There are three easy steps to falling into the psychopath trap: first discover the Hare checklist for scoring psychopathic qualities, second apply the test to everyone, third realise that anyone you've had doubts about – including yourself if you are the anxious kind – is in fact a psychopath.
The Psychopath Test opens in the vein of a conspiracy thriller, with Ronson investigating mysterious deliveries of books to a worldwide selection of neuroscientists. This anecdote tenuously links in with the premise of the book, by reminding Ronson that there are some odd people out there.
The narrative fidgets back and forth through time, picking a path through assorted interviews, assignments and oddments of research, pulling them together to suggest there was a plan in place from the outset. There is a broad cast, Ronson draws in Douglas Hofstadter, David Shayler, Scientology, Broadmoor prisoners, Haitian paramilitary leaders – even Sean Connery makes a fleeting appearance. The Sunday magazine style of writing makes for easy reading, but suffers from heavy-handed pointers to the date by reference to world events and blatant product placement. Although why a coffee shop chain would want to be linked to psychopaths is never made clear.
Ultimately the story told is of the limitations and abuses of psychiatry, through electrotherapy, induced comas and mass LSD dosing to flawed psychological profiling and unwarranted imprisonment. Along the way we learn of mental disorders of times past that reveal much of society at the time and raise questions about the value judgements behind current categorisations. In the 19th century the disorder drapetomania, only ever seen in slaves, had one symptom namely the desire to run away from slavery. It was about 1980 before homosexuality was removed from the definitive text of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Ronson's self-portrayal has a mocking tone, making it clear that conclusions he draws at certain stages are soon to be over-turned. He grabs the Hare checklist with glee, revelling in the power it gives him to unlock the secret signs of a psychopath in body language and nuances of sentence construction. Then, having diagnosed psychopath potential in himself he wonders how to act sane if he ever had to convince somebody – perhaps he would try too hard, how do you cross your legs in a sane manner?
In “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the Voigt-Kampff test, applied by an expert, can be used to detect androids. Tell-tale signs are lack of autonomic responses to emotionally provocative questions. In the real world, the Hare checklist is used in much the same manner. Psychopaths are not believed to feel emotions, so they do not show normal emotional responses. On being shown a picture of a frightened face and asked to describe the emotion, one psychopath said he didn't know but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them. The consequence in Philip K Dick's story is death at the hands of a bounty hunter, here life imprisonment is more likely. Unfortunately, the test is often applied by people who spent the course twiddling their thumbs and doodling.
The spotlight turns at times from criminals to executives – suspicious because of their clinical lack of empathy – to journalists, cold-heartedly exploiting vulnerable members of the public to produce entertainment that reassures the rest of the public that there are others out there madder than them. Not just journalists, but also their interviewees score highly on the psychopath test – grandiose sense of self-worth, failure to consider consequences and a need for stimulation to alleviate boredom being likely reasons many agree to be interviewed.
Survival tips for psychopaths and non-psychopaths
Avoid London (psychopaths gravitate to bright lights)
To avoid your quest for world domination being uncovered be boring (journalists will never write about you).