The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
-01- “I heard a story about her once,” said James. “She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.”
-02- “That’s what I Am a Strange Loop is about,” said Deborah. “It’s about how we spend our lives self-referencing, over and over, in a kind of strange loop. Now lots of people are asking themselves, ‘Why was I selected to receive this book?’ They aren’t talking about the book or the message. They’re talking about themselves.
-03- Douglas Hofstadtler: “It really made you think about the brain and the self, and how the brain determines who the person is.”
-04- They assumed the endeavor was brilliant and rational because they were brilliant and rational, and we tend to automatically assume that everybody else is basically just like us.
-05- Then Tony devised a radical new scheme. He stopped talking to the staff, too. He realized that if you engage with therapy, it’s an indication you’re getting better, and if you’re getting better, they have the legal right to detain you, and so if he took no therapy at all, he couldn’t get better, he’d be untreatable, and they’d have to let him go. (As the law stands in the UK, you cannot indefinitely detain an “untreatable” patient if their crime was a relatively minor crime like GBH.)
-06- “The Hare Checklist,” said Essi. “The PCL-R.”
I looked blankly at her.
“It’s a kind of psychopath test designed by a Canadian psychologist called Bob Hare,” she said. “It’s the gold standard for diagnosing psychopaths. The first item on the checklist is Glibness/Superficial
Essi told me a little about Bob Hare’s psychopath test. From the way she described it, it sounded quite odd. She said you can go on a course where Hare himself teaches you ways of stealthily spotting
psychopaths by reading suspects’ body language and the nuances of their sentence construction, etc
-07- “Psychopaths don’t change,” she said. “They don’t learn from punishment. The best you can hope for is that they’ll eventually get too old and lazy to be bothered to offend
-08- “With prison psychopaths you can actually quantify the havoc they cause,” she said. “They make up only twenty-five percent of the prison population but they account for sixty to seventy percent of
the violent crime that happens inside prisons. They’re few in number but you don’t want to mess with them.”
“What percentage of the non-prison population is a psychopath?” I asked.
“One percent,” said Essi.
-09- It was the French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel who first suggested, early in the nineteenth century, that there was a madness that didn’t involve mania or depression or psychosis. He called it “manie sans delire”—insanity without delusions. He said sufferers appeared normal on the surface but they lacked impulse controls and were prone to outbursts of violence. It wasn’t until 1891, when the German doctor J. L. A. Koch published his book Die Psychopatischen Minderwertigkeiter, that it got its name: psychopathy.
Back in the old days—in the days before Bob Hare—the definitions were rudimentary. The 1959 Mental Health Act for England and Wales described psychopaths simply as having “a persistent disorder or
disability of mind (whether or not including subnormality of intelligence) which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct on the part of the patient, and requires or is susceptible to medical treatment.”
The consensus from the beginning was that only 1 percent of humans had it, but the chaos they caused was so far-reaching it could actually remold society, remold it all wrong, like when someone breaks
his foot and it gets set badly and the bones stick out in odd directions.
-10- In the late 1960s a young Canadian psychiatrist believed he had the answer. His name was Elliott Barker. His strange story has all but faded away now, except for making the odd fleeting cameo—a once
beautiful but now broken 1960s star—in the obituary of some hopeless Canadian serial killer, but back then his peer group was watching his experiments with great excitement. He looked to be on the cusp of something extraordinary.
-11- There were some inadvertently weird touches. For instance, visitors to the unit were an unavoidable inconvenience. There would be tour groups of local teenagers: a government initiative to demystify asylums. This caused Elliott a problem. How could he ensure the presence of strangers wouldn’t puncture the radical atmosphere he’d spent months creating? And then he had a brainwave. He acquired some particularly grisly crime-scene photographs of people who had committed suicide in gruesome ways, by shooting themselves in the face, for instance, and he hung them around the visitors’ necks. Now, everywhere the psychopaths looked they would be confronted by the dreadful reality of violence.
…Plus, nobody liked glancing up and seeing some teenager peering curiously through the window at them with a giant crime-scene photograph dangling around his neck
-12- “When you gaze into the eyes of another person, you can only see as far as his closed door,” he said. “So take it as an opportunity to knock on that door. If he doesn’t want to open the door, you bow to him and you say, ‘That’s fine. When you’re ready.’ ”
-13- When they awoke, they’d head straight to the Dream Group, which consisted of an equal number of psychopaths and schizophrenics. “The problem,” Gary said, “was that the schizophrenics had incredibly vivid dreams—dream after dream after dream—but the psychopaths would be lucky if they even had a dream.”
