Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Psychopath Test

I knew before reading The Psychopath Test that I wasn’t one.

Actually I’m practically an anti-psychopath. I saw author, Jon Ronson speaking at the Wheeler Centre before I read the book. Firstly he said that if you’re worried about being a psychopath, then you’re not one. It wasn’t something that particularly worried me, especially the more I read about it, but the question did cross my mind. The more pertinent comment for me was the one I was tempted to have him write inside the cover of the copy I bought 20 minutes later - “anxiety disorder is indicative of moral goodness … OCD sufferers are good people”.

In the seven years since I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder it was the first time they actually felt like badges of honour!

Where psychopaths apparently have stunted emotional response or connection – most importantly when it comes to empathy – thanks to an impaired amygdala, I have it in spades!

I’m constantly, at times obsessively, concerned with other people’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Although its important to note the difference between empathy and the need for personal validation; my anxiety has been driven by both. It's the anxiety about other people’s feelings that often has me avoiding confrontation and holding me back from potential romantic dalliances where the other person may want more out of it than I do and I'd eventually hurt them. How pathetic!

So, like Ronson, it’s fair to assume my amygdala works in overdrive, the engine of much of my anxiety. The good news is that it seems it’s easier to shift an over-active amygdala closer to normal than one than activate an impaired one. ‘Possible’ might be a better word than ‘easier’. The book has some fascinating tales of ill-fated attempts to cure psychopaths.
While it had me reflecting somewhat on my own psychology and starting to make unqualified judgements about those around me, the book’s greater effect was scaring the pants off me by shifting the way I view the society.

One in every hundred people qualify as psychopathic. Mostly they are not physically dangerous. The really interesting thing is though, that we have seem to have created an economic model that provide just the environment for non-violent psychopaths to thrive, one that seeks out and rewards their ruthless nature. It seems psychopaths are great to bring in when a company needs someone to make the ‘tough’ decisions.

It would be easy and fun to label several politicians, business leaders and disgustingly prominent political and social commentators, especially given the current toxicity of public debate while people suicide in detention centres, our environment suffers, people sleep out on the streets, etc, etc, but as Ronson gracefully did on QandA when asked about one of our political leaders (the wrong one anyway, I thought), I shall refrain.

The whole thing actually triggered my irrational anxiety to spark up with a bunch of concerns as the book shone a new light on our society. There are psychopaths – many thousands of them – legitimately driving on the roads (a particularly scary thought for a new cyclist), they do hold positions of political influence and power, they work for pharmaceutical companies, and in America (where I'm headed shortly) they legally carry guns for 'protection'. But I've been to America twice before and know I can feel pretty safe.

Thing is, I've generally clutched on this naive, idealistic thought that with all but the least sane people you can reason with them and help them feel things from a different perspective (empathise) if you engage them in the right way. But it seems that's just not the case with a lot – a LOT – of people. And there is no cure. So if some of these people are destined to wreak havoc on people's lives in whatever way, what do you do? Lock them up for good once you have a diagnosis? Even if they've yet to do anything wrong? And what if they're behaving legally, they're just an arsehole for reasons that you could contend are beyond their control? Hmmm. Can't do that, obviously.

I couldn't help but be saddened by the thought of an existence that was so emotionally stunted (look, I'm empathising!). To me, emotional connection with other humans is one of the things that makes life so beautiful, meaningful and worthwhile and it's through empathy in particular that we reach out and actually make that connection. How do you enjoy shared experiences without empathy? How do you truly love?

Of course, there are degrees of psychopathy, and not all psychopaths are inherently dangerous people, indeed the majority probably aren’t. And while 1-in-100 is a lot of psychopaths, that still leaves 99 non-psychopaths for every one of them. As sad as it is for someone to be born with a dodgy amygdala, we can surely overpower them when it comes to fucking with our world. We just have to ensure that our own self-indulgent and selfish desires don’t create a culture that allows us to step back and reap rewards from letting - indeed encouraging - people like Al Dunlap (featured in the book) to run amok in the corporate world just because it's good for share prices, while we wash our hands just a step or two back. That's our responsibility as the 99 per cent non-psychopaths - now go out and be a good world citizen!
So … do I have at least some psychopathic tendencies? Let’s take the test!

1. Glib and Superficial Charm - I don't know how to be charming well enough to fake it. No.

2. Grandiose Self-Worth - well I am  writing a public blog and scoring my myself here, hoping it's of interest to people that might read. Perhaps not 'grandiose' but I am a quiet attention junkie. No.

3. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom - Absolutely. I'm already bored with this test.

4. Pathological Lying - well either way I'm going to say 'no'. You'll just have to trust me or judge for yourself on that one.

5. Cunning and Manipulativeness - We all engage in some (at least passive) manipulation of others, but not to the psychopath level. No

6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt - It depends what I've done and how much of an arsehole the person is. 'Occasional misplaced passion' perhaps, but not 'lack of remorse or guilt'.

7. Shallow Affect - uh-uh. I find emotional connection between to be of critical importance in life; I love deep and meaningful conversations over a beer, though usually I'll talk mostly about myself ...
8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy - again, not blowing smoke up my arse by completely ruling this out. If anything, I could be a little more callous, obsess a little less about what others thoughts and feelings might be.

9. Parasitic Lifestyle - I don't intentionally have an 'exploitative financial dependence' ... but do have a reasonable parental debt, payback of which sits on the back burner while I do some more travel...

10. Poor Behavioral Controls - nope. Once more, often too nice if anything. Paradoxically, The Shins may have been correct in their song Caring is Creepy. Just ask my ex.

11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior - bahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahaha. Yeah, no. If only.

12. Early Behavior Problems - the worst thing I did before I was 13 was steal porn ... from my brother.
13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals - hmmmm, maybe. We'll see.

14. Impulsivity - Hell no, even my reckless behaviour is thought through.

15. Irresponsibility - sometimes, but it wasn't my fault.

16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions  - Would anyone ever own up to this one? Maybe at a relatively low level on occasion. Nobodies perfect, but I accept it's shit behaviour. 

17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships - I'll be happy to marry once, if that doesn't work out I won't be holding out to be lucky enough for a second shot! A six-year relationship and no relationships lasting mere weeks (that I was aware of at the time anyway) has to rule me out of this one.

18. Juvenile Delinquency - Nothing illegal. Well no more than any other kid. Though the high school years were shared with a group guys sharing my lack of popularity and disinterest in it, engaged in our own shadowy mischeif and (sometimes political) railing against the trends of the masses.

19. Revocation of Condition Release - Yet to have the opportunity!

20. Criminal Versatility - I'd like to think that if I were a criminal, I'd at least be versatile.

So my score has got to be somewhere between 0 and 4 (For each item: 0 if it does not apply, 1 if it applies partially and 2 if it is a perfect match). In conclusion, I am awesome.

Obviously, just like a diagnosis of psychopathy itself, most of those items are subjective and vary in degree for different individuals, it's not necessarily as easy as just 'yes' or 'no'. It's interesting to reading in the book how it (I think the actual test is a bit longer) is used in diagnosing certain individuals.

Still, I may be many things, but I'm satisfied that I'm far from a psychopath. I'm more concerned about the diagnosis of modern society and, in particular, our economic system.

As Ronson reassures the reader, if you're worried you may be one, you're probably not. But maybe have a friendly chat to somebody anyway...

Fascinating and fantastic book.

The usual mental health links follow, and a fascinating blog I found about Raising a Psychopath.

Black Dog Institute
beyond blue

And: Jon Ronson at the Wheeler Centre. 

1 comment: