How to Spot a Psychopath – A journey through madness or a mad journey?

In the early 19th century, French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel coined the term ‘manie sans delusion’ referring to the one per cent of the population that appeared normal on the surface but lacked impulse controls and were prone to outbursts of violence. In 1891 it became known as ‘psychopathy‘.

I have just finished reading Jon Ronson’s riveting journey into the heart of that difficult to detect but fascinating to read about affliction, in his recently published book ‘The Psychopath Test’.  An extract from the book published in the Guardian piqued my interest as I was 1500 words into writing a short story around the theme of ‘Ego’ and I had a notion that one of the protagonists was a psychopath, or at least had psychopathic tendencies, so I was interested to know more about how to identify and make those behaviours manifest through a character. Through Ronson’s article I followed a trail and found myself eventually consulting Bob Hare’s 20 point checklist and thus had the insight I was looking for.

‘The Psychopath Test’ is no textbook and it shouldn’t be used to do what he did – random analysis of people you know; its part mystery, full of intrigue, with equal doses of curiosity and anxiety as we follow him equipped only with his journalistic tools into a world of charm, deception and manipulation where nothing is as it appears to be, or is it? He uses his tools to excellent effect to present us with investigative stories he pursued which read more like a detective novel than the work of non-fiction it is. Only it’s not a detective novel because ironically you would need more the qualities of a psychopath to be a successful detective than the anxieties and overdose of empathetic feeling the author has. Ronson is very entertaining, he admits and shares his anxieties and self-diagnoses his own mental deficiencies in a playful and identifiable way.

He presents a look into a field that has had its share of experimental and controversial programs, practices and institutions as well as its staunch adversaries such as the Scientologists, who continue their campaign to discredit the profession and individuals within it to this day.

Having tried to solve the initial mystery of uncovering who has sent a group of neurologists and academics copies of the same cryptically puzzling book, Ronson sets out to acquire basic skills in identifying potential psychopaths and arranges interviews with likely candidates, searching for and pleased by anything that seems to fit with his criteria and admitting his disappointment when their responses don’t quite fit the profile.

'How to Spot a Psychopath' by Lo Cole is available as a limited edition print from

Fascinating though the extremes are, it is interesting to see how many ordinary people give accounts of behaviour in pursuing high achieving goals at work, which border on psychopathic behaviour, such as detachment, the eradication of empathy and remorse. What’s more the percentage of psychopaths in the corporate sector, while low, is three times above the general population and cause for some concern, although I found myself not entirely surprised by this revelation after watching some of these executives under questioning from government officials and judges in the recent financial crisis, where a lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility and lack of remorse or guilt seemed to be common traits.

It’s an imprecise malady with no known cure and involvement best avoided if one encounters anyone with an overabundance of the suggested characteristics, and while we might think it shouldn’t take a neurologist or a psychiatrist to point that out, to be human is not always to be logical or to follow common sense, especially while under the spell of a charming, manipulative liar.

22 thoughts on “How to Spot a Psychopath – A journey through madness or a mad journey?

  1. I was reading this during my lunch break, and just got back to it when I realized you commented. I had it open and everything, waiting.

    You must know that I have a soft spot for interesting non-fiction. I’m just glad you said that this doesn’t read like a textbook. I’ll have to pick it up then.

    Plus, I’m always in for a book that sounds like an educated episode of Criminal Minds.


    • Definitely a pageturner and more of a journalist’s current, slightly mad itself obsession, along with anecdotes to try and piece a puzzle together.

      I’d actually put it in the light, entertaining read category, we don’t get much much the activity of the amygdala in the brain in terms of science.


  2. Well said, and an interesting subject. Minds are complex things; who knows what shapes them? My own experiences are a prime example I’d rather not have lived through. On the other hand, perhaps I can be of help to others. If my brain was dissected, they’d probably find tangled spaghetti.


    • Shaping them, that’s an interesting thought, I did read a summary of a study recently that attempted to suggest that the shape of grey matter in our brains is different in people with left or right wing tendencies, but it also alludes to the fact that it can be changed depending on what information and experiences we are subjected to. It has been proven that a week playing a computer game changes the shape of a child’s brain. Shape is fluid, I think its a bit like diet and the body, except with the brain its information and experience; well – if only it were that simple.


  3. Sounds a very interesting book and one that I should read. From your review I feel like I have come across many of these people in my daily work and home life.


  4. Great review and interesting subject matter., I too peruse non-fiction psychology books when fleshing out a character, especially when a quirk in personality presents itself. Thanks so much for your insights. Diane


  5. I just listened to an episode of NPR’s This American Life about the psychopath test…I think the episode aired a few months ago. I just knew there had to be a book out there about it, and I will be adding this one to my wish list!


  6. Yes, this is looking at psychopathy from the point of view of a storyteller harbouring certain anxieties that curiosity wins over. An introduction to Hare’s work rather than a companion to it.


  7. Having dated someone I suspect is a psychopath…yikes. I can believe there are more of them in the corporate sector than in the general population. I can’t help but think of those people who apologize by saying, “If apologize if anyone was offended by my remarks…” Personally, I don’t trust anyone who can’t simply say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”


  8. Hi Claire — thanks so much for visiting my place today! Lovely to meet you.

    So… I am a survivor of an encounter with a psychopath — actually, I am a victor! it was hell and almost cost me my life — but, what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, how my life has expanded since that moment of his arrest 8 and a half years ago is awesome!

    And yup. they are not for the feeble of heart, or mind!

    I’ll be back — your site looks interesting and inspiring.


  9. Sounds like another book to add to my must-read list! Thank you, Claire. I recently also read a summary of a study having to do with the changing of grey matter. Fascinating stuff…. and there still is so much that is unknown.



  10. I read this book a few months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Whenever I read reviews from people for the first time, I like to read reviews about books I have already read.

    Everything you touched on about this book were things I enjoyed. Ronson is a fun writer to read, have you read anything else by him?

    This made me want to reread the book!


    • Before this book came across my orbit I had read a few articles in the Guardian written by Ronson, all of which fascinated me, so didn’t hesitate to buy this book, but I haven’t read his other works, though he does mention ‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ in his book when he learns that the inmates of Toto Constant are impressed that

      The guy who wrote the Men Who Stare at Goats book is coming to visit YOU? Wow!

      said to be a frightening and hilarious account, which sounds like Ronson to a tee.


  11. Absolutely agree with your review. The journalistic handling of the subject is less than scientific. I have to say, having worked for quite a while in the corporate areas of both private and public sector, a lot of the top bods exhibit a ‘professional detachment’ from the sort of human values I would hope I hold. Yep, I worked for a bunch of psychos ;-]


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