Q&A TED Conversations

The complexities of the psychopath test: A Q&A with Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson speaks at TED2012

Jon Ronson is the author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, an exploration of what defines a psychopath. At TED2012, he told a part of that story on stage — how he met a man named Tony who was held for years in a psychiatric prison because he faked mental illness too well, and about how Ronson himself became trained (perhaps too well also) to spot psychopaths for himself.

It was, to me, a wonderfully startling and unexpected TEDTalk. In part, that’s because it was backed by music by Julian Treasure and animations by Evan Grant. But it was also because the talk raised deep and unsettling questions about how we view people — are we doomed to categorize them, or can we live with the gray areas of personality?

So I called Ronson at home in London to dive in a bit deeper into how to navigate the uncertainties of life and move beyond a black and white view of others.

Because this talk has music and visuals — you’ve taken a normal TEDTalk, which is about ideas, and introduced stage techniques to ramp up the emotional power of it. And you’re doing this in the context of a talk about psychopaths, who are very good at manipulating people’s emotions. Was that intentional?

I think it was coincidence. Chris phoned me up and said he wanted to try out this new thing for TED2012 — he called it “full spectrum.” He suggested I work with Julian, who does audio in a really empathetic way — an understated way. And it was Julian who suggested Evan, the guy who did the visuals. I thought it was a great idea for Chris to put us together. It meant that the way I gave my talk changed. None of us had ever done anything like this before. Usually I go off on tangents and I tell self-deprecating jokes. One unexpected byproduct of working with Julian and Evan was that the talk became less funny, but more emotional and maybe even more creepy.

I remember thinking, this is like a kind of horror story, but it’s hard to know what the horror is. Is the horror the fact that there’s a psychopath in our midst? Or is the horror the fact that there’s a guy trapped in a mental hospital and he shouldn’t be there? Is the horror the horror of labeling people as psychopaths who don’t deserve to be labeled? I remember the session was called “The Campfire.” And it did feel like a campfire ghost story. Maybe it’s up to the viewer to decide exactly what the horror is.

For me, it was largely the third one — the horror of labeling people as psychopaths who don’t deserve to be labeled. You get to the end and you talk about gray areas, painting this picture of a society that likes black and white but lives in a world of color. And that to me was just this moment of, “Ugh, what is this world?”

It’s a contradictory thing. Because on the one hand I do believe that the Robert Hare checklist really is as admirable and as scientific as psychology can ever be. From my two, three years’ research in the book — I do believe that psychopaths exist and that the nuances of their behavior can come out when somebody is trained to use the checklist. However, an awful lot of people — and Hare himself complains about this — an awful lot of people misuse his checklist and become power-crazed when they use his checklist. You know, I became a bit power-crazed. Parts of my talk are a cautionary tale to not do what I did — to not start diminishing people through labels.

It was really, really interesting talking about Tony and Broadmoor. I was talking to his clinician and I said, “Well, my God, he is a semi-psychopath.” And I thought: nobody ever uses that phrase. Nobody ever thinks about gray areas. Especially in this day and age when people are more and more defined by the outermost aspects of their personality, it’s become unfashionable to think about people’s gray areas.

The flip side of that is — if we start talking about a spectrum of psychopathy, then you start asking, “Well how much of a psychopath am I?” I remember in the This American Life episode on psychopaths, they had themselves all tested and wanted to know who was the most psychopathic. And the answer came back that they had all scored zero, which, if I understand correctly, is what happens to almost everybody.

Absolutely. That didn’t surprise me at all. Because when you go into the This American Life offices, it’s nerdish pride in there. If there was a secret psychopath lurking, I would have been very surprised.

Is that correct, though? That the vast majority of people score zero on the psychopath test?

Certainly — or three, four, five. I remember Robert Hare told me that he would give himself like a four or a five, with the top score being 40. Hare would say, “Even though it is a spectrum, there’s a big difference. When you meet a high-scoring psychopath, the difference is stunning.” I agree with that. So with all this talk about gray areas, I think it’s important to remember that psychopaths really do exist. I’m sure of that, even though that goes against all my liberal instincts to consider everybody to basically be the same, to basically be good. That’s a fundamental rock of my belief, yet some people do seem to be different.

The problem is that people go on the course, on the Hare course, and they get so drunk with power that they start wildly labeling. They start using the checklist like a weapon. And I really hope people watch my talk and read my book and realize that that’s a beguiling thing to do, but it’s the wrong thing to do.

How common is Tony’s plight?

Tony’s plight is surprisingly common. A number of people who worked with Tony said to me, “This happens a lot, and it always ends badly.” If you fake madness to get out of a prison sentence, it always ends badly. You will always regret the decision because the psychiatric system is way worse. In the end, Tony was locked up for at least seven years more than he should have been because he faked madness and he scored high on a checklist, and the checklist indicates that he was at higher than normal reoffending rate. You can’t lock someone up indefinitely because they score high on a checklist. That’s really problematic. For a long time I was thinking to myself, “Is Tony psychopathic or is he a miscarriage of justice?” And I guess the right answer is he’s both.

Which is back to why gray areas are hard.

