The psychopath test
Cunning, manipulative and charming: common traits of high-flying businessmen -- and also some of the tell-tale signs of a psychopath. Jon Ronson on spotting everyday psychos
Published 11/06/2011 | 05:00
It was visiting hour at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital and patients began drifting in to sit with their loved ones at tables and chairs that had been fixed to the ground.
They were mostly overweight, wearing loose, comfortable T-shirts and elasticated sweatpants. I wondered if any of them were famous. Broadmoor was where they sent Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.
A man in his late 20s walked towards me. His arm was outstretched. He wasn't wearing sweatpants. He was wearing a pinstripe jacket and trousers. He looked like a young businessman trying to make his way in the world, someone who wanted to show everyone that he was very, very sane. We shook hands.
"I'm Tony," he said. He sat down.
"So I hear you faked your way in here," I said.
"That's exactly right," Tony said.
He had the voice of a normal, nice, eager-to-help young man.
"I'd committed grievous bodily harm," he said. "After they arrested me, I sat in my cell and I thought, 'I'm looking at five to seven years'. So I asked the other prisoners what to do. They said, 'Easy! Tell them you're mad! They'll put you in a county hospital. You'll have Sky TV and a PlayStation. Nurses will bring you pizzas.'"
"How long ago was this?" I asked.
"Twelve years ago," Tony said.
Tony said faking madness was the easy part, especially when you're 17 and you take drugs and watch a lot of scary movies.
You don't need to know how authentically crazy people behave. You just plagiarise the character Dennis Hopper played in the movie 'Blue Velvet'. That's what Tony did.
He told a visiting psychiatrist he liked sending people love letters straight from his heart, and a love letter was a bullet from a gun, and if you received a love letter from him, you'd go straight to hell.
Plagiarising a well-known movie was a gamble, he said, but it paid off. Lots more psychiatrists began visiting his cell. He broadened his repertoire to include bits from 'Hellraiser', 'A Clockwork Orange' and David Cronenberg's 'Crash'.
Tony told the psychiatrists he liked to crash cars into walls for sexual pleasure and also that he wanted to kill women because he thought looking into their eyes as they died would make him feel normal. "Where did you get that one from?" I asked.
"A biography of Ted Bundy," Tony replied. "I found it in the prison library.
"But they didn't send me to some cushy hospital," Tony continued. "They sent me to bloody Broadmoor!"
The next day I wrote to Professor Anthony Maden, the head clinician at Tony's unit at Broadmoor: "I'm contacting you in the hope that you may be able to shed some light on how true Tony's story might be."
A few days later a letter arrived from Tony. "This place is awful at night-time, Jon," he wrote. "Words cannot express the atmosphere."
Tony had included in the package copies of his files, so I got to read the exact words he used to convince psychiatrists back in 1998 that he was mentally ill. He'd really gone to town. He said the CIA was following him, that he enjoyed taking things that belonged to other people because he liked the idea of making them suffer, and that hurting people was better than sex.
I felt the ground shift under my feet. Suddenly I was a little on the side of the psychiatrists. Tony must have come over as extremely creepy.
There was also a description of the crime he committed in 1997. The victim was a homeless alcoholic called Graham who apparently made "an inappropriate comment" about the 10-year-old daughter of one of Tony's friends. Tony told him to shut up. Graham threw a punch. Tony retaliated by kicking him. Graham fell over. And that would have been it -- Tony later said -- had Graham stayed silent. But Graham said, "Is that all you've got?"
Tony "flipped". He kicked Graham seven or eight times in the stomach and groin, returning later to kick him again. I remembered that list of movies Tony said he plagiarised to demonstrate he was mentally ill. 'A Clockwork Orange' begins with a gang of thugs kicking a homeless man while he is on the ground.
My phone rang. I recognised the number. It was Tony. I didn't answer. A week passed and then the email I had been waiting for arrived from Professor Maden.
"Tony," it read, "did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison."
"Oh!" I thought, pleasantly surprised. "Good! That's great!"
But then I read Maden's next line: "Most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy."
I looked at the email. "Tony's a psychopath?" I thought. I didn't know very much about psychopaths back then, but I did know this: it sounded worse.
Faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence, Maden explained, is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you'd expect of a psychopath.
