by Barry Edelson


The Psychopath Next Door

Are there more of them than we think?


If we are to believe the experts who are cited in Jon Ronson's intriguing book, The Psychopath Test, we are surrounded by psychopaths. In fact, most of the world's problems can be attributed to the high concentration of psychopaths in high places, and our failure to recognize them as such. At the same time, according to these same experts, identifying a psychopath is very difficult. As Erik Larson wrote in Devil in the White City, his depiction of a serial killer in Chicago in the 1890s, a psychopath is someone who does an excellent impersonation of a normal human being.

Hence the test in Ronson's title. It is a checklist developed by a Canadian psychologist, Bob Hare, and has been in widespread use for decades by penal systems in many parts of the English-speaking world. A score of 30 out of a possible 40 designates an individual as a psychopath, and numerous criminals have been kept behind bars beyond the terms of their official sentences solely on the basis of this test.

Take the case of Tony, a charming young rogue who scored high enough on Hare's test to be held indefinitely in an English institution for the criminally insane. He spent years trying to prove to his jailers that he was not a psychopath. The author visits Tony several times, and has a number of lengthy conversations with him in person and over the telephone. While most of the other prisoners are disheveled, incoherent and volatile, Tony is always impeccably dressed and perfectly lucid. He maintains that whenever he answers a question intended to determine whether or not he is a psychopath, the answer is turned against him no matter what he says. If his answer is so deliberately outrageous that not even an insane person would say it, he is deemed to be crazy. On the other hand, if his answer is exactly what a normal person would say, it is used as evidence of his psychopathy. In being required to prove a negative, his fate would appear to have been sealed. In Ronson's telling, the whole approach seems more than a bit unjust: like telling a person in perfect health that he is deathly ill, and that his insistence that he feels just fine and has no symptoms is proof positive that something is terribly wrong.

The author comes to like the prisoner, in a way, but he remains wary. He can never quite decide if he has really gotten to know the real Tony: is he being sympathetic towards an innocent victim of an overzealous criminal justice system, or manipulated by a psychopathic genius who is more than likely to repeat his crimes should he ever succeed in gaining his release? Through the examination of this case and several others — a deranged professor who sends multitudes of cryptic messages to other academics, a retired CEO who earned his wealth and reputation for the ruthless, even gleeful, way he fired people, among others — Ronson finds it too easy to come to conclusions about his subjects' mental states. After sitting in on a Bob Hare training session with people in law enforcement on how to administer the psychopath test, he is, for a time, a true believer. He starts to notice psychopathic tendencies in many of the people he knows and encounters (including himself), and starts to accept Hare's hypothesis that psychopaths are ubiquitous in human society. Over time, however, he gradually realizes that some of the people he marked out as true psychopaths also show some traits not normally associated with the type, such as traces of empathy, generosity or loyalty to a spouse. He comes to see that psychopathy isn't as cut and dried as some of the experts suppose, and that it is in fact difficult to identify them precisely because very few people exemplify the type completely.

Movies and literature have perhaps done us a disfavor in the realm of psychopathic characters. Both genres are filled with them, from Hitchcock's "Psycho" to "The Silence of the Lambs", from John Fowles' "The Collector" to Alan Bennett's "The Outside Dog". Each of these examples presents an unforgettable and, in most respects, plausible depiction of a mad killer. (That so many fictional examples emanate from England is an object of conjecture that will be left to others to ponder.) However, if one percent of the human population were really psychopaths, as Bob Hare says, there would be so many Hannibal Lecters among us that life would be unlivable. No evidence is given for this one percent figure, and we are hard pressed to imagine how any such statistic could be established without administering the psychopath test to a large swath of the general population, an effort that has not been attempted. The only place where it has been used widely is in prisons, where one would certainly expect to find a preponderance of such people. But as the case of Tony shows, pinning a label on someone is fiendishly difficult, and has life-altering consequences. There are indeed criminals who are incapable of reform, and for whom various forms of therapy and rehabilitation — for example, teaching them about what others feels and what proper social interaction is — only serves to make them more effective psychopaths than they were before. How to isolate them from the garden-variety criminals whose motivations are primarily economic, for example, rather than anti-social, is not something to be undertaken lightly. Even Hare himself admits that a score of 30 out of 40 is an arbitrary demarcation line between psychopathy and normalcy. What about the person who scores 20 on the test? How long a sentence does that person deserve? Is there such a thing as a half-psychopath?

