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The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson

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Author: Jon Ronson / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 05 January 2012 / Genre: Lifestyle / Subcategory: Popular Psychology / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: The Psychopath Test / ISBN 13: 9780330492270 / ISBN 10: 0330492270 / Alternative EAN: 9780330492263

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      24.04.2013 13:42
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      An entertaining look into the world of psychopaths but to be taken with a pinch of salt

      Jon Ronson is a British investigative journalist that over the years has been a documentary maker, a screenwriter, a non-fiction author, a radio presenter, a columnist, a 90s conspiracy theory TV talk show host...hell he's even managed an indie band and filled in as a keyboardist for the Frank Sidebottom band on occasion. A man with many fingers in many pies by all accounts. He is probably best known to the masses as the man who authored "Men Who Stare at Goats", a story about the real life weird practices of a black-ops US government department looking into teaching soldiers psychic abilities through staring at goats and trying to stop their hearts, invisibility and the ability to walk through walls which came to the forefront through the fictional 2009 George Clooney and Ewan McGregor film of the same name. His fifth published non-fiction book, and the only one I've read so far, was "The Psycopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry" (2011).

      Ronson's journey starts immediately on an incredibly mysterious and bizarre note with an almost clandestine meeting at a Costa Coffee shop (where all the local neurologists congregate) with Deborah Talmi, a neurologist herself, who had received a peculiar book in the post - "Being or Nothingness" by Joe K. This book, the name possible a play on Sartre's 1943 essay "Being and Nothingness", was a mere 42 pages long filled with cryptic clues, blank pages and strategic holes cut out lending itself as a tantalising puzzle waiting to be solved. It turns out this book had been send to many academics who had formed an online forum in their attempts to solve it with little luck. That's when Talmi decided to bring in outside help from a different perspective, an investigative journalist, and with his reputation for investigating the bizarre, Ronson was brought into the picture which also happened to coincide with a nasty run in he'd been having with the cult leader Dave McKay for the "Jesus Christians" whom he believed to be a psychopath and invoked feelings of great anxiety in him.

      During his investigation with one eye on his own anxiety issues, Ronson develops an interest in psychopathy especially after his run in with Dave McKay, and this leads on to a whole new journey investigating the different elements of madness we find in everyday society and an exploration of what makes a psychopath. This leads to such things as: interviews with a man who allegedly faked madness and ended up in Broadmoor for 12 years; a look at the LSD fuelled experiments of the past; finding out all about the Robert Hare and his Psychopath checklist which is still used to decide whether a person is labelled a psychopath or not and whether they should be institutionalised; an interview with the infamous Toto Constant, the leader of the paramilitary group FRAPH responsible for hundreds of murders, tortures and rapes of anyone believed to be engaging in pro-democratic acts; a look into corporate psychopaths, a chap named Al Dunlap specifically, and the devastation they can leave with callous acts under the pretence of saving failing businesses; a look at what makes certain madness of interest to us whilst others are ignored; his dealings with David Shayler, an MI5 spy who went off the rails and became an obsessive conspiracy theorist to the point of madness, plus a look at the misdiagnosis of mental illness and the catastrophic consequences of when it is completely mishandled.

      Now, this probably sounds all deep and heavy, but actually Ronson's style is very conversational and informal, very much a case of reporting as he finds it with no holds barred in a very dry, humorously satirical and often mocking way which does make for a very compelling and entertaining read. He has often been labelled as a "Gonzo Journalist" i.e. reporting with no suggestion of objectivity purely returning investigative findings from a first person perspective utilising personal feelings and emotions in place of actual facts or any form of validation. Having read this book, I'd have to agree to a certain extent as Ronson makes no suggestion that he is an expert on the subject and is simply learning as he goes along, thus informing us, the readers, of his discoveries at the same pace, but I found myself very much taking everything I read with a pinch of salt, especially as the interviews with the key players, such as Hare, Tonto Constant, Tony from Broadmoor all had an exaggerated feel to them as if they were a parody of the original for comic or dramatic effect. This wasn't necessary a bad thing, it just put me on my guard not to take anything as the gospel truth.

