“The Psychopath Test” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson


“Sociopaths love power. They love winning. If you take loving kindness out of the human brain, there’s not much left except the will to win.” —The Psychopath Test

“We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with.” —So You’ve been Publicly Shamed

Jon Ronson’s books are compulsively readable. He knows how to spin a good story and ingratiate himself with strange and interesting people. My highlights in his books are sparse. His narrative is so tightly woven to its profundity that it was tough to spot the concise nuggets.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he documents people who have had their careers ruined by the Internet. He feels like the Internet has unleashed virtual lynch mobs through message boards and Twitter. An example that he doesn’t cover but that I couldn’t help but think about was Bill Cosby. Rape allegations had been made against him for a couple decades, but it wasn’t until Hannibal Burress made a stand-up joke about it that someone recorded and posted on YouTube that Cosby’s career was forever tarnished in the public mind.

The Psychopath Test explores what he calls the ‘madness industry.’ The thing that stuck out to me the most was the humble beginnings of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which was haphazardly thrown together in 1952 by a roomful of psychiatrists shouting out symptoms to disorders they’d seen. The whole thing feels very mad, and that is why Jon Ronson is the perfect journalist to tell this story.


(The Psychopath Test)

“She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify an emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.”

I was much crazier than I had imagined. Or maybe it was a bad idea to read the DSM-IV when you’re not a trained professional. Or maybe the American Psychiatric Association had a crazy desire to label all life a mental disorder.

I began to yawn uncontrollably around Kempton Park. This tends to happen to me in the face of stress. Apparently dogs do it, too. They yawn when anxious.

The interview’s most painful moment was when Woodcock admitted that Elliott and Gary’s program was kind of to blame, because it had taught them how to be a more devious psychopath. All those chats about empathy were like an empathy-faking finishing school for him: “I did learn how to manipulate better,” he said, “and keep the more outrageous feelings under wraps better.”

While names like Elliott Barker and Gary Maier had all but faded away, surviving only in obscure reports detailing crazily idealistic psychiatric endeavors from days long gone, Hare is influential. 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 Checklist, which he has spent a lifetime refining. His was not the only psychopath checklist around, but it was by far the most extensively used. It was the one used to diagnose Tony at Broadmoor and get him locked up for the past twelve years.

If someone was a persistent violent offender who lacked impulse controls, they were a psychopath. But the Hare Checklist was much wilier. It was all to do with reading between the lines of a person’s turn of phrase, a person’s sentence construction. This was, she said, amateur-sleuth territory.

Our three days in West Wales came to an end. On the last day Bob surprised us by unexpectedly flashing onto the screen a large-scale, close-up photograph of a man who’d been shot in the face at very close range. This came after he’d lulled us into a false sense of security by flashing photographs of ducks on pretty lakes and summer days in the park. But in this picture, gore and gristle bubbled everywhere. The man’s eyes had bulged all the way out of their sockets. His nose was gone.

“Oh GOD,” I thought.

An instant later my body responded to the shock by feeling prickly and jangly and weak and debilitated. This sensation, Bob said, was a result of the amygdalae and the central nervous system shooting signals of distress up and down to each other. It’s the feeling we get when were suddenly startled—like when a figure jumps out at us in the dark—or when we realize we’ve done something terrible, the feeling of fear and guilt and remorse, the physical manifestation of our conscience.

“It is a feeling,” Bob said, “that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing.”

Bob said it was becoming clearer that this brain anomaly is at the heart of psychopathy.

“There are all sorts of laboratory studies and the results are very, very consistent,” he said. “What they find is that there are anomalies in the way these individuals process material that has emotional implications. That there’s this dissociation between the linguistic meaning of words and the emotional connotations. Somehow they don’t put them together. Various parts of the limbic system just don’t light up.”

She said 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.

Actually, I now realized, I had been a somewhat power-crazed madness-spotter for twenty years. It is what we journalists do. I was good at spotting the diamonds of craziness amid the gloom of normality because it’s what I’ve done for a living for twenty years. There can be something quite psychopathic about journalism, about psychology, about the art of madness-spotting. I was writing a book about the madness industry and only just realizing that I was a part of the industry.

