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Book Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

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 There are two things that will happen to you as you read Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test (Riverhead Hardcover). First, as Ronson journeys further and further into what he calls the madness industry, you will start recognizing the behaviors and beliefs attributed to psychopaths in people you know, primarily in either former or current bosses. Second, you will inevitably become hypersensitive to your own display of lack of empathy towards others. I was in New York while I was reading Ronson’s book, and all I could think about were all the pleas I ignored from the homeless people begging for money on the street.

It turns out such behavior makes me a jerk, but not psychopathic. Psychopaths, as it turns out, are unable to connect feelings with memories. A psychopath will look back on the memory of passing a homeless person on the street without offering assistance and feel nothing. I look back on it and feel guilt. Guilt does not come into play with psychopaths. They are very much a the-ends-justifies-the-means class of people. And, here’s the most horrifying revelation in Ronson’s book, it’s this particular quality that makes psychopaths ideal leaders in politics and business.

Ideal, that is, if power and money are what you value most. Wall Street loves psychopathic CEOs because they make the hard choices that truly trim the fat and make companies more profitable, sending stock prices up and up an up. Psychopathic leaders of countries make ideal allies for countries like the US because they will sell out their own people in order to hold onto power and keep US dollars flooding into their own pockets.

So, the question arises, if you are taking advantage of the actions of a psychopath, does that make you a psychopath? The answer is probably no. There is an actual test, the Hare Test, designed to identify psychopaths. It consists of questions surrounding 20 traits of a psychopath. The maximum score one can get is 40 points. In order to be diagnosed as a psychopath, you would have to score 30 or above.

The truly scary part is that Ronson, a journalist by trade, took a short seminar on how to administer the Hare Test and was armed with the knowledge of identifying psychopaths in our midst. It was an element of the book that reeked of pop-psychology and made me feel far less secure about the mental health industry.

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating tale written by a skilled journalist. It gets my highest recommendation because it makes you consider your own morality and the morality of those around you. There are passages that make you laugh, cringe, and shake your head in utter amazement.

One word of caution: don’t make the mistake of thinking that reading the book makes you qualified to spread rumors around the office that your boss is a psychopath.

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About R.W. Ridley