A psychologist friend, Essi Viding, agreed. "Classic psychopath!" she said when I described Tony's pinstripe suit.
Tony rang again. I took a breath and picked up the phone.
"Jon?" he said. He sounded small and far away and echoey.
"Yes, hello, Tony," I said, in a no-nonsense way.
"I haven't heard from you in a while," he said.
"Professor Maden says you're a psychopath," I said.
Tony exhaled, impatiently. "I'm not a psychopath," he said.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"They say psychopaths can't feel remorse," said Tony. "I feel lots of remorse. But when I tell them I feel remorse, they say psychopaths pretend to be remorseful when they're not. Trying to prove you're not a psychopath is even harder than trying to prove you're not mentally ill."
"How did they diagnose you?" I asked.
"They give you a psychopath test," said Tony. "The Robert Hare Checklist. They assess you for 20 personality traits. Superficial charm. Proneness to boredom. Lack of empathy. Lack of remorse. Grandiose sense of self-worth. That sort of thing.
"For each one they score you a 0, 1 or 2. If your total score is 30 or more out of 40, you're a psychopath. That's it. You're doomed. You're labelled a psychopath for life. They say you can't change. You can't be treated. You're a danger to society. And then you're stuck somewhere like this."
It was an August evening and Bob Hare and I were drinking in a hotel bar in rural Pembrokeshire, west Wales, at one of Hare's three-day residential courses for psychiatrists, care workers and criminal profilers. It was exciting finally to meet him.
Justice departments and parole boards all over the world have accepted his contention that psychopaths are quite simply incurable and everyone should concentrate their energies instead on learning how to root them out using his PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised), which he has spent a lifetime refining.
In the 1960s, Hare was working as a prison psychologist in Vancouver. He put word around the prison that he was looking for psychopathic and non-psychopathic
volunteers for tests. He strapped them up to various EEG and sweat and blood-pressure-measuring machines, and also to an electricity generator, and explained to them that he was going to count backwards from 10 and when he reached one they'd receive a very painful electric shock.
The difference in the responses stunned Hare. The non-psychopathic volunteers steeled themselves ruefully, as if a painful electric shock were just the penance they deserved. They were, Hare noted, scared.
"And the psychopaths?" I asked.
"They didn't break a sweat," said Hare. "Nothing." The tests seemed to indicate that the amygdala, the part of the brain that should have anticipated the unpleasantness and sent the requisite signals of fear to the central nervous system, wasn't functioning as it should. It was an enormous breakthrough for Hare, his first clue that the brains of psychopaths were different from regular brains.
He was even more astonished when he repeated the test. This time, the psychopaths knew exactly how much pain they'd be in, and still nothing. "They had no memory of the pain of the electric shock, even when the pain had occurred just moments before," Hare said. "So what's the point in threatening them with imprisonment if they break the terms of their parole? The threat has no meaning for them."
He did another experiment, the startle reflex test, in which psychopaths and non-psychopaths were invited to look at grotesque images, such as crime-scene photographs of blown-apart faces, and when they least expected it Hare would let off an incredibly loud noise in their ear. The non-psychopaths would leap with astonishment. The psychopaths would remain comparatively serene.
Hare knew that we tend to jump a lot higher when startled if we're on the edge of our seats anyway. But if we're engrossed by something, a crossword puzzle, say, and someone startles us, our leap is less pronounced. From this Hare deduced that when psychopaths see grotesque images of blown-apart faces they aren't horrified. They're absorbed.
In 1975 he organised a conference on the subject, so experts could pool their observations Were there patterns? Did they involuntarily use giveaway turns of phrase? Their conclusions became the basis for his now-famous 20-point Hare PCL-R (see panel).
Over the three-day course in Wales, my scepticism drained away entirely and I became a Hare devotee. I felt like a different person, a hardliner, not confused or out of my depth as I had been when I'd been hanging around with Tony in Broadmoor.
After the conference, though, Hare seemed introspective. He said, almost to himself: "I shouldn't have done my research just in prisons. I should have spent some time inside the stock exchange as well."
"But surely stock-market psychopaths can't be as bad as serial-killer psychopaths," I said.
"Serial killers ruin families," shrugged Hare. "Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies."
