The Psychopath Test is one of my favourite Popular Science books. Jon Ronson’s writing style is interesting and accessible; he covers unusual topics and brings them to an audience who might otherwise dismiss them as mere oddities. He covers topics that are serious, but are difficult to take seriously. He’s a bit like Louis Theroux, but less telly-oriented.

The Psychopath Test isn’t just about psychopathy; it covers other mental health and social issues, and delves into the weird world of some curious individuals. I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s enlightening and very readable. But this post is about the test named in the title.

A big part of the book is about how we categorise mental health disorders, and how the definition of said disorders is evolving and broadening (the chapter on the DSM-V is very good). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist has 20 “questions”, rated 0 (not at all), 1 (somewhat applies) or 2 (definitely applies). Here they are, courtesy of

  • glib and superficial charm
  • grandiose estimation of self
  • need for stimulation
  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • superficial emotional responsiveness
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • poor behavioral controls
  • sexual promiscuity
  • early behavior problems
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  • many short-term marital relationships
  • juvenile delinquency
  • revocation of conditional release
  • criminal versatility

The assessment isn’t done by simply ticking 20 boxes, it’s carried out during a detailed interview with a psychiatrist. But some of the items above seem… worrying. Obviously some can only apply in certain circumstances (i.e. you cannot commit a parole violation unless you’re already in the criminal justice system), but some seem dependent on society’s chosen moral benchmarks (many short-term marital relationships, and “promiscuity” may seem reckless and sinful to some, but part of an ordinary lifestyle to others). As society changes, do we reclassify mental illness to suit our own prejudices?

Yes, the questioning takes account of many different factors, but how many of these can combine to give a false positive? Who doesn’t know someone who is impulsive, irresponsible, and with no realistic long-term goals? Sounds a bit like the 21-year-old version of me…

Of course, the book is written in a way to get the reader to question such things. It doesn’t set out to rubbish the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy, but to think about them critically. Of all the branches of medicine, this is one of the newest, and perhaps one where we are making discoveries the quickest. We have a limited understanding of the human mind, and I would be surprised if we have anything approaching a complete knowledge of its workings in my lifetime. However, this book will give you a good overview of the current situation, and some of the (admittedly esoteric) ways in which we got to where we are now.

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