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Jon Ronson's previous books include Them: Adventures With Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats. He lives in London. ( )

A Psychopath Walks Into A Room. Can You Tell?

by NPR Staff
May 21, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Psychopath Test book cover detail. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.

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Some psychologists have a theory that many of the world's ills can be blamed on psychopaths in high places.

"Robert Hare, the eminent Canadian psychologist who invented the psychopath checklist, ... 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," journalist Jon Ronson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Ronson is the author of a new book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. The titular test is called the PCL-R. Invented by Hare, it's a checklist of characteristics common to psychopaths: things like glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, manipulative behavior and lack of remorse.

Picture a psychopath and you might think of Norman Bates. But Ronson says successful businessmen can also score high on the checklist. While researching his book, Ronson visited the Florida home of Al Dunlap — known as "Chainsaw Al" — who as CEO of appliance maker Sunbeam was notorious for his gleeful fondness for firing people and shutting down factories.

"So I turned up at his house, and it was full of sculptures of predatory animals," Ronson says. "And he 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."

But Dunlap managed to turn the psychopath test on its head, Ronson says.

"He admitted to many, many items on the checklist, but redefined them as leadership positives," he says. "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 — was, you know, 'You've got to like yourself if you're going to be a success.'"

Ultimately, Ronson says, spending two years hunting for psychopaths took a toll on him.

"I have great admiration for the Hare checklist. I think it's right. I think it's as scientific as psychology can ever be," he says. But learning to administer it "really can mess with your head."

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