Monday, 2 July 2012

The Psychopath Test

Title: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
Author: Jon Ronson
Pages: 293 (paperback)
Published: June 3rd 2011
Published by: Picador

This is a story about madness. It all starts when journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist. She and several colleagues have recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail, and Jon is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for the answer, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness. 

Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths. Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power... 
Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is a deeply honest book unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges.

Psychology is a huge subject, and even though I spent three years studying it at university, psychopathy was one thing we never even touched on (to the best of my recollection at any rate...) which is a shame because it's an incredibly interesting topic. That there are people for whom their emotional reactions to others just don't work the same as in other people.

This book doesn't start out as being about psychopathy, but about a number of academics who received a strange book in the mail. When Jon Ronson is brought in to try and work out how it came from and why, it sets him off on a path that will lead him to many interesting people and places - because for it's a little disturbing, psychopathy is to me undoubtedly interesting. He learns about, and discloses, Bob Hare's checklist for finding psychopaths and while I don't know anyone who particularly stands out in any of the ways put forward there, it is definitely something I'll be on the lookout for in the future. He then moves on to thinking about madness in general and the place it has in society today, and there are definitely some interesting conclusions reached in the course of his research and the people he meets.

Ronson is a very good writing - not surprising considering that he's a journalist - and he quite easily engages you, weaving smaller side stories throughout the narrative of his journey through the madness industry. Still, I've got to say I think the earlier part of the book was better than the later purely because of the subject matter. I found the strictly psychopathy parts more interesting than the more general madness parts, even though the overall subject is still the same. He also manages to bring humour in, and I quite often found myself snickering at the thoughts he has, or the things he says and the way people react.

He is concise, and you never feel bogged down in any details of anything, but neither are you left confused. Yes, I have some background to the whole 'psychology' thing, but I've probably forgotten most of what I ever knew, and I didn't think there was anything that would have confused someone who didn't know anything about the subject. Ronson has obviously done his research very well and knows what he's talking about.

A good and interesting book with a good insight into something which few people probably really know anything about.

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