Jon Ronson on psychopathy, with Sam Pang
In The Psychopath Test, British sleuth and documentary maker Jon Ronson comes across the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard ‘psychopath test’ and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths. Fresh from a chaotic appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A, Ronson joins Sam Pang to discuss his forays into the mental healthcare system - and the odd spectrum of people who inhabit it.
Before taking to the lectern, Ronson recounts his experience of appearing on Q&A alongside, among others, frenzied Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Ronson confesses that his aim is “to try and make wet doubt seem attractive”.
If conventional psychiatry is any again, says Ronson, he suspects he suffers from 12 mental disorders. He describes meeting with “Tony”, an inmate at Broadmoor Hospital, who faked mental illness to escape responsibility for a small crime. Every attempt Tony makes to prove his sanity is taken as a symptom of his insanity.
Ronson explains why he wrote The Psychopath Test, and considers the success of public figures such as ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap who may well qualify as psychopathic. Ronson’s colourful encounter at the fallen businessman’s home in Florida is recounted on this podcast of popular radio show This American Life.
The journalist’s explorations of various topics, such as a secret New Age warfare unit of the US military as described in The Men Who Stare At Goats, have led him to some bizarre situations. He discusses how online sleuthing has led to exciting discoveries, but acknowledges that good stories can still be challenging to find despite modern tools like Google.
Returning to psychopathy, Ronson reassures the audience that if they’re worried about being a psychopath, they’re almost certainly not one. Psychopaths would display no concern, he argues, and moreover anxiety disorders are indicative of moral goodness.
A key message to take from his book, he says, is that despite our sense of universal values and sympathies, “we’re not all the same”. Some amongst us truly think and feel differently and it would be wrong to assume otherwise.
Finally, Ronson considers the double-edged sword of a “very fragile sense of certainty” in dealing with the often outlandish ideas of his subjects. On the one hand, this allows him to be open to their perspective. And yet, he sheepishly confides, “I do tend to agree with whatever anybody’s saying to me, eventually.”
Jon Ronson is an award-winning non-fiction writer and documentary maker. He is the author of four bestsellers, Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test and Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, and two collections, Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness and What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness. His latest book is the short story Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie. His first fictional screenplay, Frank, co-written with Peter Straughan, has been directed by Lenny Abrahamson and stars Michael Fassbender. He lives in London and New York City.
Sam Pang is a writer, presenter and broadcaster. His television credits include the hugely popular Santo, Sam and Ed’s Cup Fever and SBS’s coverage of The Eurovision Song Contest.