Monday, June 4, 2012

The Psychopath Test

You know me.  Always reading and then using what I read to try to explain the world around me.

I met a guy recently whom I thought to be a narcissist.  Now, I often talk about being a narcissist myself, particularly when describing the act of blogging and/or my compulsion to write books about my own life.  But deep down, I don’t really think I’m a narcissist.  I think, like the vast majority of people, that I have narcissistic tendencies, and that due to my obvious self-consciousness about channeling mine in a public way, I overcompensate by repeatedly labeling myself with a psychological condition.

But this guy I pegged for the real deal.  Seeming lack of empathy, incredibly self-centered behavior, unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions – a textbook case of genuine narcissism (which is clinically – and perhaps more accurately – also known as Antisocial Personality Disorder).  In my head, I labeled him, smugly congratulated myself for figuring him out, and used this diagnosis to comfort myself that any callous behavior toward me was not personal, but the result of his psychosis.

I have similarly diagnosed a psychopath or two in my day.  The word "psychopath" has shadowy and sinister connotations:  we tend to think of serial killers or ruthless corporate CEOs.  But psychopaths can be (and often are) just regular people - people who are incapable of experiencing a full range of emotion, who are delusional about their abilities and status in the world, who are manipulative and (often) charismatic, who use other people and then discard them.  It's this more "normal" class of psychopaths that we're all bound to run into at one point or another.

Knowing this, when I started reading The Psychopath Test, written by Jon Ronson, the same guy who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, I fully expected the revelation that I know more psychopaths than I originally thought.  (They do, after all, make up around 1% of the general population, though, by my diagnostic standards, significantly less than 1% of all the people I've ever known.)  And indeed, as he dug deeper into the realm of identifying them, I, much like the author himself, started to find them everywhere...

The book was clever in that way.  Ronson made me see what he was seeing, and what he was seeing was that the qualifications for psychopathy seem obvious in list form (pathological lying, irresponsibility, impulsivity, etc), but take each one by itself and suddenly half the people you run across in life seem suspect.  I even started to wonder about myself.  What about the times when I was wrapped up in my own problems and didn't properly address the issues of someone else?  (Lack of empathy!)  Or how about trying to make myself sound good in all of my online profiles?  (Grandiose self-worth!)  And the fact that I've spent the past two years of my life drinking all of Breakaway's beer?  (Parasitic lifestyle!) 

Thankfully, it seems that the mere anxiety of thinking oneself to be a psychopath is an indication that you most likely aren't one.  But if I can sit there and in the process of reading a mass market book about psychology even flirt with the idea of categorizing myself in the same vein as Ted Bundy or Ken Lay, then imagine how many doctors out there are looking at patients and checking off things on a checklist to diagnose a condition that isn't there.  Not just psychopathy (which isn't treatable), but all sorts of mental illnesses.

There were times when I wasn't sure exactly where Ronson's story was going, but he somehow managed to wrap it up rather brilliantly by not going anywhere at all.  True psychopaths - the number of which I suspect myself of knowing reverting to the same number by the end of the book as when I started - are maybe not the best people to befriend, but they are, in the end, people.

Ronson's argument is that perhaps they should be classified by the degrees and nuances that we classify the rest of our humanity.  Which is to say, not in absolutes.  Almost all of these people have at least some, if not many, good qualities.   

And the other side of it is that all of us non-psychopaths have at least some, if not many, really bad ones.  We're all a little insane.  Each of us have just enough quirks to make us interesting, and while this is not to say in any way that psychopathic behavior should be embraced, it is to say that as a general rule of thumb, we shouldn't be so quick to judge people by the most extreme edges of their madness.

So perhaps I shouldn't go around labeling people as "narcissists" just because I think they could be nicer to me.  Maybe this guy's not a narcissist at all.  Maybe I was placing the blame on him but he's sometimes cold to me because of something I did.  (Failure to accept responsibility for own actions!)  Maybe he thinks I'm the one with the mental condition.

At any rate, the book, which was fascinating and funny/horrifying from start to finish, solidified a theory I've often thought about:  that true mental illness is a rare thing, and maybe we're all too quick to look at normal variations in human behavior and see "wrongness" in them. 

(But just the same, if you know a psychopath, it's probably best not to get too close.  Just because they're not all serial killers doesn't mean you should fill your life with people who are biologically incapable of caring about your feelings.)


  1. oh well, I am a psycho too with you little hints ... guess we can form a new club: "maybe-maybe not psychopaths"

    but if that means belonging into one category with C. Bale - and I am more than often sure he is a psychopath if you look how deeply he loses himself in his roles - I am welcoming the idea *ggg*

    I'd say I'm the only (if) psychopath I currently know in person. no danger for me then ;)


    1. Sasha, I know we have never actually met face-to-face, but I think I can safely say that you're no more of a psychopath than I am. :D

      And that being said, I think you're damn lucky not to know any of the real deal!!

      (I think you might be right on Christian Bale. Or at least to a certain degree! See, and he's a perfect example of someone who's a little crazy but has many good qualities! :))

  2. I was accused of being a narcissist the other day. I had the opportunity to ask a psychologist friend yesterday if he/she thought that could true. And I asked for 100% candor. Because if I am I want to do something about it. The reply was: "If you WERE a narcissist, you wouldn't be asking the question"


    1. I think that's a pretty pristine answer to a complicated question, and one that this book addresses in a much clearer manner than I did above. The author, amazingly enough, interviewed several psychopaths face-to-face to ask them if they thought they were psychopaths. Across the board, they had (often extremely logical) reasons as to why they were not. *None* of them were concerned about it, though; in fact, they all acted like it was ridiculous to even consider it.

      And I think THAT is a further distinction in talking about these conditions: being able to rationalize your way out of a diagnosis is pretty meaningless, but actually being concerned enough to worry over and ask someone about it...that's indicative of a way of thinking that just won't be present in someone who's really afflicted. And it's biological! I mean, there are actual different pathways in the brain at work here, so it's not like you can fake being concerned or not being concerned...

      (P.S. You were certainly not the person I was referring to above, in case you were wondering!!)

    2. No, I didn't think you were referring to me- but thanks for confirming. It was someone else - a pot calling the kettle black scenario.

      I think we are living in a quick to "label" world. The older I get the more I realize how often my first impressions are very wrong.

      I hope you were able to spend some time with you father today :)


    3. Indeed I did, and I hope you had a good Father's Day yourself. :)

      I agree. Labels are easy, but people are complicated. And I think it's very true that people often see in other people what they don't want to see in themselves...

  3. Love this post, I can relate (if you know what I mean...)

    Thank you SO MUCH for the e-mail and sorry I've been so absent, I MISS YOU TOOOOO!!! (I've realised several times over that I just left our HG-conversation hanging, in like January...) I'll get back to you soon, promise :-)

    Tons of hugs!

    1. I started writing about this entry in your e-mail!! But then I was like, no, Becky, you're writing her a book already, you have to save some things for further e-mails. :D

      I had a feeling you would appreciate this one!!! And speaking of topics I didn't expand on in the e-mail, I didn't even touch HG! We have much to discuss...and, as always, I know we will!! Hope your weekend is off to a wonderful, wonderful start!! *HUGS*