Health TED Talks

Don’t define people by their maddest edges: Jon Ronson at TED2012

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Journalist and writer Jon Ronson is now on stage to share some of the insights from his recent book on, well, psychopaths. Now, here’s the thing about Ronson. On first sight, he looks something like a sleepy, shuffly mole, slightly surprised at where he seems to have woken up. Yet his tousled appearance and self-deprecating exterior can’t fully disguise the twinkle in his eye–nor his obvious keen intellect and mastery of a lyrical turn of phrase. It is this superlative command of the English language that he has brought to so much of his journalism over the years, getting to the heart of big issues by relentlessly pulling at the thread of a topic until it unravels to reveal its deeper meaning, is exposed for knotty confusion, or we simply collapse into swoons of delight at the whole painstaking process.

In this bravura, audio-visual-laced performance extravaganza, given with animation and audio backup assistance from Evan Grant and Julian Treasure, Ronson tells a story of discovery that takes us on a journey through the history of psychiatry and the theory of psychopathy. We travel with him to new places; we meet newer and ever weirder people, from Brian the Scientologist to Tony the Prisoner Madman to “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and we are confronted with difficult concepts that in his hands are somehow terribly funny. It’s strange to find yourself giggling when contemplating the lunacy of the human condition, but that’s where Ronson takes us.

He describes becoming a certified “psychopath-spotter.” And he tells us that, given that 1 in 100 regular people is a psychopath, 15 of those in this very room must be psychopaths. Actually, “that figure rises to 4% of CEOs and business leaders, so there’s a good chance there’s about 30 or 40 psychopaths in this room,” he jokes. “It could be carnage by the end of the night.”

But then, Ronson makes us stop and reconsider. It turns out, becoming a psychopath-spotter turned him a little psychopathic himself. When interviewing people for his book, The Psychopath Test, he fell into the trap of  looking to define people by their maddest edges. This, he realized is what journalists do all too often: they focus on people’s extremes and stitch together a caricature while they “leave the normal stuff on the floor.” And at that point, he resolved not to define people by their maddest edges in future. And he thought anew about some of his characters. Tony the Prisoner Madman, for instance, wasn’t a psychopath, more a “semi” psychopath. “He’s a grey area in a world that doesn’t like grey areas,” says Ronson. “Yet that’s where you find the complexity, the humanity, the truth.” Wonderful.

See also Evan Grant’s 2009 talk at TEDGlobal, in which he discussed the art of making sound visible. Meanwhile, Julian Treasure has given no less than three talks at TEDGlobal, all of which are listed here.