Carol Rifka Brunt is author of Tell the Wolves I'm Home.
There's this moment in Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test that caught me completely off guard. It comes a little less than halfway through, shortly after he's outlined the 20-point psychopath checklist. I'd read through the list and although most didn't really apply to me there were a handful that gave me pause: "Item 3: ... proneness to boredom," "Item 13: Lack of realistic long-term goals," "Item 15: Irresponsibility."
I found myself vaguely wondering whether there might be a touch of psychopathy in my own personality.
I let my mind trip back to times in my past when I might not have been quite as conscientious as I should have been, when my heart may have been colder or harder than the average person's. I'm caught in this little reverie when suddenly — BAM — like Ronson read my mind — comes the line "If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one." I laughed out loud. He caught me red-handed.
Here's why pop psychology books are my guilty pleasure. Not self-help books — I'm talking about books that purport to reveal the inner workings of the mind, the secret ways humans view and process the world. The guilt is in the fact that even though I say "humans" what I really mean is "me." What I'm really interested in is the way I think. It's a total indulgence.
I read The Psychopath Test not just to learn about people who suffer the disorder, but to compare myself with them. To say "Look, I'm not a psychopath. I don't have "superficial charm" or a "parasitic lifestyle." See? See??
This book managed to trigger not only guilt, but also its sisters — shame and embarrassment. I was just a few pages in when I began to regret my choice of reading material. Not because it wasn't a good book. I was gripped by the anecdote about a mysterious cryptic book that's been sent to numerous academics across the world. Later I was even more awed by his portrayal of "Tony from Broadmoor" a man who claims he faked being a psychopath to avoid being sent to prison, only to find that now nobody will believe he's not a psychopath. Then there are Ronson's encounters with Bob Hare, the man who developed the psychopath test of the book's title. All good. All compelling.
My regrets were about the implications of its title. Reading this book in an airport lounge, I wondered if people thought I was taking a psychopath self-assessment? Are they edging away from me? Then a whole different thought emerged: What if the title draws a real psychopath to me?
I tipped the book into my lap and angled my body away. Then, to make extra sure nobody could see the cover, I folded it over.
But once onboard the plane I thought again. Who cares what anybody thinks? I'm not ashamed. I feel no guilt. Hmmm ... but wait ... "Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt." What if this means I am a psychopath after all?
My Guilty Pleasure is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.
When the sun finally comes out and the sweaters get tossed in the basement, we're all at least a little tempted to turn off our brains. Don't do it! Summer reading — in this case, summer reading about the science of the mind — can be a lot more fun than dodging volleyballs on a beach. Neuroscience isn't just about parts of the brain and hard-to-pronounce chemicals; the books listed here cover everything from religion to pornography, from die-hard optimists to remorseless sociopaths. Sure, there's a lot of knowledge to be mined in these volumes, but most importantly, they're all fast, fun reads. As subject matter, the brain, it turns out, makes for the ultimate page-turner and science (don't tell my high school bio teacher I said this) the epitome of cool.
The Compass Of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, And Gambling Feel So Good
By David J. Linden, hardcover, 240 pages, Viking, list price: $26.95
Unless you're at the kind of cookout where words like amygdala and dopamine get tossed around instead of Frisbees, you're probably not thinking too intently about what's going on in your "medial forebrain pleasure circuit." That might change if you read neuroscientist David J. Linden's The Compass of Pleasure, a hugely entertaining look at why we enjoy the things we enjoy. They're not all vices, either — your brain can be stimulated by sex and drugs, but it also derives pleasure from working out and, believe it or not, paying your taxes. There's hardcore biology here, but it's tempered with personal anecdotes, penetrating observations and quotes from the likes of comedian Mitch Hedberg and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. If you're science-phobic, don't worry: Linden is incredibly smart, but comes across as the funny, patient professor you wish you'd had in college.
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts To Gods To Politics And Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs And Reinforce Them As Truths
By Michael Shermer, hardcover, 400 pages, Times Books, list price: $28
"Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow." That's the argument professional skeptic Michael Shermer makes in The Believing Brain, a book that fuses neuroscience, sociology and the author's own biographical stories into a compelling and sometimes deeply personal read — even if you don't agree with him on everything. And you won't.
Shermer, a former evangelical Christian who became an agnostic in college, now dedicates his sprawling career to debunking what he sees as superstitions and failures of logic, from religion to alien abduction to Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. In this, his 17th book, he argues that supernatural beliefs are the product of our brains and that we arrive at those beliefs in spite of — not because of — scientific evidence. Shermer is a convincing voice, but he's not necessarily a hardliner — he points out that while the scientific method remains "the best tool ever" when it comes to deflating paranormal claims, "we must always remember that we could be wrong."
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry
By Jon Ronson, hardcover, 288 pages, Riverhead, list price: $25.95
When you think about relaxing summer reading, studies of psychopaths probably don't pop into your mind. (At least we hope not.) But that shouldn't stop you from picking up Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The subject matter is, yes, disturbing, but Ronson's book is one of the funniest and most entertaining of the year. In its enjoyable pages, the British journalist and author of The Men Who Stare at Goats goes in search of one of the world's most enigmatic and frightening personality disorders. He talks to psychiatrists, a patient at a notorious English psychiatric hospital, an exiled terrorist and a disgraced CEO. (One theory suggests that psychopaths, who seem to lack a conscience, do inordinately well in business.) It's unsettling stuff, to be sure, but Ronson is a charmingly self-deprecating and remarkably charismatic author. The bad news? Scientists estimate that 1 percent of the population is psychopathic. The good news? A psychiatrist assures Ronson, if you're worried you might be a psychopath, you're almost certainly not one.
The Optimism Bias: A Tour Of The Irrationally Positive Brain
By Tali Sharot, hardcover, 272 pages, Pantheon, list price: $25.95
Even the most cheerful and upbeat among us might be tempted to bang our head against a wall if we are forced to hear "Don't Worry, Be Happy" one more time. But as Tali Sharot points out in her fascinating new book, The Optimism Bias, that stubbornly sunny attitude is not necessarily what optimism means. Even if you're a dedicated cynic, you might be surprised to learn that your brain is wearing rose-colored glasses, whether you like it or not.
Drawing from biology and psychology — as well as from such unlikely sources as the Los Angeles Lakers, Shirley Temple and Guinness stout — London-based scientist Sharot explains why the brains of most people are programmed to predict happy endings in all facets of our lives. Hope isn't just a campaign slogan, she argues; it's an instinct of self-preservation. What your irrepressibly chipper friends have been telling you is right: studies show that optimists tend to live longer and pessimists die younger. Optimism might just be your mind playing tricks on you, but it turns out there's a good reason for that.
A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire
By Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, hardcover, 416 pages, Dutton, list price: $26.95
If you want to know what people think about sex, just ask them. But If you want to know what people really think about sex, go to the Internet. That's where scientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam turned to research their explicit, engrossing and occasionally disturbing A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which seeks to explain how men and women experience sexual desire differently. (It may seem self-evident, but it's worth repeating the authors' warning: this is not a book for children.)
Crunching reams of Internet-browsing data, Ogas and Gaddam draw some surprising conclusions about what turns us on and what "squicks us out." Men's sexual brains, they argue, are more like Elmer Fudd and women's more like Miss Marple. As for our conventional wisdom about sex, it's largely untrue, they write. We all know that straight men prefer young, slender women; that women have no interest in pornography; and that only gay men are turned on by seeing other men's genitals. Right? Wrong. We don't always want what we think we do — and the proof, Ogas and Gaddam assert like a couple of well-meaning psych-major nerds with spyware, is in our X-rated browser histories.
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."