      Still, the actual subject matters throughout each seemingly disparate yet still connected (by madness) chapters were extremely interesting, especially for those interested in psychology. The entertainment world has made it hard not to see psychopaths as knife wielding lunatics out to randomly murder people with an uncontrollable blood lust, but obviously this is nonsense and is in fact a confusion between psychopathy and psychosis as this book proves. In some ways the reality of psychopathy is a bit more disturbing. Starting with Robert Hare's checklist this book actually arms us with the ability to spot our own psychopaths, which is probably a bit dangerous in the hands of untrained amateurs, but as one who always likes to flirt with danger, here they are to let you start your own psychopath witch-hunt. If a person scores highly, for example 30 out of 40 points they are classified as a dangerous psychopath and can be detained in a mental institution:

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

      Ronson actually goes on a course to learn how to correctly apply this checklist and this is used throughout his analysis of all the potential, yet different psychopaths he meets along the way, although it's hard to see how a three day course really makes him expert enough to judge, but it is an interesting experiment nonetheless and again makes fascinating food for thought, especially when the outcome of certain interviews is the realisation that he may have unwittingly fallen foul to certain charms and manipulations completely obliviously. Naturally the need to apply psychopathic traits to your own personality is overwhelming when reading this book, and thankfully only a few apply to me so I feel safe in proclaiming myself not to be a psychopath...but am I a pathological liar hmm?

      I think the biggest drawback, which may not apply to everybody, is the large absence of bona fide facts, replaced with personal experiences which whilst are insightful and enlightening for individual cases, may not hold true across the whole spectrum of cases so we are really only seeing a cross section of potentially biased events which will never provide a definitive conclusion to madness (if that is even possible). One thing that irked me was the casual way Ronson stated that psychopathy and sociopathy were interchangeable, which is simply not true. Whilst their symptoms have a huge crossover, there are a few differences between the two which called for the separate classification such as psychopaths are able to fit in seamlessly in society whereas sociopaths suffer many anti-social problems making them much easier to spot, and the origins of these disorders may be very different with psychopathy being an innate thing, whereas sociopathy may stem from environmental factors. There is much debate about the differences, but I feel it was lazy writing just to state the two were much of a muchness which did hint at perhaps a less than stellar understanding of the subject as a whole (but of course he is not a trained psychologist!) and did slightly diminish the credibility of his findings.

      Still, as I mentioned before Ronson's slightly dubious credibility on the subject of psychopathy in no way detracts from the hard hitting and uncomfortable topics Ronson brings to our attention despite his rather satirical style of delivery, and his unflinching quest to give us answers to matters of madness we may not have even considered before shows us a glimpse of his ballsy nature in venturing to scary places and dealing with personalities that most people would want to avoid, such as Broadmoor in amongst the criminally insane and dealing with a Scientologist (no disrespect meant but we all know what happens if you cross them), a mass murderer and an unhinged ex-MI5 spy. So if nothing else, you have to give respect to Ronson's determined investigative style. I also was perhaps a bit harsh before as Ronson did actually throw in a lot of factual evidence in the form of known psychological experiments and cases of violent psychopathic crimes such as the tragic murders and assault of the Russell family with a hammer by Michael Stone in 1996 who had been diagnosed previously as a psychopath but due to the "untreatability" of the condition could not be detained...not a great day for the psychiatry community. However, I did feel these types of anecdotes and experiments were hand-picked to show things in perhaps a more negative light, and again I didn't get an overwhelming sense of a balanced investigation, but that might just be me.

      I think to summarise, this was a very entertaining read with a humorous style lessening the impact of the subject matter somewhat, but that unfortunately, due to what could be perceived as a rather non-objective viewpoint, perhaps lost a certain amount of credibility along the way. It was hard to take everything as pure fact which led to a sense of exaggeration at times, although on the other hand this allowed for a certain amount of interpretation and the chance to draw your own conclusions from the evidence before you which I think made this book perfect as the starting point to opening your eyes to certain areas for further exploration and debate. So whilst I'm not convinced I actually learnt a whole lot of facts from this book, I have certainly gained a lot more understanding about what psychopathy is all about and a sense of what areas to delve into if I were ever inclined to learn more about the subject...which I think I am. So basically, this is a useful starting point to get you interested in the subject, but certainly not a reliable or definitive resource.

