Are you mad, sir?

Even if you haven’t heard of Jon Ronson, you have probably heard of one of his books. He wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats, which has been made into a film starring George Clooney. I have just finished reading a more recent, if lesser known book by Ronson: The Psychopath Test. It is an intriguing, anecdotal exploration of the nature of madness, with a particular focus on psychopathy.

The book is loosely centred on the psychopath test of the title, better known as the Hare Psychopath Checklist in honor of its creator, Canadian psychologist Robert Hare or, more simply, PCL-R (“Psychopath Checklist – Revised”). On his journey towards a better understanding of anti-social madness, Ronson attended a training course in the use of the PCL-R led by Hare himself. Armed with this qualification, Ronson found his new ability to expertly identify psychopaths out in the wild gave him an exciting sense of power. It is a sense of power that readers such as myself can readily share: it wasn’t long before I was attempting to spot corporate psychopaths in the upper echelons of my own place of work.

Here is how the test works: through a more rigorous interview process than I have had the opportunity to perform, your potential psychopath is scored on a scale of 0 to 2 on each of the categories below.

  1. Glibness/superficial charm
  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. Pathological lying
  4. Cunning/manipulative
  5. Lack of remorse or guilt
  6. Shallow affect
  7. Callousness, lack of empathy
  8. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  9. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  10. Parasitic lifestyle
  11. Poor behavioural control
  12. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  13. Impulsivity
  14. Irresponsibility
  15. Juvenile delinquency
  16. Early behaviour problems
  17. Revocation of conditional release
  18. Promiscuous sexual behaviour
  19. Many short-term (marital) relationships
  20. Criminal versatility

Roughly speaking, a score of 30 or more suggests you have a psychopath on your hands. Reading Ronson’s book, I got the impression that there are currently few treatment options for a psychopath and those that veer towards criminality rather than high-flying success in the corporate world tend to be locked up for a very long time.

Over a sherry at a recently opened Spanish bar in Sydney, with the help of a colleague, I attempted an analysis of the executive at my firm I considered to be the best prospect for a high score on the PCL-R. Sadly, we only managed to chalk up 20 points. Apparently not a psychopath after all and, while that score is still reasonably high, I have to further concede that there may have been some overly-enthusiastic interpretations of the checklist involved in the assessment.

My own attempt at psychopath diagnosis brought me to sympathise further with Ronson, who found that the thrill of power was, after a while, replaced by doubt. Perhaps things are actually a bit more complicated after all. Even an interview with Al Dunlap, initially a slam-dunk candidate for the label of corporate psychopath, particularly given his extensive collection of statues of animals of prey (psychopaths apparently tend to see the world in terms of predators and prey), left Ronson uncertain of the appropriateness of the label of madness.

The lesson then is that I should use my new-found knowledge of PCL-R with care. As should you. Even so, I will not delete the list from this post as a precaution. After all, you could easily find it on Wikipedia; such is the power and the peril of the internet.

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11 thoughts on “Are you mad, sir?

  1. Ken

    The problem is, that many psychopaths will hide many of the features that make them a psychopath. Someone I worked for faked empathy well. He knew the things to say, how to send cards, buy flowers for funerals but eventually it became obvious that they really cost little, and didn’t make up for how he often treated people.

  2. Magpie

    Hey Stubborn,

    Be careful with that hobby: if you look for one hard enough, you may yet find him/her. Just imagine a party:

    “Hi, I’m Sean.”

    “Nice to meet you, Sean. I’m Patrick Bateman (or Catherine Tramell)”.

    At the other hand, it should come in handy to spot them, before being spotted by them. :-)

  3. Zebra

    In the list above 15-20 seem to require some broader knowledge of the person’s personal history which may not be available to a work colleague. This would make the maximum score 28 not 40. So a score of 20/28 or 71.4% isn’t that far from the magic 30/40 or 75%. Indeed if you just assumed that your Baysian hypothesis that they were a psychopath was true and gave them 12/12 for Q.15-20, then you only need 18/28 for the first 14 questions. Alternatively assign them 1 each to be fair then your require 24/28 or 86% for the first 14 questions. If not a psychopath they definitely have psychopathic tendencies.
    (Also what does “revocation of conditional release” mean???)

  4. Stubborn Mule Post author

    I like the theory…now I’m convinced one more this individual is a psychopath!

    You a certainly right about some of the questions requiring more background and also some are really more relevant to those (already?) caught up in the criminal justice system. The “revocation of conditional release” means being release on probation and violating your probation conditions.

  5. Zebra

    I suspect the original criteria were for uncovering psychopaths in the criminal justice system as opposed to the banking system.

  6. Stubborn Mule Post author

    Interesting. The article referred to in that post secured the cooperation of 203 corporations which allowed their staff to be tested with PCL-R. I wonder if they shared the results with the individuals….presumably not.

  7. Kevin Hart

    I’m pretty sure Jon Ronson was onto something when he wrote “Men Who Stare at Goats;” wish I could figure out what it was…hmmmm.

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