Absolutely. Because he is psychopathic in some areas, and then not so in others. For instance, there’s no indication that Tony has ever been predatory. His problem seems to be he’s got no impulse control, so he’ll just fly off the handle. But he’s certainly not manipulative or predatory.

My entire experience with psychopaths, that I know of, is by watching them in movies or reading about serial killers. But presumably it manifests in other ways?

Absolutely. There’s definitely evidence that capitalism at its most ruthless rewards psychopathic behavior. When you look at the worst corners of the American health insurance industry or the sub-prime banking market, it really feels like the more psychopathically someone behaves, the more it’s rewarded. Al Dunlap [the corporate executive mentioned in Jon’s talk] is an example of somebody who I think would be the archetypal corporate psychopath. But actually he’s not. There are certain key aspects of the checklist where he says, “Absolutely no way.” And I believed him. Even someone like that is a gray area, so I’m reluctant to be too polemical about anything.

I’m going to do a devil’s advocate thing here. I have a friend who is enamored with the idea that certain kinds of mental illness provide people tools to accomplish things that other people can’t.

I think that’s true. I have thought sometimes that the sanest people, the people who are just very balanced, very happy, are probably lower achieving than other people. My kind of irrationality happens to be fear or anxiety. That’s the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, gets me to my computer. A quite famous person, who’s name I won’t use, said to me, “Any of us who do well, we’ve all got these psychological issues that drive us on.”

By no means will it always be psychopathic issues that make people achieve. Quite often it’s depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think all these different disorders propel us onward. In a way I should be glad to have an anxiety disorder.

It’s interesting in the context of capitalism, because my pop notion of psychopath is someone who doesn’t care what other people think of them. And that is something that people say is necessary to succeed in the business world.

People with anxiety and a surfeit of empathy care a lot about what people think of them and it makes them ethical. So I think in the business world it can matter to be a good, ethical person. But it must surely help to have no conscience.

You know what though? I’m thinking on my feet here, but you just said psychopaths don’t care what people think of them. The ones who score high on the Hare checklist have a grandiose sense of self-worth and they do get really pissed off if they’re being disrespected. High-scoring psychopaths, past 10, tend not to be emotional, but they care a lot about their social standing. So maybe that’s not true.

This is related to the notion that there are shades of gray. There’s been a lot of debate recently about narrative and science journalism and to what extent do people select the facts to create the narrative they want, versus telling some larger version of the truth. Since you’re famous for strongly narrative pieces, do you have thoughts on that?

For me, I think the bigger issue is one of polemics. I think if somebody is so set in their ways about what they feel about something — and you get this a lot in academia, of course, and also different sorts of journalism too — you’re going to sweep under the carpet the facts that don’t suit your thesis. And I think that happens quite a lot in the courtroom, for instance. You have all these expert witnesses whose entire career and sense of self are based around their big polemical idea. They’ll defend it to the hilt, even if it means they’re not being honest on the witness stand. I’ve always been anti-polemical. I’ve always felt that changing your mind and trying to work it out as you go along, and not being afraid to be contradictory, leads to a more honest story.

Obviously, I like to write stories that are page-turners. But I always try my very, very hardest to be as factually true as possible. And I think part of the reason why that works out with me is because I don’t have any kind of ax to grind. I don’t have any ideology that I’m desperate to promote. I’m quite happy to lose myself in an unfolding story. To be honest about, “I think one thing and then I change my mind and then I start thinking something else.” I remember my first book, Them. I was investigating conspiracy theorists, and for a while I completely went native and became a very paranoid conspiracy theorist. And then I came out the other end — thank goodness — and realized that I had gone a bit paranoid. With The Psychopath Test, I think I did it with Al Dunlop, and succumbed to the thing that Robert Hare often warned against, which is don’t get to drunk with your psychopath spotting powers. I hope that readers will feel the same.

I’ve always said that my anxiety is the thing that stops me from transgressing. Because anxiety is such an unpleasant feeling that it keeps you on the straight and narrow. I think it’s been proven neurologically that psychopathy is the opposite of anxiety, the amygdala under-performs. So maybe it’s not having those unpleasant feelings of anxiety and guilt and remorse which allows high-scoring psychopaths to do the things that they do. Those unpleasant feelings of anxiety and remorse are the things that keep us good, which is another reason for anxiety being an important part of the human condition. I’ve always thought that psychopathy is the most pleasant feeling of all the mental disorders — which is kind of the reason why they’re so bad at being treated. It’s that, “Why would you want to have that treated out of you?”

By the way, I don’t really consider myself a science journalist. I have over the years written a lot about science, but I was a terrible science student. I think it’s just coincidence that science comes into my life quite a lot. I’m much more interested in people and why people behave in the sort of baffling ways that we often do.

So, the most interesting journalism is the one where you get these fantastic characters. That also leads to a fairly basic problem. In the book, you point out that one of the issues with the corporate psychopaths is that they’re not interesting in that journalistic way. You say, “If you want to get away with wielding true malevolent power, be boring. There’s no way for a journalist to get a hook on that.” What do we do about that?