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        19.03.2013 02:10
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        Very Wrong Son!

        The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson. Clearly states: Non - fiction on back of book.
        Publishing House: Picador
        Date released: 2011
        Duration: 291 pages
        - - -

        The chances of bumping into a psychopath at Oxford Circus within duration of twelve minutes is guaranteed according to Ronson - naturally, I've nothing against the location, or do psychopaths hang around this centralized area of London - but it is a stark reminder by being in a rush-hour crowd - the chances of rubbing shoulders with one jump up alarmingly. Some of you may agree, we must be aware that humans are capable of anything, and at anytime could flip - let's just hope you're no where near the vicinity when such an occasion erupt great carnage. In reality, I'm surprised Ronson can sleep at night, in all honestly as he has a compulsive neurosis in learning about psychopaths; perhaps Ronson attracts them - a question of; like attracting like.

        Jon Ronson on appearance could've been the love-child of Woody Allen and Bill Gates, if the concept was productively possible. Ronson's gawkiness and awkward style in docu-writing does in fact dupe his readership into a false sense of logical stability. Having been summoned by an associate of a friend to meet in Costa Coffee where all viable journalists go, Ronson was handed a neat, handcrafted book called: Being or Nothingness the book was circulated within academic groups, in the subject of psychopathy; and this is where the journey embarks - A marrow-bone to chomp for Ronson, who does not comply with the concept of logic - initially he's irrational in 'The Psychopath Test' book; even his son Joel seems more together. Ronson barely can deal with his own mind, let alone deal with any credible understanding of the human mind itself. He's not a scientist, or an authoritarian on the subject of psychology, who conducts first-hand experiments of the human condition of being a 'psychopath.' Therefore, all that he has done is compiled a few ideas of what denotes a psychopath, from Scientologists? In one swoop he profoundly disregards the psychiatric profession entirely.

        I half expected for the purpose of the book that Ronson may've adopted the letter's 'D' and 'R' followed by a full-stop before his full name. For a docu-styled book the material collected has the same intellectual density as a 'joke-book.' No joke! Really, Ronson's impression of Kafka's protagonist Joe K is indeed a 'joke.' Man-kind isn't programmed to pro-create, but to be weird. Amusing, he is not. I picture him deciphering through his interview dictations, converse with his subjects and for his own amusement factor he opts for ill-advised comic timing, such as: "I'm not a psychopath!" followed by a long pause. "He seems to want to change the subject as if he were in denial..." - (I paused..... for a while) - 'silence.' Ronson's writing comedic timing / material is uncomfortable; the closest thing to it encompasses 'Brent's Office, working overtime.' Imitating Brent is a condition, a psychopath usually adopts. 'Polyester suited, incessantly fiddling and lying, easily distracted, egocentric, and has a profound urge to mince or dance in corporate arenas, without music, compensating it by simulating beat-box grunts.' The guy Ronson has to speak to is called Tony he's in Broadmoor. Ah yea, I feared another 'wild goose chase', although 'goats' is a far accurate term; having read Ronson's 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' - when it was a bloke called Gavin who had all the answers. Psychopaths don't feel remorse apparently but tend to kid others they do feel remorse for their actions, a pretense that only a psychopath can master. Albeit, actors and actresses are exempt from such labels, as it is deemed as a career choice - A psychopath is not a career choice although one in every hundred beings has psychotic traits, they just do not know it yet. Ronson has yet to rebuke the whole of the human race, just in case he pi**** off a psychopath, by calling him / her a psychopath - naturally he did, slightly accidentally via email, (in true Ronson style) - subsequently after a couple of interactive exchanges with Dave; Ronson's pants turned fifty shades of brown - Now reading that *was* funny. Proving that you are not a psychopath is far tougher than you are, there is no actual 'app' or device that deciphers whether you are or not - there is no particular screening procedure which measures chemicals in the brain which denotes a 'perfect storm' for 100% psychotic tendencies. No, that'll be far too accurate - instead a far more demented test is preferred: and the test is called the Bob Hare checklist also known as the (PCL) - Psychopathy Checklist. I particularly liked the Hare's Psychopathy Checklist "Revised" (PCL-R) version, it implies the initial (PCL) didn't uncover enough psychopaths.

