Q&A: When You Go Hunting for Psychopaths, They Turn Up Everywhere

  • Share
  • Read Later

Psychologist Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist is the most widely used diagnostic tool to identify psychopathy — not only in prisons and institutions. If you give the test to CEOs or other corporate executives, Hare says, a lot of them qualify.

In a new book, The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson (otherwise known as the author of the bestselling The Men Who Stare At Goats) talks to Hare and examines the impact of his test: is Hare’s checklist a crucial means of diagnosing incorrigible and permanently dangerous psychopaths, or is it just a tool of oppression, wrongly condemning mentally ill convicts to lifelong incarceration even after they’ve served their sentences?

(More on TIME.com: Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Science of Evil)

In Ronson’s exploration of the industry of psychopathy, he tries to understand society’s obsessive desire to label and corral madness, and along the way, talks to a bunch of fascinating psychopaths.

Why did you decide to write about psychopathy?

I’d been thinking for years that perhaps madness is a more powerful engine in our lives and in society than rationality. And then I heard from various psychologists that the consensus of opinion is that the most powerful madness of all when it comes to shaping society is psychopathy. Because whilst only 1% of regular people are psychopaths, 4% of business leaders are psychopaths. Theirs is the brain anomaly that shapes our world. And that just seemed like such a huge thought to me. I felt compelled to try to find out whether it was true or not.

Do you think “psychopath” represents a distinct category of people? Some argue that pretty much anyone can be psychopathic under some circumstances.

I do think I’ve met enough psychopaths now to know that there are uncanny similarities in the things they say. For all of the moral problems, there is a truth there in the same way that OCD sufferers will have uncannily similar rituals. I admire Hare for noticing that. What you do with that is another question, but I think he’s hit upon a truth.

Do you think psychopaths really do have a disproportionate influence on the world?

With all the moral ambiguities and complexities and so on, that makes it hard to say yes or no to that question. But, yes, I do think … that capitalism at its most ruthless is a manifestation of psychopathy.

There’s a section in the book where I do the psychopath test on [“Chainsaw Al” Dunlop, the former CEO of Sunbeam who was notorious for gleefully laying off thousands of workers to make more money], and he redefines a great number of the items on the checklist as business positives. He turned the psychopath test into “Who Moved My Cheese?”

The thing that’s so startling about his story is that the more ruthlessly and remorselessly psychopathically he behaved when he was heading up Sunbeam and the company before Sunbeam — Scott — the more he was rewarded. Capitalism rewarded psychopathy and I don’t think that’s a one-off.

(More on TIME.com: Why You Shouldn’t Make a Contract With a Psychopath)

And just look at what was behind economic catastrophe we’re currently suffering.

Look at the subprime market. I did an experiment a few years ago. I wanted to see which type of person got sent most the preapproved loans. I created a number of personas and signed them up for various mailing lists. One of my characters was a venal, vulnerable pervert, who only signed up for gambling, pornographic and bare-knuckle boxing, and he got sent all the preapproved credit-card junk.

At the time, that struck me as extraordinarily callous, the way they were deliberately handpicking vulnerable people who they knew they could enslave with loans. It also seemed stupid as well. It was clearly a house of cards.

One of the most remarkable studies you cover in the book involves a completely insane experiment. I was particularly fascinated by this because it confirmed other work showing that being cruel to the mentally ill — even if they are remorseless psychopaths — backfires.

There was a psychiatrist in the 1960s who felt, rightly, that the problem with psychopathy is that the madness is buried beneath a veneer of normality, but he felt, wrongly, that the way to cure it would be to bring the madness to the surface so it could be treated.

[He was] inspired by trips to meet people like R. D. Laing and also to these nude psychotherapy sessions. He got bunch of psychopaths and stuck them in a room called the ‘Total Encounter Capsule’ and got them to take all their clothes off. He gave them huge amounts of LSD and strapped them to each other.

[Then he] basically tried to get them to go to their darkest places by turning their world into a sort of living hell. A long time later, a study was done of their long-term recidivism rates. In regular circumstances, apparently, 60% of high-scoring psychopaths who are released into society go on to reoffend, but of the ones who’d been through the naked LSD encounter sessions, 80% had reoffended. It made them worse.

And it was not because it just turned them madder as I first thought, but because it taught them how to fake empathy better and made them more adept criminals.

(More on TIME.com: Why Juvenile Detention Makes Teens Worse)

Is that a dog I hear barking behind you?

