A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell? Journalist Jon Ronson spent two years talking to psychopaths, psychiatrists and even Scientologists in an effort to learn more about psychopathy and its effects on society.
NPR logo

A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136462824/136533913" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell?

A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136462824/136533913" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RAZ: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

F: a postmark from Gothenburg, Sweden. Now, no one could figure out who was behind them, so that's when journalist Jon Ronson got involved.

M: So I flew to Scotland, and what I discovered, in a nutshell, is that the person who had sent out this book was nuts. And the reason why nobody could solve the puzzles was because there was no solution. It was just randomness. It was just a crackpot.

RAZ: Now somehow, this got Jon Ronson fascinated with the possibility that the man behind the books was a psychopath. So he decided to explore more, and he wrote a book about it. It's called "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry." And when he stopped by our studios, Jon Ronson told me the mystery of the mad puzzle maker reminded him of something he'd heard about before.

M: What it reminded me of was a consensus of psychologists, that there was a certain sort of madness that was so powerful, it trickles down to affect society. It remolds society. And that madness is psychopathy, because psychopaths tend to make very ruthless and successful leaders.

RAZ: We're going to, obviously, get more into who is a psychopath. But around that time, you got your hands on a copy of the DSM-4 - this is the American Psychiatric Association's compendium of every mental disorder ever - and you started reading it, and you found that you had a lot of problems.

M: Yeah. Well, I sort of was casually wondering whether I had any mental disorders, and I instantly diagnosed myself with 12.

RAZ: Well done.


M: So I wondering, well, what does this mean? Does this mean that I'm far crazier than I thought I was? Or does it mean that it's not a good idea to self-diagnose if you're not a trained professional?

RAZ: Hmm.


M: Or does it mean that the psychiatry profession has a strange need to label what's essentially normal behavior as mental disorders?

RAZ: And that's the conclusion you basically reached.

M: Well, somewhere between all three, actually.


M: I think a bit of all three.

RAZ: And so naturally, you went to meet a kindred spirit. You went to go see Scientologists, who are, of course, big opponents of psychiatry.

M: Yeah. I thought, if I'm going to write a book in which I try and prove or disprove the theory shared by psychologists that psychopaths rule the world, I should meet a critic of psychiatry. So I had lunch with the Scientologists. And I said look, can you prove to me that psychiatry is a pseudo-science that can't be trusted? And they said, we can prove it to you. We can get you into Broadmoor - which is Britain's most notorious, high-security mental facility - and introduce you to a man called Tony, who fakes madness. And now, he's stuck.

RAZ: He can't get out now because he did such a good job of tricking everybody that he was crazy.

M: Yeah. He wanted to get out of a prison sentence. He'd beaten a guy up when he was 17 years old.

RAZ: It was through Tony that you discovered something called the psychopath test, right?

M: Well, this was so extraordinary. After I left Tony - obviously, I did what any good journalist should do. I wrote to his clinician and I said, well, can you tell me: Is he sane; is he not sane - what's the story?

And his clinician wrote back to me and said yes, we accept that he did fake madness to get out of a prison sentence, because the minute he got to Broadmoor and realized what a massive mistake he'd made, all his delusions and hallucinations just melted away.

However, we have assessed him, and he's a psychopath. And faking your brain going wrong is exactly the kind of manipulative and deceitful act of a psychopath. Wearing a pinstriped suit to meet a journalist is exactly the kind of grandiose and glib and superficially charming act of a psychopath.

RAZ: Lots of anchors wear pinstripe suits.

M: They most certainly do. And Robert Hare, the eminent Canadian psychologist who invented the psychopath checklist, has done research and has recently announced that you're four times more likely to find a psychopath at the top of the corporate ladder than you are walking around in the janitor's office.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the author Jon Ronson. His new book is called "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry."

Jon Ronson, there was one guy that you went to go see who has not committed any violent crimes. His name is Al Dunlap, and he was the CEO of Sunbeam and was nicknamed Chainsaw Al for, you know, I guess, laying off all these people. And you went down to his house in Florida to basically run the psychopath test on him?

M: Yeah.

RAZ: So what made or makes Al Dunlap a potential psychopath?

M: Well, his past behavior, for instance. His first wife said in her divorce papers that he'd threatened her with a knife and said he always wondered what human flesh tasted like. But more than that, when he was in charge of Sunbeam, he had a reputation as an incredibly ruthless and merciless cost-cutter, to the extent that he seemed to almost enjoy firing people.

So I turned up at his house, and it was filled with sculptures of predatory animals.


M: Just - I mean, we're talking about a huge collection. And he would - I mean, immediately started to talk about how he believed in the predatory spirit, which was word for word what Bob Hare writes about in the checklist: Look out for their belief in the predatory spirit.

RAZ: How did he come out? Is he a psychopath?

M: Well, he certainly would score pretty high. He admitted to many, many items on the checklist, but redefined them as leadership positives. So manipulation was another way of saying leadership, grandiose sense of self- worth - which would have been a hard one for him to deny because he was standing underneath a giant oil painting of himself.


M: He was turning things, psychopath checklist into that "Who Moved My Cheese."


M: Which is a book I haven't read, by the way. I'm just assuming that's a good analogy.


RAZ: How did it feel to sort of like, spend - I guess you spent about two years just hanging out around psychopaths, and then trying to identify people who are psychopaths. It actually kind of took a toll on you. And you write a about that a little bit in the book.

M: Yeah. Something kicked in, in the months after doing the Hare checklist. I have great admiration for the Hare checklist. I think it's right. I think it's as scientific as psychology can ever be. However, becoming qualified in it can mess with your head. You know? Like I did without Al Dunlap, I dehumanized him. I turned him into this splurge of madness in my mind for good journalism - and for good entertainment.

RAZ: Has he contacted you?

M: No, he hasn't.

RAZ: What about Tony? Where is he? Is he still at Broadmoor?

M: Well, he did get out. I went to his tribunal and they let him out, because they decided that even he was a psychopath, he shouldn't have been in a mental hospital for seven years longer than he would've been in jail. That's an evident miscarriage of justice.

It was funny, actually. I - after his tribunal, when they said they were going to let him out, he came up to me in the corridor and he said Jon - he said - what you've got to remember, Jon, is that we're all a bit psychopathic. He said, you are, I am - well, obviously, I am.


RAZ: That's the author Jon Ronson. His new book is called "The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry."

Jon Ronson, thank you so much for coming in.

M: Thank you, Guy.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.