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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #19: The Psychopath Test

Posted on : Jul-19-2011 | By : Mary | In : Blog Post, Book Club

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Quit telling me to do things!

Last Boston Skeptics’ Book Club Meeting, we met up to discuss Jon Ronson’s latest book The Psychopath Test. Personally, this book has been one of my most favorite non-fiction books that I’ve read this summer.

The beginning is a little strange and non-psychopathic in that it explores the curious case of Being or Nothingness, a book penned by an unknown weird person and sent out to various scientists. While he’s researching that subject, he walks by the office of a psychologist who specializes in psychopaths, and that’s what starts his odyssey with Broadmoor (a famous psychopath facility in the UK) and “Tony”, a man who says he faked mental illness to escape prison, but in fact he has been incarcerated longer at Broadmoor than his original sentence. When Jon confronts the psychiatrists about Tony’s fake mental illness, they tell Jon that they know Tony faked it, but in fact that is exactly what a psychopath would do, which is why he’s been locked up in Broadmoor so long. I won’t say what happens to Tony, but Jon finishes up his tale in the book.

Jon also writes about the book’s namesake, the Psychopath Test developed by psychiatrist Bob Hare. Before the ‘70s, Bob worked in a prison and used electric shocks and disturbing images to discern the psychopaths from the regular criminals. However, ethics reforms forbade this inhumane treatment, so he developed a non-violent checklist instead. Jon ends up getting trained on how to use the checklist and tries it out on a CEO known for his ruthless boardroom behavior. The CEO ends up twisting almost every point and reframing it as a leadership quality. (Funnily enough, he gives this interview in his mansion, which is filled with stuffed or gilded predators and giant oil paintings of himself.)

Jon also covers 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theorists, a mistaken profiler, and the abundance of misdiagnoses of childhood bipolar disorder (which is under hot debate as to whether it actually exists) and the preventable death of one child who died at age 4 of an overdose of her bipolar meds because her parents would give her some when she would get “annoying”.

If you’re looking for a quick, intriguing summer read, pick up this book. Jon always has an excellent skeptical eye and a knack for presenting his subjects in a sympathetic light. (At one point I was even feeling good that the scientologists exposed a bad psychiatrist! Not for long though.)

The book we’re reading now is The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science. Our next meeting is Saturday, August 13 at 3pm, hopefully out in Harvard Yard if the weather is nice, but stay tuned for details!

Also, if you have any suggestions for books, please leave them in the comments. (And if you were at the last meeting and suggested a book, write that in the comments too, because I forgot to write down the excellent books that everyone suggested!)

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