“Why do schizophrenics dream more than psychopaths?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Gary laughed. “I do remember the schizophrenics usually dreamed in color—the more intense a dream, the more likely it’s going to be in color—but the psychopaths, if they managed to have a dream at all, dreamed in black-and-white.”
-14- All this was creating a power imbalance. In regular group meetings, Gary said, the schizophrenics would be subservient to the psychopaths, “but suddenly the poor psychopaths had to sit and listen to the schizophrenics go on about dream one, dream two, dream three . . .” When it was time for the patients to vote on whether to continue the Dream Group, the schizophrenics said yes, but the psychopaths vociferously argued against it and were victorious.
“Just because of the power struggle?” I asked.
“Well, there was that,” said Gary, “plus who wants to listen to some schizophrenic’s boring dream?”
-15- I learned that, fascinatingly, two researchers in the early 1990s had undertaken a detailed study of the long-term recidivism rates of psychopaths who had been through Elliott’s program and been let out into society. Its publication would surely have been an extraordinary moment for Elliott and Gary and the Capsule. In regular circumstances, 60 percent of criminal psychopaths released into the outside world go on to re-offend. What percentage of their psychopaths had?
As it turned out: 80 percent.
The Capsule had made the psychopaths worse.
-16- INTERVIEWER: And why did you feel someone should die as a result of your curiosity?
WOODCOCK: I just wanted to know what it would feel like to kill somebody.
INTERVIEWER: But you’d already killed three people.
WOODCOCK: Yes, but that was years and years and years and years ago.
The interview’s most painful moment was when Woodcock admitted that Elliott and Gary’s program was kind of to blame, because it had taught him how to be a more devious psychopath. All those chats
about empathy were like an empathy-faking finishing school for him: “I did learn how to manipulate better,” he said, “and keep the more outrageous feelings under wraps better.”
-17- He put word around the prison that he was looking for psychopathic and non-psychopathic volunteers. There was no shortage. Prisoners were always looking to relieve the boredom. He strapped them up, one by one, to various EEG and sweat and blood-pressure measuring machines, and also to an electricity generator, and he explained to them that he was going to count backward from ten and when he reached one, they’d receive a very painful electric shock.
The difference in the responses stunned Bob. The non-psychopathic volunteers (theirs were crimes of passion, usually, or crimes born from terrible poverty or abuse) steeled themselves ruefully, as if a painful electric shock was just the penance they deserved, and as the countdown continued, the monitors revealed dramatic increases in their perspiration rates. They were, Bob noted and documented, scared.
“And what happened when you got to one?” I asked.
“I gave them an electric shock,” Bob said. He smiled. “We used really painful electric shocks,” he said.
“And the psychopaths?” I asked.
“They didn’t break a sweat,” said Bob. “Nothing.”
I looked at him.
“Sure,” he added, “at the exact moment the unpleasant thing occurred . . .”
“The electric shock?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Bob. “When the unpleasant thing occurred, the psychopaths gave a response . . .”
“Like a shriek?” I asked.
“Yes, I suppose like a shriek,” said Bob. But the tests seemed to indicate that the amygdala, the part of the brain that should have anticipated the unpleasantness and sent the requisite signals of fear over to the central nervous system, wasn’t functioning as it should.
It was an enormous breakthrough for Bob, his first clue that the brains of psychopaths were different from regular brains. But he was even more astonished when he repeated the test. This time the psychopaths knew exactly how much pain they’d be in when he reached one, and still: nothing. No sweat. Bob learned something that Elliott Barker wouldn’t for years: psychopaths were likely to re-offend.
“They had no memory of the pain of the electric shock even when the pain had occurred just moments before,” Bob said. “So what’s the point in threatening them with imprisonment if they break the terms of their parole? The threat has no meaning for them.”
He did another experiment, the Startle Reflex Test, in which psychopaths and non-psychopaths were invited to look at grotesque images, like crime-scene photographs of blown-apart faces, and then
when they least expected it, Bob would let off an incredibly loud noise in their ear. The non-psychopaths would leap with astonishment. The psychopaths would remain comparatively serene.
Bob knew we tend to jump a lot higher when startled if we’re on the edge of our seats anyway. If we’re watching a scary movie and someone makes an unexpected noise, we leap in terror. But if we’re
engrossed by something, a crossword puzzle, say, and someone startles us, our leap is less pronounced. From this Bob deduced that when psychopaths see grotesque images of blown-apart faces, they aren’t horrified. They’re absorbed.
