In my first year of university, I worked as a research assistant in a psychology lab. The particular lab was focused on the emotion of disgust, and one of my tasks was to administer the "disgust test." Lured by the promise of $15, participants (usually students) came into the lab for the hour-long study, which involved viewing a series of images on a computer screen and ranking them on a scale of disgusting from 1-5. I'd sit in the staff-only office to the side, watching the participant from a camera in the room.
The study eventually involved fMRI scans, but I left before it got that far. I had come to dread my job, which was essentially to disgust people for several hours each week. Some participants couldn't finish the study because the images were too disturbing. There was also the fact that I wasn't fully convinced in the reliability of our data. If someone's responses revealed a low level of disgust, was it that he wasn't disgusted easily, or that he wasn't giving the test his earnest attention?
Books like Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test rekindle my uneasy fascination with the field of psychology. In The Psychopath Test, Ronson chronicles his encounters with convicted criminals, influential corporate executives, and psychologists to address a complex question: what makes someone a psychopath? As Ronson encounters various potential psychopaths, he tests them against the criteria set by psychologist Bob Hare's psychopathy checklist. Hare's landmark book Without Conscience is sort of like a field guide to psychopaths; he presents a checklist of their defining traits along with anecdotal evidence of how destructive and manipulative they can be. Ronson reveals the grey area of diagnosing psychopathy: some of the people he profiles are clearly psychopaths who commit atrocious crimes without remorse, but others aren't so easy to figure out, like the inmate at the high-security psychiatric hospital Broadmoor who claims he faked psychopathy in order to escape jail time. Ronson intersperses horrific stories with more humorous chapters in history, such as previous attempts to cure psychopathy with LSD, or the madness of MI5 agent turned conspiracy theorist David Shayler.
A common criticism of The Psychopath Test is that in weaving together so many stories and characters, Ronson seems aimless in his investigation. To a certain extent, this observation is fair, but his hesitation in arriving at firm conclusions and labels is precisely the point. In contrasting a manual of symptoms against his interactions with complicated individuals, he expresses his ambivalence about the way we categorize individuals by their psychological traits. He suggests that it's easy to over-diagnose mental conditions based on the presence of certain "defining" characteristics in a checklist or the DSM. The more he learns about mental disorders, the more signs of neuroses he observes in everyone, including himself. This indefinite border between madness and sanity -- between the traits of a psychopath and the skills of many powerful individuals -- makes The Psychopath Test an unsettling and enthralling read.
For more information, watch Jon Ronson's TED Talk.