and psychologists alike throughout the entirety of the book. I cannot think of much of anything that I would change about this look into our minds and what makes us the sane, normal people we think we are.
The question of what it means to be sane, as well as who and how we make this determination, is something that can drive you crazy (pun intended). Ronson does a magnificent job of shedding light on this quandary in a way that is entertaining and insightful. If nothing else, this book will make you start wondering which people in your own life would qualify as psychopaths, which is reason enough to pick it up. That is why “The Psychopath Test” gets a 5 out of 5 on the Roll Models Review Scale.