Well that’s the thing. The most miserable three months of my life was before the financial meltdown. I was commissioned to write a book about credit cards. I’d written a piece about a man called Richard Cullen, who committed suicide because he was out of his depth in credit cards. And so I was going into the areas of, “Is this all a house of cards? Are people too enthralled by the sub-prime market?” My publisher keeps reminding me, that if I had gone through with the book, it would have come out just then.

But I spent three or four months trying to make [the premise] interesting. All the people who worked in the credit industry, all the people I was meeting, who were so important and so controlling over the way we live our lives — and history proved that some of them were doing really nefarious things. It was probably a weakness of mine, but I just couldn’t find a way to make it interesting. They weren’t colorful characters. And so that line in the book really was wrenched from my heart. I gave up writing the book. I did say this to my publisher the other day, but in a way The Psychopath Test is the book that I didn’t write. It is the credit book in a way.

But yeah, what can I say? In the three or four months I went around meeting list brokers and heads of banks and hedge fund people, I couldn’t find a single person who lit the page up. And I completely understand the sort of moral problems of what I just said. It’s just the truth of it.

I’m advocating in the book this idea that you don’t define people by their maddest aspects. You don’t leave the boring stuff off the page — the gray areas. But people much prefer to read about the outermost aspects of people’s personalities. I suppose in the end what you’ve got to try and do is be fair and kind-hearted and ethical. I think good journalists and non-fiction writers have to think about that all the time. How can I portray this person with humanity? I like to think that the older I get the more I do it and don’t rely on the extremes of the person’s personality.

Switching gears a little bit, one of the things you’re very open about in both the book and the talk is this impulse to self-diagnose, which I’m very, very familiar with. Are we over-diagnosing or medicalizing the human condition, as it were?

I wrestled with that for a year. Part of my problem with that question was that I had people really trying to pull me this way and that about it. I’ve never had such pressure from people about a single issue. And not even necessarily people in the book, I’m talking about friends.

I remember a good friend of mine said to me with a really stern look on his face, “You have to say that anxiety disorders don’t exist and anxiety is actually a completely normal response to an anxiety-inducing world.” Then I would meet people with OCD, and OCD is a very real thing, unquestionably. And there are people out there that are OCD deniers, which I find as utterly bad as 9/11 conspiracy theorists or Holocaust deniers.

On the other hand, you can be just as critical of the people who are on the other end of the spectrum. I think there is truth in the allegation that the pharmaceutical companies love it when new disorders come about, because they can come up with new medications.

Allen Frances, who’s like the chief critic of DSM V — and he was head of DSM IV — said to me, “We created three false epidemics: ADHD, Asperger’s, childhood bipolar disorder.” After a while I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to concentrate on those three.” I spent a month looking at those things. I’m not a scientist — I’m a journalist — but I like to think I can have a clear-headed outsider perspective on these things. But I just didn’t have the stomach to get involved with Asperger’s or ADHD. I’m sure that a diagnosis of Asperger’s is really beneficial to some people, and the same goes with ADHD. Childhood bipolar disorder seems really black and white. Kids as young as four and five are given a label of bipolar disorder and are medicated with antipsychotic medication, and it’s completely illusory.

This only seems to happen in the United States. It doesn’t happen in Europe. You will not find a European doctor who would diagnose anybody under the age of adolescence as having bipolar disorder. A little girl called Rebecca Riley actually died because she was given an overdose of antipsychotic medication. Most of the time it’s a gray area.

What is it about the U.S. that makes that more common?

There’s definitely more of a culture of medicalizing people in the U.S. I don’t want to be in any way pejorative towards the U.S. — I really don’t. But I know that you’re much more likely to be medicated for OCD in American than you are in Europe. So the only solution I can think of is that the psychiatry and the culture in Britain is more like “roll your sleeves up and let’s get this fixed in a proper way.” But that is a guess on my part.

Is there anything you would have put in the Talk that you didn’t have time for?

In my very last meeting with Robert Hare, I said, “Look, I’m to write about how doing your course turned me a little bit power mad.” And he said, “Well it’s a problem.” And he told me a story about how sometimes he tries to train on Involuntary Civil Commitment. They’re basically institutions in America for people who score high on Robert Hare’s checklist. Once they’re released from prison, they’ll immediately be picked up and taken to one of these places and put there for the rest of their lives. It’s like Tony’s story, with no ending.

Hare said to me, “I’ve tried to teach some of these people who administer the tests, who determine whether these people are going to be stuck in these places for the rest of their lives or not, to look at them. They’re picking their fingernails and they’re twiddling their thumbs and they’re doodling and they’re not listening.”

If I could have made one point stronger in the talk, I would have made that point that with me it doesn’t matter, because I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist who’s writing as a thoughtful cautionary tale for people. But what I went through, the way I succumbed to confirmation bias, is actually really real, and people’s lives are destroyed by it. I think Robert Hare cares about his checklist and really wants it to be administered properly and it really troubles him that there’s a lot of people out there who don’t administer his test properly. And so I suppose the point I would have made — and I wish I had — is that my story happens every day in the real world in places where it really matters, where people’s lives are destroyed by it.