A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Hooptedoodle #188 - The Psychopath Test

This note follows from a conversation I had with my wife, and an email I sent to Rod, so I must start by apologising to those individuals for recycling the same material into a blog post. Waste not, want not, my grandmother used to say.

I have recently read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test – a friend recommended it, and I found it a worthwhile, absorbing read. It is, admittedly, written rather in the style of Bill Bryson (Notes from the World of Psychiatry?), but it is entertaining, informative and thought provoking all at the same time. The big messages for me were the surprising numbers of scary people who make it into positions of power and influence, and the extent to which the psychiatry and pharmaceutical industries have exploited public fear of mental illness, and have (apparently) even invented disorders – especially in childhood – whose very existence is debated, but which produce a very considerable revenue.

I am not going to trot out a full review – my mind doesn’t seem to work like that. I will mention, however, some small disquiet I felt as I was working my way through Bob Hare’s psychopathy checklist, which is an established diagnostic tool, especially in criminal psychiatry – it struck me that it seems remarkably crude, for a resource which is so highly valued and which actually results in people being placed in institutions – but then, what do I know? I also found, as I was going through the checklist, that a fair number of the characteristics described might apply to me. Good heavens, that one sounds like me as well.

No, no - that's a cycle path
Of course, I played it down to myself, but I was really quite relieved when I came to a section which stated that, if the reader was growing concerned that they might themselves have psychopathic tendencies, then they almost certainly did not, since a true psychopath would not have been concerned.

So that’s all right then – now I wasn’t worried at all. Then I started to consider, how would a psychopath have reacted to the news that anyone who was worried was probably not a psychopath? Would they then have become worried, since they had not been concerned about the checklist questions, or are psychopaths unlikely to be worried about something as cerebral as a book anyway? Should I be worried about the exact point at which I ceased being worried? Hmmm.

That's more like it - there's a man who had an accident with the ketchup bottle
By this stage I had finished reading anyway, so I have stopped worrying now. I’ll go back to worrying about my book about quantum mechanics, which was the worry I interrupted with this most recent book, though I am faintly puzzled to learn that The Psychopath Test is to be a film, starring Scarlett Johansson. I shall leave out the obligatory picture of Ms Johansson, since no-one else will.

I drafted this post yesterday, and this morning I find that my timing was inopportune. I am sickened, like everyone else, by the news coverage of the live execution of a TV news team in Virginia – having heard the BBC talking, once again, about “media coverage”, I am keeping the TV switched firmly off until things quieten down. I am upset by the event, the coverage, the reaction and the implications.

Apparently, this is what a TV looks like when it's switched off
Of course, this is a tragedy involving people in the news industry, so the TV people are very focused on that; they happen to have been rather attractive, young people, which makes the story even more interesting – complete with statements from fiancés, tributes from neighbours and former schoolfriends, etc; most obvious of all, the availability of a clip showing someone being killed on live TV is too much to resist – the media will get as close to the boundaries of the law and public decency as they can to outdo each other. I am not going to invite death threats again by lamenting the gun situation in the USA, but I observe that the perpetrator was a black guy, which will have been duly noted by those who keep score and those who support the present gun laws.

I wonder – to give us a context, how many unpublicised fatal shootings take place each day in the US? I also wonder – since I am now a bit of an expert – are the psychopaths the people who:

(1) Kill people on live TV?
(2) Televise the shooting in as explicit a manner as possible, to score viewing figures?
(3) Watch it again and again, to catch new details?
(4) Think about doing something similar?
(5) Keep the TV switched off, to avoid being confronted by it?

The questions are, of course, rhetorical – I do not expect anyone to provide answers. Thanks, anyway – if you are upset by this post, please purchase a bunch of flowers from your local filling station, and place them in front of your TV.

Just out of interest, I thought I’d have a look this morning to see if there are any prominent black members of the NRA. I got depressed before I’d formed a clear opinion, so I’ve done with the subject. Back to quantum mechanics.


