Jon Ronson – Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test

UC TEDster column – TED Talks in the spotlight

By Eun A Jo


“Society, you’re a crazy breed…” I sometimes wonder if Eddie Vedder truly grasped the implications of his symbolic song, “Society.” To be precise, I wonder if I ever comprehended the depth of such a message, despite endlessly repeating it on my iTunes.

What does it mean to be crazy, anyway? According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), I would have no problem fitting into a community of manic depressives and psychopaths. Am I crazy? Or is our society crazy?

It’s no wonder, then, that the absurdity of this 886-page long list with 374 categorized mental disorders is increasingly brought to question. Where is the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity?

Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, shares his unsettling experience with those labeled “insane” in his recent TED talk, “Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test.” Ronson begins with the story of Tony, a man that had faked madness in order to evade a prison sentence. But Tony was too good. He ended up in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, eventually serving 12 years under the label of a “psychopath” for a criminal offense that would have otherwise resulted in 5 years of imprisonment.

Testifying that he had sexual pleasure from crashing cars into walls – inspired from the movie Crash – was enough to convince the judges that this man was insane. But once he was recognized so, there was no easy way out. “Did you know the U.S. army is training bumblebees to sniff explosives?” Tony once shared with a nurse, after having read about it in New Scientists. A scribble read on his medical notes the next day: “…believes bees can sniff explosives.”

This is only one of the stories that Ronson illustrates in his visually striking and rhetorically powerful talk. During his journey of exploring “psychopathy,” he encounters Brian the Scientologist, Tony the Crazy, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and many more – through which he contemplates the true meaning of lunacy and its physical manifestations such as the DSM.

“I realized that becoming a (certified) “psychopath spotter” had turned me a little bit psychopathic,” Ronson shares. This, toppled with his journalistic spirit, has with time blinded him from objective investigation – he was unconsciously nitpicking extreme attributes to forcibly stitch together a caricature of a maniac, while disregarding those of normalcy as extraneous information.

Overall, the morale of the story is that everyone is crazy to a certain degree. We’re all “semi” psychopaths. But deciding who gets to be locked away, and who gets to lead a “normal” life has become almost arbitrary. “The world doesn’t like grey areas,” says Ronson with worried eyes, “yet that’s where you find the complexity, the humanity, the truth.”

It’s almost philosophical, what he is suggesting. It makes you think about your standards of normalcy, and how much you appreciate, contempt, or discard the abnormality around you. In these respects, I highly recommend you to watch the talk.

But – and there are always buts – keep in mind that the talk is also peppered with simplifications yet to be justified, as well as gross distortions of psychological diagnostic procedures. You come across it several times in the talk, but the so-called “checklists” are not the conclusive resources from which the professional psychologists derive their diagnosis. That would be extremely short-sighted and unprofessional.

Ronson portrays the DSM as a Bible of psychiatry, though in reality, it is merely a subsidiary means to support professional evaluation of a patient. In fact, one could argue his depiction of psychologists is almost defamatory. He would not have drawn such a misinformed and superficial portrayal of psychologists, had he gathered more information via professionals who could contradict his misconception.

Now, spot the irony. A misguided judgment about those we label “insane” apparently applies the other way around as well – a blind rejection of psychology as pseudo-science. So before you “bravo” the talk, I say: be cautious, be informed. And truth be told, society is a crazy breed.


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