It seemed from Bob’s experiments that psychopaths see blownapart faces the same way we journalists see mysterious packages sent in the mail, or the same way we see Broadmoor patients who might or might not have faked madness—as fascinating puzzles to be solved.
Thrilled by his findings, Bob sent his readings to Science magazine.
“The editor returned them unpublished,” he said. “He wrote me a letter. I’ll never forget it. He wrote: ‘Frankly we found some of the brain wave patterns depicted in your paper very odd. Those EEGs couldn’t have come from real people.’”
-18- He devoured Hervey Cleckley’s seminal 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity. Cleckley was a Georgia-based psychiatrist whose analysis of psychopathic behavior—how they bury their psychosis beneath a veneer of engaging normalness—
-19- twenty-point Hare PCL-R Checklist. Which was this:
Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm
Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
Item 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Item 4: Pathological lying
Item 5: Conning/manipulative
Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt
Item 7: Shallow affect
Item 8: Callous/lack of empathy
Item 9: Parasitic lifestyle
Item 10: Poor behavioral controls
Item 11: Promiscuous sexual behavior
Item 12: Early behavior problems
Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals
Item 14: Impulsivity
Item 15: Irresponsibility
Item 16: Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Item 17: Many short-term marital relationships
Item 18: Juvenile delinquency
Item 19: Revocation of conditional release
Item 20: Criminal versatility
-20- Item 12 of his checklist: Early Behavior Problems. Almost all psychopaths display serious behavior problems as a child, Bob said, starting around age ten to twelve, like persistent bullying, vandalism, substance abuse, arson.
-21- Item 7: Shallow Affect—An individual who seems unable to experience a normal range and depth of emotions.
-22- Bob said it’s always a nice surprise when a psychopath speaks openly about their inability to feel emotions. Most of them pretend to feel. When they see us non-psychopaths crying or scared or moved by human suffering, or whatever, they think it’s fascinating. They study us and learn how to ape us, like space creatures trying to blend in,
-23- Item 4: Pathological Lying—An individual for whom lying is a characteristic part of interactions with others.
-24- Psychopaths, Bob said, will invariably argue that their victims had no right to complain. They had insurance. Or they learned a valuable life lesson getting beaten up like that. Or it was their own fault anyway. One time Bob interviewed a man who had impulsively killed another man over a bar tab.
“He only had himself to blame,” the killer told Bob. “Anybody could have seen I was in a rotten mood that night.”
Item 16: Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions.
-25- psychopaths tend to gravitate toward the bright lights. You’ll find lots of them in New York and London and Los Angeles. The psychologist David Cooke, of the Glasgow Centre for the Study of Violence, was once asked in Parliament if psychopaths caused particular problems in Scottish prisons.
“Not really,” he replied. “They’re all in London prisons.”
It wasn’t, he told them, a throwaway line. He had spent months assessing Scottish-born prisoners for psychopathy, and the majority of those who scored high were in London, having committed their crimes
there. Psychopaths get bored easily. They need excitement. They migrate to the big cities.
Item 3: Need for Stimulation/Proneness to Boredom.
-26- Our three days in West Wales came to an end. On the last day Bob surprised us by unexpectedly flashing onto the screen a largescale, close-up photograph of a man who’d been shot in the face at very close range. This came after he’d lulled us into a false sense of security by flashing photographs of ducks on pretty lakes and summer days in the park. But in this picture, gore and gristle bubbled everywhere. The man’s eyes had bulged all the way out of their sockets. His nose was gone.
“Oh GOD,” I thought.
An instant later my body responded to the shock by feeling prickly and jangly and weak and debilitated. This sensation, Bob said, was a result of the amygdalae and the central nervous system shooting signals of distress up and down to each other. It’s the feeling we get when we’re suddenly startled—like when a figure jumps out at us in the dark—or when we realize we’ve done something terrible, the feeling of fear and guilt and remorse, the physical manifestation of our conscience.
“It is a feeling,” Bob said, “that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing.”
Bob said it was becoming clearer that this brain anomaly is at the heart of psychopathy.
“There are all sorts of laboratory studies and the results are very, very consistent,” he said. “What they find is that there are anomalies in the way these individuals process material that has emotional implications. That there’s this dissociation between the linguistic meaning of words and the emotional connotations. Somehow they don’t put them together. Various parts of the limbic system just don’t light up.”
-27- “I should never have done all my research in prisons. I should have spent my time inside the Stock Exchange as well.”
I looked at Bob. “Really?” I said.
“But surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial-killer psychopaths,” I said.