        In regards to the Hare Checklist, Ronson really loses the plot - he mixes up the term madness; (the quality or condition of being insane) with the term psychopath; (an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse). Psychopaths are not openly mentally deranged, which denotes insanity. What does denote insanity is Hare's Pa was a roof contractor who 'rode the rails' during the Great Depression of the 1930s! - If you're looking for madness you've found it. I wonder if 'riding the rails' is on Hare's Psychopath Checklist? Oh, and has anyone done a psychopath test on Hare? I winced at Ronson's childlike questioning when he bowled a Ronson googly at Bob: "If some political or business leader had a psychopathically hoodlum childhood, wouldn't it come out in the press and ruin them?" Bob responds with a straight bat: "They find ways to bury it" - if it ever got out it could completely change the way we see the world and our leaders forever." According to Hare - Leaders in the public eye would have to prove they're not psychopaths and that could be no mean feat. At this point, I wondered whether all this psychotic rhetoric that Hare was arming Ronson was a dangerous thing - Might go to his head. Ronson seemed idiosyncratic, wide-eyed and excited to step-up to a level to unearthing a powerful psychopath - one with a hood and a claw - 'Penelope Pitstop and the Hooded Claw, rides round the mountain, again!' This book is markedly comical, limited of the funny bone. If I was mildly sarcastic, I would've had a hoot. Ronson's pallid complexion is a testimony of his miss-spent youth - locked in Arthur C Clarke's world of little green men and pondering if pigs really could fly.

        Toto Constant a Haitian chief who organized death-squads was as detached, spaced-out, aloof as Brian the Scientologist, and Tony the Broadmoor resident - a trait of psychopaths, or just how Ronson views them? None of the interviewed recipients are 'Carry-on movie' material then again, I wouldn't have raised an eye-brow if Julian Clary perched on Ronson's lap and did some short-hand - Jotting down from the Hare Checklist - Lack of remorse stroke guilt - Shallow affect - Callous and lack of empathy. What do you expect from a leader of a death-squad? A bow-tied, lisped Leonard Rossiter character that ends off every sentence with ... 'Miss Jonness' - no, that'll be slapstick. Ronson can only do one character that is: detached, spaced-out, aloof - much alike himself. Overdosed on the magic mushrooms - as always there is a surprise element that his subject actually agreed to be interviewed - they must've got wind Ronson collected Burger King Vouchers, plastic miniature 'Rugrats' and 'Powderpuff Girls', as it so happens Toto does too. Do you arrange them into battalions? Ronson enquires - the customary Ronson silence follows. Yea, you've heard it all before - his supposed comic timing is nauseating till distraction. Hard to fathom why Ronson feels this is appropriate when it comes to the serious concerns of mental health? "Eerily vacant" is scribble down for Toto Constant - 'Benny from 'Crossroads' - Ominous towards human life and flesh; gentle and polite towards plastic figurines. Among the psychopaths approximately 70 million world wide - usually wearing polyester suits, lays a white elephant in the kitchen: the 1 in 3 adults whose daily struggle with mental health leaves them now reliant on big pharmacies, to simply function. Robert Spitzer the editor of DSM III a bible about the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders' - could not decipher the stats on whether a higher numbers of psychopaths had mental disorders, compared to Joe Blogs, the results were inconclusive - hence, so was the 'mental disorders labeling' as it transpired that Spitzer subconsciously could've stipulated 'ordinary behaviour' traits as mental disorders. The leaves never fall far from the tree. Human-kind behaviour isn't a question of being 'black or white - light and shade' but a plethora of neurosis variables. What did come out of the docu-style study only endorsed my opinion, and that is the drug companies and the advocacy groups have a tremendous influence in propagating the mental heath epidemic.