Just because I’m a dog owner doesn’t mean that I’m a psychopath. It’s interesting that psychopaths prefer dogs to cats and I don’t think that’s a slightly glib thing to say. There seems to be lot of evidence to suggest that’s true because they offer unconditional love and that’s the only kind of love that pychopaths can handle.

A lot of your experts say that psychopaths are born, not made. But so many of them have histories of severe child abuse or neglect. That seems too simple to me.

What I’ve begun to wonder is whether the absolute is a neurological absence of empathy, and then what one chooses to do with the absence of empathy is down to nurture — so things like poor behavioral control, lack of remorse, lack of empathy and so on. If you’re raised in a very stable, loving family, maybe the lack of empathy is less likely to become brutal.

(More on TIME.com: Increasingly, Internet Activism Helps Shutter Abusive ‘Troubled Teen’ Boot Camps)

So the one raised in an abusive home becomes a serial killer and the one raised in a loving family becomes a CEO?

Yes. There’s also something very nihilistic about thinking, ‘Well, they’re just born that way and they’ll stay that way until they die.’

Why do you think anxiety is important in considering psychopathy?

To me anxiety and empathy are two sides of the same coin. I see psychopaths as people who don’t have enough anxiety and I see myself as someone who has too much anxiety.

You mean that anxiety makes you feel guilty about not being nice to people?

So you learn to be nice to them. I’ve always secretly thought I have this dark superpower, which is what makes me a good journalist. I’ve got a bit too much empathy. When I’m interviewing somebody I’m really aware of their fragilities, their frailties. I’ve always thought it’s because I’m so aware of my own, that I’m good at sort of unraveling what’s going on in somebody’s head, which I guess is having too much empathy.

I definitely came to the conclusion that anxiety may be a painful affliction but it makes us good people. It stops us from transgressing, it stops us from being immoral and an absence of anxiety is what makes people bad people.

(More on TIME.com: Why Kids Bully: Because They’re Popular)

A lot of this book is really about labeling mental illness or madness, about whether, say, Hare’s psychopathy checklist is useful.

Yes, and whether that’s good or bad. I certainly didn’t come to a polemical conclusion about it, but I’m proud of not coming to a polemical conclusion. I think that being certain in this world is a kind of madness, [especially if] you’re certain of where you stand in the labeling or non-labeling debate because there’s truth and nonsense on both sides.

For instance, there are the anti-psychiatrists and the Scientologists and others who say, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as anxiety disorders. Anxiety is just a normal response to an anxiety-inducing world.’ That sounds good but it’s not true.

Conversely there’s a lot of compelling evidence that the pharmaceutical industry is somewhat psychopathically compelled to get people diagnosed and medicated for financial reasons. You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to see the truth in that. Where I end up is hopefully in the complicated gray area in the middle.

And ultimately, where do you come down on the checklist? Can’t it be misused for political reasons?

It’s evident that the checklists came about for very rational reasons. It was a response to Freudian pseudoscience. But, and this is a lot of what the book’s about, it’s a tyrannical system; it’s got a lot of problems.

Speaking about political reasons: someone emailed me to say that Sean Hannity was using my book on the radio to diagnose Obama as psychopath! And they’re clearly missing the moral ambiguities of the story.

It seems to me with genuine psychopaths—and this is obviously subjective—but you get this eerie feeling of coldness, like you are with a predator.

I got that certainly with Toto Constant [who ran Haitian death squads] in the book. You get this kind of creeping sense when you’re with a proper high-scoring psychopath, an eerie sense that there’s a kind of absence, and it’s an absence of emotion. It’s also a proclivity to violence, that they can snap at any minute. Also, it’s a kind of absence that there’s nothing under the surface.

Do you think that genocides are largely instigated by psychopaths?

I tend to believe the theory that it’s the solution to a huge number of mysteries about how things are going in this world, everything from corruption in companies to genocide. Just look at the dictators, look at their grandiosity, their pathological lying, their lack of empathy, their lack of remorse. I know there’s a terrible seductive danger in seeing psychopaths everywhere, but sometimes it’s just impossible not to.

One thing that the book looks at is how startlingly quickly that even someone like me, who is the most anxious pathetic liberal, becomes cold and hard and starts spotting psychopaths everywhere. When you become aware of it, you sort of become drunk with power. It’s really compelling.

So, yeah, that’s absolutely true. However, it is very easy also to leave your own belief system behind and enter another one. Still, we’re not all capable of being [genocidal killer] Vladic, there’s a very clear line in the sand.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.