  1. I cannot get my head around the whole 'America - gun' thing ! . In our village there has been an on going dispute between two neighbours over a boundary hedge , with the usual bad language and threats (all very childish) - but if this was the USA would it have ended into gunfire !? , luckily we don't have the same access to them ! , Tony

  2. Apparently, psychopaths are old hat. Psychiatrists now talk about "antisocial personality disorders" that lie along some sort of spectrum. Philosophers I've worked with, reviewing cases of criminal "insanity" in order to further debates in the field of "moral psychology", have detected an difference in reasoning capabilities between "psychopaths" and "sociopaths", and its the latter I'm afraid of (and who I think now run the world). Unlike you're disorganised, utterly disassociated psychopath, the your sociopath knows exactly how other people work and sets out to manipulate them by seeming to deliver. They have no conscience, so there's nothing they won't do to bend you to their will. Remind you of anyone you know? *cough* advertising *cough* PR *spin doctors*

    1. It is evident from Facebook and elsewhere that 17-year-olds seem to accuse each other being sociopaths quite a lot, so it must be more of a now word (I did the quotation mark in the air thing there) - I'm sure that the psychiatric profession have their finger on the pulse, not to mention the money supply. If the book is about to be Scarlett Johanssoned, that must be tolerably cool as well, though. Let's assume this is not just semantics. Ronson appears to use psychopath to cover both definitions - I shall watch out for both. If a man follows me home with an axe, I shall not bother to check which he is, though I accept the difference may be important.

      The only practising psychiatrist I ever knew (at a non-professional level) was a neighbour of mine about 25 years ago, who was a consultant as well as a professor at a very famous old Scottish School of Medicine - his family kept the curtains shut every single day - they were never opened - and their unemployed son used to leave home every morning at 8pm wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, and he used to get the bus to the park, where he used to feed the ducks and the swans. He used to return home at teatime - this to avoid the neighbours finding out that he had no job.

      All seems normal enough to me.

    2. ... that was supposed to read "morning at 8AM" of course...

    3. Ah, I thought perhaps he was covering the night shift at the park which led me to wonder what exactly, or who, he was feeding to the birds do I decided to go back to reading Ice and Fire which sometimes seems benign compared to the news and the hints of what we're not being told.

  3. Some time ago I read a book on how to manage highly talented people. This tome started with a (long) list of the type of attributes that such individuals displayed. I would defy anyone to read the list and not come to the conclusion that they are themselves should be thought of as 'highly talented'. Presumably the author did it deliberately in order that the warm glow arising would result in favourable reviews; for what it's worth I thought it was a very good book.

    1. That's interesting - I suppose it is just possible that his typical reader might be a bit smarter than the average bear to start with, but if it was a conscious ploy then it's dashed cunning.

      I'm not sure that Mr Ronson would expect his readers to get a warm glow from learning they had sociopathic tendencies (hot sweat, maybe) - it's maybe similar to looking on the internet to see what exactly that itchy rash on you shin is - the more you read, the more unpleasant diseases you have.

      Not sure - I thought the Hare checklist looked like a very blunt instrument, and the wordings are short enough and general enough to accept a very loose fit (deliberate? - discuss - remember this is used to assess suspected criminals). I am also interested to learn that Dr Hare has produced some very unfavourable comment on the book - maybe Ronson misrepresented him - maybe Ronson showed them to be a bunch of charlatans. Whatever, they are not chums any more.

      I would give Ronson the benefit of the doubt - anyone who played piano with Frank Sidebottom is a man of integrity in my book.

  4. I think everyone has the potential to become a psychopath (in the popular sense), simply by a 'normalisation' process. The Nazi Einsatztruppen were composed largely of paramilitary police units drawn from police reserve formations. Consequently, they were commonly made up of middle aged men, most of whom had no actual military experience. From humble beginnings, they became efficient and dispassionate killers, the equal of Ukranian recruits who were considered to be rather good at that sort of thing. We're pretty good quality clay and can be moulded into most things, presumably by any half decent sociopath.

    Children under five are natural and efficient sociopaths, but they have to be.

    BTW, I did a quick Google on 'Psychopath' and, having read an article in Psychology Today, it's evident that psycholgists display a disturbing disregard for grammar. Not sure what kind of 'path' that is. :O/

    1. Interesting point - I also wonder a bit about whether kids can change their reaction to graphic violence by playing gory video games?


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