What Makes a Psychopath?

PET image of a transaxial slice of the brain of a 56 year old male patient via WikiCommons

PET image of a transaxial slice of the brain of a 56 year old male patient via WikiCommons

A new book claims that, while one in 100 people in the general population are psychopaths, in the boardroom the ratio is four times higher (go to 18m40s). In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, calls psychopathy “the madness that makes the world go round”. In a Youtube video to promote the book he adds, “there’s a preponderance of psychopaths - people with a complete lack of human empathy - at the heart of the political and business elites”. Here’s a review and here’s an interview.

Jon Ronson became interested in psychopathy when he was contacted by a patient of a hospital for the mentally ill he calls ‘Tony’. Tony convinced Ronson he had faked his mental illness to avoid a prison term for a crime he’d been charged with. When Ronson spoke to hospital authorities about the case, they agreed that Tony had faked his mental illness, but that the fact that he’d faked a mental illness to escape criminal conviction was a sign that Tony was a psychopath.

The author uses Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist to conclude that corporate figures such as ‘Chainsaw Al’ Dunlap might just qualify. The list includes: glibness/superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning/manipulative behaviour; lack of remorse or guilt; short-lived and egocentric emotion; callousness/lack of empathy; failure to accept responsibility for actions; susceptibility to boredom; poor behavioral control; and lack of realistic long-term goals (full list here).

Literature has a long and proud history of psychopaths, arguably beginning with the Arabian Nights, in which Scheherazade staves off the murderous impulses of a psychopathic king with the power of storytelling. Film has made much mileage of psychopaths, too, particularly Stanley Kubrick. But among psychologists, the word ‘psychopath’ itself is controversial, particularly its classification, alongside sociopathy, as a subset of antisocial personality disorder.

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