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The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson


I was looking at reading a little bit more non-fiction, as my reading list has been very fiction-heavy recently. (Though I must admit, it’s my favourite, and you only live once, right?)

What if society wasn’t fundamentally rational, but was motivated by insanity? This thought sets Jon Ronson on an utterly compelling adventure into the world of madness.

Along the way, Jon meets psychopaths, those whose lives have been touched by madness and those who job it is to diagnose it, including the influential psychologist who developed the Psychopath Test, from whom Jon learns the art of psychopath-spotting. A skill which seemingly reveals that madness could indeed be at the heart of everything…

Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is both entertaining and honest, unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges.

This was a perfect way to break back into non-fiction. I think what appealed to me the most was that it addresses both an extremely topical subject right now – mental health – and also it hits home that everything that Jon talks about in this book can, and probably does, affect us all in some way. While there are those psychopaths who are murderers, rapists, thieves, etc., there is also a distinct possibility that some people who are in the highest positions and who have the most power over us, are, in fact, psychopaths.

It is incredibly fascinating. The book starts with a real-life, intriguing mystery, which appealed to the curious fiction-lover in me. It then goes on to explore, in Jon’s funny, witty, and honest style of writing, the different aspects of psychopathy and the people in society who have been affected by it the most. He uses a number of case studies and examples to show how people’s lives can be turned upside down by the notion of psychopathy. He meets many different people along the way, and his interactions with each provide an extra, rich layer into the story and the narrative. The extreme, the weird, the mysterious and the misguided all appear in this book to give a well-rounded and thorough exploration of the psychopathy and mental illness issue.

Jon embarks on a course, the teacher of which assures him will teach him how to identify a psychopath. Jon admits himself that this ends up giving him a sense of power and authority, and begins to worry that he is oversimplifying people and their traits in order to shoehorn them into a position where he can then label them psychopaths. What if the test is not infallible? What if it has the power to ruin people’s lives? Conversely, what if there are many psychopaths out there in the corporate world, screwing people over without remorse, who are simply identified as ‘successful’ and ‘headstrong’? And if so, how does this affect the non-psychopathic people? Do we stand a chance against these people?

Jon is honest, and brings a part of himself into everything he writes. He is not biased, and frequently admits it if his initial judgements have been wrong. But he can apply his own experiences with anxiety to what he’s investigating. Studying the Psychopath Test, and how to apply it, also makes him question people around him, or people from his past, and he soon highlights how dangerous this can be. The fact that the human mind can be quantified and categorised in such a way, and often incorrectly, by people in positions of authority is terrifying.

But who is right? And should the human mind and its character traits be categorised at all? Do we over-diagnose those whose behaviours are just a little bit different from the norm? Or do we understand more about the human brain now more than ever?

This book was such an eye-opener, fascinating, terrifying, and a real joy to read. Make this your next non-fiction read: it will be well worth it.

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