It wasn't only Hare who believed that a disproportionate number of psychopaths can be found in high places. Over the following months, I spoke to scores of psychologists who said the same.
Everyone in the field seemed to regard psychopaths in this same way: inhuman, relentlessly wicked forces, whirlwinds of malevolence, forever harming society but impossible to identify unless you're trained in the art of spotting them, as I now was.
Becoming a psychopath-spotter had turned me power-crazed and a bit psychopathic. I was starting to see the checklist as an intoxicating weapon that was capable of inflicting terrible damage if placed in the wrong hands. I met up with Hare again. "It's quite a power you bestow upon people," I said. "What if you've created armies of people who spot psychopaths where there are none, witch-finder generals of the psychopath-spotting world?"
There was a silence. "I do worry about the checklist being misused," Hare said.
"Who misuses it?" I asked.
"In the UK, you have your DSPD programme," he said.
"That's where my friend Tony is," I said. "The DSPD unit at Broadmoor." Two years had passed since I'd first met Tony in Broadmoor. I hadn't heard from him in months, and then out of the blue he called.
"Jon!" he said. He sounded excited. "There's going to be a tribunal. I want you to come. As my guest."
"Ah," I said, trying to sound pleased for him. Tony was forever pushing for tribunals, year after year, for the 14 years he had been inside Broadmoor's DSPD unit. His optimism was tireless. But the outcome was always the same. They'd come to nothing.
Journalists hardly ever made it to a DSPD unit and I was curious to see inside. According to Maden, the chief clinician at Tony's unit, it wouldn't exist without Hare's psychopath checklist. Tony was there because he had scored high on it, as had all 300 DSPD patients. The official line was that these were places to treat psychopaths with a view to one day sending them back out into the world. But the widespread theory was the whole thing was in fact a scheme to keep psychopaths locked up for life.
The unit was a clean, bland, modern, calmingly pine-coloured fortress. Nurses and security guards came over to ask me who I was. I said I was a friend of Tony's. We entered the tribunal room.
The hearing lasted all of five minutes, one of which involved the magistrates telling me that if I reported the details of what happened inside the room, I would be imprisoned. So I won't. But the upshot -- Tony was to be free.
He looked as if he'd been hit by a bus. In the corridor his barrister congratulated him. The process would take three months -- either to find him a bed for a transitional period in a medium-secure unit, or to get him straight out on to the street -- but there was no doubt. He smiled, hobbled over to me and handed me a sheaf of papers.
They were independent reports, written for the tribunal by various psychiatrists who'd been invited to assess him. They told me things I didn't know about Tony: how his mother had been an alcoholic and used regularly to beat him up and kick him out of the house; how most of her boyfriends were drug addicts and criminals; how he was expelled from school for threatening his dinner lady with a knife; how he was sent to special schools but ran away because he missed his mother.
I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.
I spotted Professor Maden. I thought he might seem disappointed, but in fact he looked delighted. I wandered over.
"Ever since I went on a Bob Hare course, I've believed that psychopaths are monsters," I said. "They're just psychopaths -- it's what defines them, it's what they are." I paused. "But isn't Tony kind of a semi-psychopath? A grey area? Doesn't his story prove that people in the middle shouldn't necessarily be defined by their maddest edges?"
"I think that's right," he replied. "Personally, I don't like the way Bob Hare talks about psychopaths almost as if they are a different species."
Tony was standing alone now, staring at the wall.
"He does have a very high level of some psychopathic traits," Maden said. "He never takes responsibility, everything is somebody else's fault. But he's not a serious, predatory offender. He can be a bully in the right circumstances, but doesn't set out to do serious harm for its own sake. I would also say you can never reduce any person to a diagnostic label. Tony has many endearing qualities when you look beyond the label."
"The thing is, Jon," Tony said as I looked up from the papers, "what you've got to realise is, everyone is a bit psychopathic. You are. I am." He paused. "Well, obviously I am," he said.
"What will you do now?" I asked.
"Maybe move to Belgium," he said. "There's this woman I fancy. But she's married. I'll have to get her divorced."
"Well, you know what they say about psychopaths," I said.
"We're manipulative!" said Tony.
This is an edited extract from' The Psychopath Test' by Jon Ronson, published by Picador