In a way, yes. Ronson's book brings to mind the writings of Oliver Sacks, who over the course of a long career as a neurologist has written many essays about individuals with strange mental conditions. There is the woman who cannot recognize the faces of people she knows well (a condition, called prosopagnosia, from which Sacks himself suffers), or the man who churns out paintings of his Italian village in excruciating detail, even though he has not lived there or even seen it for decades, or the man who, after a serious brain injury, becomes obsessed with the playing of music. What one finds striking in each of Sacks' studies is how uncannily familiar these peculiar traits seem to us. We are continually interrupted by the thought that we know someone who is somewhat like this, just as Ronson started to notice psychopathic characteristics throughout the society of his acquaintance. We can't help but wonder about the anti-social behavior of particular people we know. We make conjectures about certain traits and connect them, perhaps incorrectly, to others. For example, the individual who is emotionally remote, or is devoid of a sense of humor: does that not signify a lack of social understanding? Can someone be considered normal if he doesn't get the joke that everyone else is laughing at, or doesn't greet people in a friendly way? Can we trust him?

The more we encounter these mental states, however, the more the delineation of "normal" and "abnormal" fades into irrelevance. Ultimately, we are left with the sense that there aren't lunatics and monsters over on the far end of the scale, and the rest of us on the other. Instead, it would seem that the whole of human psychology is spread across a vast spectrum, and that virtually all of us, with our complex of mutually contradictory personality traits, are somewhere in the middle. Even the concept of a spectrum is perhaps too limiting, as it suggests a direct line between sanity on the one side of an arbitrary center line, and madness on the other. More precisely, we could instead imagine a vast, multi-dimensional scattergram, with each of us occupying any number of positions at once: our selfishness over here, our generosity over there; our cool rationality in one position, our susceptibility to illusory notions somewhere else entirely.

Though The Psychopath Test goes to great lengths to remain ambiguous about the diagnosis of psychopathy, it opens a window into the human psyche that few of us wish to explore. Like any good horror flick, the book is simultaneously entertaining and terrifying. But while a scary movie may delve into our subconscious without asking us to analyze it, The Psychopath Test demands that we take seriously the societal implications of having, perhaps, a lot of psychopathic individuals in positions of power and influence. We have all noticed that the upper tiers of any organization are more often than not occupied by those who have less rather than more empathy for other people, thus enabling them to forge ahead and make hard, even life-threatening decisions, that others with more fellow-feeling might shrink from. Success does seem to come more easily to those who will not hesitate to push aside others on their way up the ladder, and so psychopathic tendencies would naturally accumulate in board rooms and elected legislatures, much as toxins in the environment become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.

If we limit the designation of psychopath solely to serial killers and ruthless dictators, we limit our understanding of the scope and variety of human interaction, and make ourselves more susceptible to the depredations of those more inclined towards psychopathy. From the woman who is attracted to an abusive man and stays with him for years despite the evident damage to herself and her children, to the legions who support a political leader whose public charm disguises private brutality, we might be better served if we had a deeper understanding of what motivates such people, and, more importantly, what motivates us to follow and be deceived by them.

Is Bob Dylan a psychopath? The extensive interview he gave for the PBS series "American Masters" provides a handy example of the public persona that is lauded by millions as a great artist, but is quite evidently unlike "ordinary" people. Dylan is certainly not a psychopath, if we stick to the strictly popular definition: he hasn't murdered anyone, as far as we know (though he has committed crimes against the art of public performance, which is another matter). On the other hand, he has behaved in ways that most would judge as exceedingly selfish and anti-social. Take one anecdote: as a young man, he found it difficult to find records by Woody Guthrie, with whom he felt a strong affinity. Two men of his acquaintance had a collection of Guthrie's recordings, and when he knew they were away from home, he went into their house and helped himself to them. It took some time for the men to track Dylan down and attempt to get them back. What was his rationale for simply stealing someone else's property? As a "musical expeditionary" — a self-glorifying phrase apparently of his own invention — he was simply entitled to them. In other words, as a superior artist, they belonged to him, not to these other people who happened to possess them.

Is there a difference between such behavior and that of a despot, who gathers the wealth of his nation to himself by divine right, or some other conveniently selfish justification? It would seem to be a difference not in kind, but in degree. Absolutism in this question is clearly mistaken: One may be exceedingly selfish, cold, unfeeling, narcissistic, manipulative and calculating, and still not be a psychopath. There are any number of schoolyard bullies and domestic tyrants who are compelled to dominate others and who might indeed merit a diagnosis of psychopathy. But there are undoubtedly others who have done even more terrible things, such as obedient soldiers who commit atrocities, who would score lower on the test. How could we tell the difference? And what would we do about it if we could?

The book provides no simple answers, though it instills considerable fear about the consequences of our failure to root out these people. There are apparently a small but unknown number of individuals who are incapable of being reformed and definitely deserve the psychopath label, and an unknown number of others who lean strongly in that direction. As they are capable of great injury to others, they are best avoided. The only realistic solution is to lock them away where they can do little harm. This is rather difficult to do if they haven't yet committed any actual crimes. Or if they themselves are judge and jury.

August 8, 2011




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