The crazies

Call it coincidence, but ever since starting Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, a journalistic exploration of the sociopathic, I’m seeing psychos everywhere.

By psychos I don’t mean the creepy guy on the train who stared at me for literally 28 minutes this morning (I counted), or even the recent string of clearly mentally ill Batman/Muslim-hating shooters. I mean the run-of-the-mill everyday people whose lives involve, or are in some scenarios contingent upon, a complete lack of empathy for the problems, stresses, fears and tragedies of others. And also everyone not on Facebook.

In The Psychopath Test, Ronson investigates historical and current definitions of psychopathy, including the famous Hare Checklist, a 20-point diagnostic tool used to identify psychos. He speaks with Bob Hare, and other psychologists, as well as criminals and other persons who have either been openly accused of psychopathy, or whose personal history indicates some susceptibility to it. Throughout the book, Ronson inserts his own ruminations on the subject, and tries—however casually—to ascertain whether a) current definitions or diagnoses of psychopathy are fair or true and b) psychopathy is as prevalent as some of those definitions might suggest.

The Psychopath Test is short, but fascinating. Ronson manages to chat with some fairly terrifying people—murderers, conspiracy theorists, a Haitian warlord—and other theoretically less terrifying people, like the former CEO for toaster-maker Sunbeam, who gleefully oversaw the wholesale firing of almost half the company’s workforce. He speaks at length with Hare (of checklist fame), as well as with other professionals whose unique approaches to psychopathy have earned them praise and/or criticism. (Among the historical treatments Ronson discusses: 12-hour completely nude sessions, where psychopathic patients would hug, wrestle and discuss their emotions with one another. These were held in the 1960s by my new favorite possible relative, psychotherapist Paul Bindrim, and advanced in the 70s by psychiatrist Elliott Barker, who added LSD to the mix.)

While the idea of remorseless mass murderers sharing their emotions is appropriately scary (and somehow hilarious?), the most interesting part of Ronson’s book is the suggestion that psychopathy exists with disconcerting prevalence among regular successful executives. In fact, Hare co-authored a study called “Corporate Psychopathy,” in which 203 corporate professionals were assessed using his checklist. Some 3.9% of them scored at least a 30 (out of 40), which is 4-5 times the prevalence of psychopathy in the general population (commonly agreed to be around 1%.) What does that mean? Per Hare, “it is four or five times more likely that some corporate bigwig is a very high-scoring psychopath than someone just trying to earn an okay living for their family.”

Of course, it’s extreme to suggest that the world’s most successful corporate leaders are all in fact crazy people masquerading as normal, but there are some facets of psychopathy that are not only accepted but embraced in corporate culture. Here is a conversation between Ronson and an anonymous money manager—”Jack”—about the draconian job cuts made by Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap:

“If you look at any research report from the time, it’s so transparent to anyone who understands what’s going on.”

“What do you mean by ‘research report?'” I asked.

The “research reports”—Jack explained—are written by hedge funds and pension funds and investment banks, advising their clients on which companies to invest in.

“Wall Street, or the darker side that writes these research reports, lionized the job cuts,” said Jack. “If you look at the community of support—if you were to grab research reports of the time—you’d be amazed at the comments.”

“Like what?”

“The level of callous jubilance over what he was doing. You’d probably wonder whether society had gone mad. It was like in the Coliseum. You had the entire crowd egging him on. So who really is the villain? Is it the one who’s making the cuts? Is it the analysts who are touting it? Is it the pension funds who are buying?”

“Of course that was all twelve years ago now,” I said. “Has anything changed?”

“Not anything,” Jack said. “Zero. And it’s not just in the U.S. It’s everywhere. It’s all over the world.”

Now, no one’s denying the economic benefit of cost-cutting, or the hard reality of reducing a workforce. But when you think about it, really think about it, lack of empathy continues to show up in decisions that led to the financial collapse, the wiping out of individuals’ savings and the ever-increasing income gap. In his infamous Goldman Sachs resignation letter, former executive Greg Smith wrote, “Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets.’” More recently, in the Libor scandal, financial professionals consciously and fraudulently manipulated the value of an interest rate upon which a whopping half of the nation’s adjustable-rate mortgages are based. Concern for the greater good is trumped time and again by greed and personal interest, and sure, that’s capitalism, but it’s also maybe a little psychopathic.

Consider this: In a Gawker post this week, Hamilton Nolan suggested the imposition of a $5 million maximum income; any money made over that threshold would be taxed at a rate of 99%. And what if all the rich people say they’re moving to Canada? As Nolan put it:

“I defy the slickest PR firm in America to explain to a nation of struggling, underemployed working class people with a median household income of just over $50,000 why [someone earning $5 million a year] felt the need to leave the country—taking money out of the taxpayers’ pockets in a very literal sense—rather than donate, to the common good, earnings over one hundred times the nation’s median household income.”

Excusing for a minute the economic questions of income caps, speaking strictly from a psychological standpoint, isn’t that a fair question? How do people emotionally justify making exorbitant, truly insanely exorbitant, amounts of money while so much of the population suffers from poverty, hunger or worse? Simple: By detaching ourselves from the experiences of others, or by qualifying those experiences to avoid accepting responsibility. Both of which, by the way, are points on Hare’s checklist.

I suppose in part due to my extreme lack of faith in humanity—and wholesale rejection of the idea that everyone is, at their core, truly good—I’ve always been hugely intrigued by mental illness, and psychopaths/sociopaths specifically. In The Psychopath Test, what Ronson does extremely well is broaden the topic, beyond the killers and rapists we know are (and feel comfortable identifying as) psychopaths, and into a more nuanced exploration of what that identification means, and who else it could apply to.

What Ronson doesn’t do is sensationalize the subject, or suggest that every capitalistic success story is also a victory for psychopathy. The Psychopath Test is well-researched and fair, insightful without being definitive, and really truly engaging (I came away with more than a dozen books to read and movies to watch.) If you’ve ever wondered about this segment of the population, which I’m dubbing The Other 1%, definitely pick up this book.


TITLE: The Psychopath Test
AUTHOR: Jon Ronson
PAGES: 272 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Men Who Stare at Goats
SORTA LIKE: Mary Roach meets Se7en
FIRST LINE: “This is a story about madness.”

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