How to Spot a Psychopath – A journey through madness or a mad journey?

In the early 19th century, French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel coined the term ‘manie sans delusion’ referring to the one per cent of the population that appeared normal on the surface but lacked impulse controls and were prone to outbursts of violence. In 1891 it became known as ‘psychopathy‘.

I have just finished reading Jon Ronson’s riveting journey into the heart of that difficult to detect but fascinating to read about affliction, in his recently published book ‘The Psychopath Test’.  An extract from the book published in the Guardian piqued my interest as I was 1500 words into writing a short story around the theme of ‘Ego’ and I had a notion that one of the protagonists was a psychopath, or at least had psychopathic tendencies, so I was interested to know more about how to identify and make those behaviours manifest through a character. Through Ronson’s article I followed a trail and found myself eventually consulting Bob Hare’s 20 point checklist and thus had the insight I was looking for.

‘The Psychopath Test’ is no textbook and it shouldn’t be used to do what he did – random analysis of people you know; its part mystery, full of intrigue, with equal doses of curiosity and anxiety as we follow him equipped only with his journalistic tools into a world of charm, deception and manipulation where nothing is as it appears to be, or is it? He uses his tools to excellent effect to present us with investigative stories he pursued which read more like a detective novel than the work of non-fiction it is. Only it’s not a detective novel because ironically you would need more the qualities of a psychopath to be a successful detective than the anxieties and overdose of empathetic feeling the author has. Ronson is very entertaining, he admits and shares his anxieties and self-diagnoses his own mental deficiencies in a playful and identifiable way.

He presents a look into a field that has had its share of experimental and controversial programs, practices and institutions as well as its staunch adversaries such as the Scientologists, who continue their campaign to discredit the profession and individuals within it to this day.

Having tried to solve the initial mystery of uncovering who has sent a group of neurologists and academics copies of the same cryptically puzzling book, Ronson sets out to acquire basic skills in identifying potential psychopaths and arranges interviews with likely candidates, searching for and pleased by anything that seems to fit with his criteria and admitting his disappointment when their responses don’t quite fit the profile.

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Fascinating though the extremes are, it is interesting to see how many ordinary people give accounts of behaviour in pursuing high achieving goals at work, which border on psychopathic behaviour, such as detachment, the eradication of empathy and remorse. What’s more the percentage of psychopaths in the corporate sector, while low, is three times above the general population and cause for some concern, although I found myself not entirely surprised by this revelation after watching some of these executives under questioning from government officials and judges in the recent financial crisis, where a lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility and lack of remorse or guilt seemed to be common traits.

It’s an imprecise malady with no known cure and involvement best avoided if one encounters anyone with an overabundance of the suggested characteristics, and while we might think it shouldn’t take a neurologist or a psychiatrist to point that out, to be human is not always to be logical or to follow common sense, especially while under the spell of a charming, manipulative liar.

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