        To put a serious side to the book, which Ronson was determined not to do - there were serious mental health issues in the book, such as autism and attention deficit disorder and the plight of Rebecca Riley were highlighted. Tracy Anglada who is author of 'Brandon and the Bipolar Bear' concerning BP (Bipolar) Children. The real issues were small sub-headings, mere details in an ocean of craziness - idiotic choice of client interviews, wise-cracks and painstakingly awkward pauses, for comedy sake - Better suited for pointless subject titles like; 'Do Aliens Go to Superhero Conventions?' The foolhardy will take what Ronson states seriously. Obviously for Ronson madness is never too far away. 'Suggs law' - Not recommended.

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          16.12.2012 19:00
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          A very interesting read even if it is only a little bit of mind fluff

          ===Living La Vida Loca===

          While on one of my daily (yes, daily) jaunts to Tesco with my Mr, we decided to have a quick look at the book section as they had some three for two offers on. I spotted one that looked quite interesting and pretty enough to grab my eye. Merrily we judged all the other books to be mass produced CSI rehashes so we ended up only buying the one I originally picked up. Thrown promptly to the bottom of the book pile I've been looking forward to getting to it for a couple of weeks now. Finally I finished the ones that lived on top of it (and possibly accidentally re ordered them so that it was on the top) and I was ready to roll.

          ===Are you crazy?===

          The Psychopath test by Jon Ronson (a vaguely good looking journalist) is the book that caught my eye with its fun but simple artwork and the fact it had the word "psychopath" in the title. It's written by the man responsible for "The Men Who Stare At Goats" and is essentially a documentary in book format.

          Jon Ronson is called in to investigate a strange and puzzling book that had been sent to hundreds of academics all over the world. None of them could figure out what it meant and what wondrous information was encoded within the pages and eventually one of them got fed up enough to get a reporter involved. Ronson solves the mystery fairly quickly but it manages to raise a lot of questions about how much control mentally unstable people have over the world as we know it. The book focuses on Ronson's journey to find out about what makes a psychopath and what sort of influence they could be exerting. Ronson goes from the highest echelons of businesses right down to the nutter you see on Jeremy Kyle every day, covering a wide range of madness and how we as a society can accept certain types of crazy but not others.

          ===Comedy...===

          The first thing that struck me about this book was that it was actually quite a serious piece of work. The blurb on the back literally tells you that you will be laughing from start to finish on every page. I'd have to argue that the guy who wrote that was maybe a little bit nuts himself. Ronson does have a good sense of humour about him, but it's not the forefront of this book. It simmers away in the background and lightens the mood when it's required.

          Some parts such as the early breakthrough treatments for psychopathy - Lots of LSD and talking about your feelings while being locked in a room completely naked with other psychopaths - are quite shocking and there isn't a lot that can be done to be funny about it.

          ===...Tragedy===

          What takes up a large part of the book is the scary side of madness. There is a bit of a morbidity about it, but it's entirely engrossing. Along with heart wrenching accounts of the London Bombings, there are a couple of chapters touching on the gruesome murder of a woman and her child and a failed police witch-hunt which ended up framing the wrong man. Other chapters go into gut wrenching stories about a woman so unstable she committed suicide after a TV show forced her family to say horrible things about her for entertainment value or one man who ended up having a very serious mental disorder being made fun on national TV.

          These chapters really kick you right in the face and make you remember that people all around you could be concealing any number of frailties. If you are human you will instantly feel terrible for anyone you may have ever said anything bad about, if only for a couple of seconds.

          As well as all of the horrific stories, Ronson interviews a few different people. Armed with new knowledge of the Bob Hare 20 point check list for psychopathy (which is what doctors use to class you as a Psychopath) he attempts to ferret out some crazies. Along the way he rubs shoulders with millionaires and mass murderers constantly blurring the lines between sanity and madness, fear and humour.

          ===Crazy prices?===

          This book is very reasonably priced at just £7 in my local Tesco but it can range from £5 to £10 online so just be careful when you are shopping for this one. It is also available on the kindle for £2.99 and I'd not even go nuts if you were to take the kindle version over the paperback. While the paperback copy is good, it's not the most amazingly pretty book you'll ever see. It's also not ugly at all. It's just a nice looking book.