Practically every prime-time program is populated by people who are just the right sort of mad, and I now knew what the formula was. The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder that we fear we’re becoming, and in a recognizable way. We might be anxious but we aren’t as anxious as they are. We might be paranoid but we aren’t as paranoid as they are. We are entertained by them, and comforted that we’re not as mad as they are.

David Shayler’s tragedy is that his madness has spiraled into something too outlandish, too out-of-the-ball-park, and consequently useless. We don’t want obvious exploitation. We want smoke-and-mirrors exploitation.

The DSM-I had been a sixty-five-page booklet. DSM-II was a little longer—134 pages. But DSM-III, Spitzer’s DSM, was coming in at 494 pages.

DSM-III was a sensation. Along with its revised edition, it sold more than a million copies. Sales to civilians hugely outweighed sales to professionals. Many more copies were sold than psychiatrists existed. All over the western world people began using the checklists to diagnose themselves. For many of them it was a godsend. Something was categorically wrong with them and finally their suffering had a name. It was truly a revolution in psychiatry, and a gold rush for drug companies, who suddenly had hundreds of new disorders they could invent medications for, millions of new patients they could treat.

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 think the madness business is filled with people like Tony, reduced to their maddest edges. Some, like Tony, are locked up in DSPD units for scoring too high on Bob’s checklist. Others are on TV at nine p.m., their dull, ordinary, non-mad attributes skillfully edited out, benchmarks of how we shouldn’t be. There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it.

There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things.

(So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed)

And then one day it hit me. Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.

“It’s about the terror, isn’t it?”

“The terror of what?” I said.

“The terror of being found out,” he said.

He looked as if he felt he were taking a risk even mentioning to me the existence of terror.He meant that we all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.” I think he was right. Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.

As it happens, I’ve done my own research on the perils of confirmation bias and agree with Jonah that it is a powerful bias indeed, often found at the heart of miscarriages of justice. In fact, ever since I first learned about confirmation bias, I’ve been seeing it everywhere. Everywhere.

It felt as if the people on Twitter had been invited to be characters in a courtroom drama, and had been allowed to choose their roles, and had all gone for the part of the hanging judge.

I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

I remembered something Jonah had e-mailed me before I flew to Los Angeles: “The shaming process is fucking brutal.” I thought about the phrase “shaming process.” It was probably reassuring for a shamee to envisage their punishment as a process rather than a free-for-all. If you’re being destroyed, you want to feel that the people tearing you apart at least know what they’re doing.

I once asked a car crash victim what it had felt like to be in a smashup. She said her eeriest memory was how one second the car was her friend, working for her, its contours designed to fit her body perfectly, everything smooth and sleep and luxurious, and then a blink of an eye later it had become a jagged weapon of torture—like she was inside an iron maiden.

A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.

I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt—before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.

And his second message was that a smart orator could, if he knew the tricks, hypnotize the crowd into acquiescence or whop it up to do his bidding. Leon listed the tricks: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”

Much research has shown that participants in psychological experiments are highly motivated to do what they believe the researchers want them to do.

I asked Mercedes what sorts of people gathered on 4chan. “A lot of them are bored, understimulated, overpersecuted, powerless kids,” she replied. “They know they can’t be anything they want. So they went to the Internet. On the Internet we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.”

I think we all care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people. We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mess of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?

I kept remembering something Michael Fertik had said to me at the Village Pub in Woodside. “The biggest lie,” he said, “is, The Internet is about you.” We like to think of ourselves as people who have choice and taste and personalized content. But the Internet isn’t about us. It’s about the companies that dominate the data flows of the Internet.”

“If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue.Google has the informal corporate motto of ‘Don’t be evil,’ but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.”

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.

The cure for shame is empathy.

Shamings are always about more than the transgressions.

Maybe there are two types of people in the world: those who favor humans over ideology, and those who favor ideology over humans. I prefer humans to ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a tweet can overwhelm it all—even though we know that’s not how we should define our fellow humans. What;s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are gray areas.

A note on the the title. For a while it was going to be called, simply, Shame. Or Tarred and Feathered. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. It was a surprisingly hard book to find a title for and I think I know why. It was something that one of my interviewees said to me: “Shame is an incredibly inarticulate emotion. It’s something you bathe in, it’s not something you wax eloquently about. It’s such a deep, dark, ugly think there are very few words for it.”



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