Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Test You Don't Want to Pass

Last night I was watching the movie “Being John Malkovitch” for maybe the 3rd time in my life, and found that my interpretation of it had been completely altered by a book I'm reading. If you have somehow missed this black gem of 1999, that's OK. It's not really a movie that one can spoil. In it, a character played by John Cusack discovers a portal in his office that grants access to the consciousness of John Malkovitch. Cusack teams up with a coworker, played by Catherine Keener, and they devise a scheme to sell tickets to Malkovitch. The last few times I've watched this film, I've experienced it as a dark comedy populated by pale characters who either ignore or screw up all the wonderful things around them (see: John Cusack and Cameron Diaz hoarding an apartment full of sad animals) This time, I was struck by a realization: Catherine Keener's character, Maxine, is a psychopath!

Let me just backtrack a little and say that if you read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, you will recognize psychopaths all over the place. It can be fun! But it also can be a little horrifying. Like Ronson, I'm beginning to notice items from the Bob Hare Checklist (the list used in prisons and psychiatric hospitals to diagnose inmates and patients), and movies are a rather harmless thing to practice on. For example, I've bolded the characteristics which Maxine demonstrates throughout the film:

1.Glibness/superficial charm
2.Grandiose sense of self-worth
3.Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
4.Pathological lying
6.Lack of remorse or guilt
7.Shallow affect
8.Callous/lack of empathy
9.Parasitic lifestyle
10.Poor behavioral controls
11.Promiscuous sexual behavior
12.Early behavior problems
13.Lack of realistic long-term goals
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

Needless to say, Maxine scores quite high.

I've been trying to think of an apt comparison to the relatively short history of psychopathology that Ronson investigates in his book. The best thing I can come up with is autism, in the sense that the two conditions share a unique cultural retroactivity. We often hear neuroscientists and psychologists speculate that with our current knowledge of the autism spectrum, famous people like Mozart, Newton and Jefferson likely place somewhere on it. And it's interesting to us because specialness is interesting, whether it results in extraordinary intellectualism or cold ruthlessness. I make the comparison because Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats; Them) is exactly the kind of author to launch such an intriguing concept into the pop culture lexicon. I suspect that the next trend to take off will be the labeling of various notorious figures as psychopaths. After all, the checklist is available for any armchair psychologist to find on the internet.

Psychopathy is not a diagnosis you want to receive, and as Ronson points out, if you are anxious that you might be a psychopath, you probably aren't one. The only sure way to find out about someone is to interview them at length, and then analyze not only their answers but their mannerisms and appearance. It's subjective until it isn't; recidivism rates among diagnosed and incarcerated psychopaths are much higher than non-psychopaths. The data suggests an ominous, Minority Report-esque course of action: longer sentences for high-scoring criminals.
The book is filled with Ronson's own nervous speculation, a sort of feedback loop of reacting to psychopaths and then assessing his reactions. His writing is self-effacing, but it is the sort of self-effacement that can only be achieved after one has become more confident and self-aware than one lets on, therefore undermining any real awkwardness. Do you see what he's done to me? All his bashful posturing about how he could never be a psychopath makes me suspicious...
To conclude this blog post that wants to turn into a research paper, I will just say that this is a great book for people who don't read much nonfiction, and for those interested in the history of psychology. It may not be a great, however, for those prone to paranoia.


  1. Lol! I probably won't be reading any of these, but interesting post!

  2. Yikes, you were right, definitely a test we don't want to pass...
    Nice post and thanks for the head's up on how to spot psychopaths, you can never be so sure about people these days.


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