          ===Mad as a hatter===

          I'd say that Ronson has made a real gem here. He really has picked up on a fascinating idea and ran all the way with it, presenting some amazing details about madness in all its forms. It's the most compelling book I've read in a while and I honestly couldn't wait to pick it up again each night. He uses a very conversational tone throughout the book which makes it really easy to take in everything he is saying while still making intelligent points (even if some are a little far fetched). His self deprecating humour is endearing and makes you want to read on even through some of the more horrific sections which, I have to point out, are dealt with very tactfully and respectfully. It's well priced and looks decent on the shelf. The only warning I will give you is that there are some uncomfortable moments to be had throughout due to the subject of the book. It's not supposed to be an intellectual masterpiece, that being said it's definitely up there with the best books I've read this year. Go forth and enjoy.

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            23.02.2012 13:10
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            a flop

            A mysterious book called "Being or Nothingness" turns up on the desks of several academics, a book which contains cryptic messages which need to be solved. One of the recipients of the book calls in journalist Jon Ronson who is famous for his book "The Men Who Stare at Goats" to see if he can shed any light on the matter. This leads Ronson to meeting Bob Hare, the inventor of the Hare Psychopathy checklist which is a list of 20 items and if a person scores high enough on the scale then they are diagnosed as a psychopath. This, in turn, leads Ronson on a search for the craziness in everyday life.
            Psychopaths are not terribly nice people; they hurt other people and show no remorse. This leads a lot of them to be locked up in Broadmoor but what happens when the psychiatrists gets it wrong? Ronson visits Tony, an inmate of Broadmoor who claims that he pretended to be crazy to go to hospital instead of jail and has been fighting for years to get back out again. Is Tony a true psychopath or just a cunning criminal?

            A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and Ronson is soon comparing everyone he knows against the Hare. He seems to think it is news to the reader that a lot of executives are psychopaths, the inability to feel empathy for other people making them big shots in the boardroom (anyone who has watched a single episode of The Apprentice USA will wonder how Donald Trump scores) and he is soon globetrotting to show us that big bad business leaders are just as bad as inmates of a secure mental hospital.
            Some people believe that psychiatry is a sham science and Ronson is aided in his investigations into madness by none other than the Scientologists who are well known for their hatred of psychiatrists. The Scientologists can provide some damning examples of where psychiatry has gone wrong including using LSD and bizarre naked psychotherapy sessions which make for entertaining reading but hardly a real expose and the most outlandish examples are chosen to get a laugh.

            What does David Shayler have to do with psychopaths then? Absolutely nothing but it is good fun to have a pop at his crackpot theories. This is the former MI5 agent who not only believes that 9/11 was faked and that what we saw on the TV was a hologram but that on the 7/7 the London bombings were faked and it was the day which he also became the Messiah. I actually felt quite sorry for Shayler being used to get a couple of cheap laughs, the guy is clearly deluded and in need of some sympathy rather than mocking.

            Ronson continues his voyage into the world of madness by trying to examine the way psychiatrists diagnose people using the DSM book and how different disorders end up being recognised. Are too many of us who are truly sane being diagnosed with disorders which don't exist in order to line the pockets of the drug companies? A brief look at childhood autism and bipolar disorder in the USA would seem to suggest that psychiatrists are all too keen to label kids with the latest trendy disorder to make a few bucks.

            "The Psychopath Test" is an odd book, a book which seems to have no real direction and meanders around wherever the author can get in a cheap laugh or two. There are a lot of serious issues brought up in the book but It is not a serious investigation into psychopathy or mental illness and anyone who is well read will probably not learn too much from reading it since the topics are discussed in newspapers regularly. The jocular tone of Ronson's writing may work well with other subjects but not with this one which deserves to be treated with a bit more respect.

            I should know better by now, the majority of popular science or psychology books which hit the top 10 of the paperback charts are pretty poor and "The Psychopath Test" is yet another flop.

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