“Serial killers ruin families.” Bob shrugged. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”
This—Bob was saying—was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all: Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty?
The answer: psychopaths. That part of the brain that doesn’t function right. You’re standing on an escalator and you watch the people going past on the opposite escalator. If you could climb inside their brains, you would see we aren’t all the same. We aren’t all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They’re the jagged rocks thrown into the still pond.
-28- One was Martha Stout, from the Harvard Medical School, author of The Sociopath Next Door.
(You may be wondering what the difference is between a psychopath and a sociopath, and the answer is, there really isn’t one. Psychologists and psychiatrists around the world tend to use the terms
interchangeably.) They are everywhere, she said. They are in the crowded restaurant where you have your lunch. They are in your openplan office.
“As a group they tend to be more charming than most people,” she said. “They have no warm emotions of their own but will study the rest of us. They’re the boss or the coworker who likes to make other people jump just for the pleasure of seeing them jump. They’re the spouse who marries to look socially normal but inside the marriage shows no love after the initial charm wears off.”
“I don’t know how many people will read this book,” I said to her.
“Maybe a hundred thousand? So that means around a thousand of them will be psychopaths. Possibly even more if psychopaths like reading books about psychopaths. What should my message to them
be? Turn yourselves in?”
“That would be nice,” Martha said. “But their arrogance would hold up. They’d think, ‘She’s lying about there being conscience.’ Or, ‘This poor dear is restrained by conscience. She should be more like me.’ ”
“What if the wife of a psychopath reads this?” I asked. “What should she do? Leave?”
“Yes,” said Martha. “I would like to say leave. You’re not going to hurt someone’s feelings because there are no feelings to hurt.” She paused. “Sociopaths love power. They love winning. If you take loving kindness out of the human brain, there’s not much left except the will to win.”
“Which means you’ll find a preponderance of them at the top of the tree?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you’ll find there.”
“So the wars, the injustices, the exploitation, all of these things occur because of that tiny percent of the population up there who are mad in this certain way?”
-29- Everyone in the field seemed to regard psychopaths in this same way: inhuman, relentlessly wicked forces, whirlwinds of malevolence, forever harming society but impossible to identify unless you’re trained in the subtle art of spotting them, as I now was. The only other way would be
to have access to some expensive fMRI equipment, like Adam Perkins does.
Adam is a research fellow in clinical neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, South London. I had visited him shortly after meeting Essi because he’s an expert in anxiety, and I wanted to test out my theory on him that suffering from anxiety is the neurological opposite of being a psychopath when it comes to amygdala function. I imagined my amygdala to be like one of those Hubble photographs of a solar storm, and I imagined psychopaths’ amygdalae to be like those Hubble photographs of dead planets, like Pluto. Adam verified my theory, and then to demonstrate, he strapped me up to some wires, put me into a dummy fMRI scanner, and without any warning, gave me a very painful
“Ow!” I yelled. “That really hurts. Would you please turn down the level of the electric shock? I mean, I thought that had been outlawed. What was that level?”
“Three,” said Adam.
“What does it go up to?” I asked.
“Eight,” he said.
-30- Item 7: Shallow Affect—Displays of emotion are dramatic, shallow, short lived, leaving the impression that he is play acting
-31- Bob Hare said psychopaths were skillful imitators. He once told the journalist Robert Hercz a story about how he’d been asked to consult on a Nicole Kidman movie called Malice. She wanted to prepare for a role as a psychopath. Bob told her, “Here’s a scene you can use. You’re walking down a street and there’s an accident. A car has hit a child. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child’s lying on the ground and there’s blood running all over the place. You get a little
blood on your shoes and you look down and say, ‘Oh shit.’ You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you’re not repelled or horrified. You’re just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you’re really fascinated by the mother, who’s emoting, crying out, doing all these
different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother. That’s the psychopath: somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened.”
But Toto Constant was engagingly enigmatic, too, a quality that flourishes in absence. We are dazzled by people who withhold something, and psychopaths always do because they are not all there. They are surely the most enigmatic of all the mentally disordered.
-32- Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work— coauthored with a psychologist named Paul Babiak
-33- All that talk of snakes adopting human form reminded me of a story I once did about a conspiracy theorist named David Icke, who believed that the secret rulers of the world were giant, blood-drinking, childsacrificing lizards who had shape-shifted into humans so they could perform their evil on an unsuspecting population. I suddenly realized how similar the two stories were, except in this one the people who spoke of snakes in suits were eminent and utterly sane psychologists, respected around the world. Was this a conspiracy theory that was actually true?