Are We All A Little Psychopathic?

Mar 1, 2013
Originally published on October 5, 2016 5:09 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Unquiet Mind.

About Jon Ronson's Talk

Is there a definitive line that divides "crazy" from sane? With a hair-raising delivery, Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, illuminates the gray areas between the two. His talk includes live-mixed sound by Julian Treasure and animation by Evan Grant.

About Jon Ronson

Ronson is a writer and documentary filmmaker who dips into every flavor of madness, extremism and obsession. In his latest book, The Psychopath Test, he explores the unnerving world of psychopaths — a group that includes both incarcerated killers and, one of his subjects insists, plenty of CEOs. In his books, films and articles, Ronson explores madness and obsession of all kinds, from the U.S. military's experiments in psychic warfare to the obscene and hate-filled yet Christian rap of the Insane Clown Posse. He wrote a column for The Guardian and hosted an essay program on Radio 4, and contributes to This American Life.

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JON RONSON: You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR with Guy Raz.


I think you can do that.

RONSON: Yeah, I think — I was extrapolating with my arms.

RAZ: Can I ask you a question?

RONSON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: I guess I should introduce you, or do you want to introduce yourself?

RONSON: Ok, my name is Jon Ronson and I am an author, nonfiction author.

RAZ: Have you ever lost it completely, like — not like angry, but like lost control over what's happening in your head?

RONSON: Oh, yes. Frequently. Like, you know, about once a week. I suffer from anxiety, so quite often, you know, when intrusive thoughts will mash up into another intrusive thought and they all kind of spiral. I mean, that's sort of par the course with me.

RAZ: Like you can't concentrate on anything else, you're totally distracted by that one thing in your head?

RONSON: Yeah, well actually the very worst occasion it ever happened — it was actually in Washington DC where you are now. I was in a hotel room, and I had this deal with my wife — this is when my baby was very young — I had a deal with my wife that she would always phone me like at 8:30 p.m. British time to tell me that everything was okay and Joe was asleep. One time she didn't phone, and I was in a hotel room in Washington DC, and I called her and I couldn't get her, and I panicked and I became convinced that, you know, they were dead, and it was just so irrational and I started phoning the police and the fire brigade and my brother and the neighbors. Anyway, it turned out that she'd had a power cut and was at a friend's house and had forgot to call me. And when I checked out of the hotel the next morning, the phone bill came, and it was for $900 for one night.


RAZ: Do you know something?

RONSON: Uh-huh?

RAZ: I've done the same thing.

RONSON: Exactly the same?

RAZ: Yeah, almost exactly the same thing.

RONSON: Yeah, I mean, actually I say in one of my books, "The Psychopath Test," that I've panicked unnecessarily in all four corners of the globe. It's just ...

RAZ: ... So the book Jon just mentioned, "The Psychopath Test," is why we asked him to be part of today's program. We're talking about the place between madness and sanity. Anyway, Jon Ronson spent a year exploring what a psychopath is, and it became a kind of journey into his own mind. He's talked a lot about this over the past few years, including onstage at TED. We're going to hear your TED talk in a second, is there anything we should know before we hear it?

RONSON: Yes, this was part of a TED conference called Full Spectrum, and the idea was that people would try to come up with new ways of giving talks, so it wouldn't just be, you know, you talking in front of PowerPoint. So Chris Anderson when he asked me to do it, said he wanted to put together with an audio man, called Julian Treasure, to do live audio on stage while I talked, responding to the things I was saying. So you will hear audio in the background, and it was actually happening live onstage right behind me.

RAZ: Okay, let's hear it, and I might have some questions for you along the way.


RONSON: This story starts, I was at a friend's house and she had on her shelf a copy of the DSM manual, which is the manual of mental disorders, it lists every known mental disorder. And it used to be, back in the 50's, a very slim pamphlet, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and now it's 886 pages long and it lists currently 374 mental disorders. So I was leafing through it wondering if I had any mental disorders, and it turns out I've got 12. I've got generalized anxiety disorder, which is a given. I've got nightmare disorder, which is categorized if you have recurrent dreams of being pursued or declared to failure. And all my dreams involve people chasing me down the street going, you're a failure!


RONSON: I've got parent-child relational problems, which I blame my parents for.


RONSON: I'm kidding. I'm not kidding. I'm kidding. And I've got malingering, and I think it's actually quite rare to have both malingering and generalized anxiety disorder because malingering tends to make me feel very anxious. Anyway, I was looking through this book, wondering if I was much crazier than I thought I was, or maybe it's not a good idea to diagnose yourself with a mental disorder if you're not a trained professional. Or maybe the psychiatry profession has a kind of strange desire to label what's essentially normal human behavior as a mental disorder. I didn't know which of these things was true, but I thought it was kind of interesting and I thought maybe I should meet a critic of psychiatry to get their view, which is how I ended up having lunch with the Scientologists.


RONSON: It was a man called Brian who runs a crack team of Scientologists who were determined to destroy psychiatry wherever it lies, they're called the CCHR. And I said to him, can I — can you prove to me that psychiatry is a pseudoscience that can't be trusted? And he said, yes we can prove it to you. And I said how? And he said, I can introduce you to Tony. And I said who's Tony? And he said, Tony's in Broadmoor.

Now, Broadmoor is Broadmoor Hospital, it used to be known as the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, it's where they send the serial killers and the people that can't help themselves. And I said to Brian, well what did Tony do? And he said, hardly anything. He beat someone up with something, and he decided to fake madness to get out of a prison sentence, but he faked it too well and now he's stuck in Broadmoor and nobody will believe he's sane.

Do you want us to try to get you in to Broadmoor to meet Tony? So I said, yes please. So I got the train to Broadmoor, I began to yawn uncontrollably around Kempton Park. Which is apparently what dogs also do when anxious, they yawn uncontrollably. We got to Broadmoor, I got taken through gate after gate after gate, into the Wellness Center, which is where you get to meet the patients. It looks like a giant Hampton Inn, it's all peach and pine and calming colors, and the only bold colors are the reds of the panic buttons. And the patients started drifting in and they were quite overweight, wearing sweatpants, and quite docile looking, and Brian the Scientologist whispered to me, they're medicated. Which to a scientologist is like the worst evil in the world, but I think it is probably a good idea.

And then Brian said, here's Tony. And a man was walking in, and he wasn't overweight, he was in very good physical shape, and he wasn't wearing sweatpants, he was wearing a pin stripe suit, and he had his arm outstretched like someone out of "The Apprentice." He looked like a man who wanted to wear an outfit that would convince me that he was very sane. And he sat down and I said, so is it true that you faked you're in here? And he said yep, yep absolutely, I beat someone up when I was 17 and I was in prison awaiting trial, and my cellmate said to me, you know what you have to do? Fake madness. Tell' em you're mad, you'll get sent to some cushy hospital, nurses will bring you pizzas, you'll have your own PlayStation, so I said well how did you do it? And he said, well I asked to see the prison psychiatrist and I had just seen a film called "Crash," in which people get sexual pleasure from crashing cars into walls. So I said to the psychiatrist, I get sexual pleasure from crashing cars into walls. And I said, what else? And he said, oh yeah I told the psychiatrist that I wanted to watch women as they died because it would make make me feel more normal. And I said where'd you get that from? He said, oh from a biography of Ted Bundy that they had in the prison library, I think.

Anyway, he faked madness too well, he said, and they didn't send him to some cushy hospital, they sent him to Broadmoor. And the minute he got there, he said he took one look at the place, asked to see the psychiatrist, said there's been a terrible misunderstanding. I'm not mentally ill. I said, how long have you been here for? He said, well if I'd just done my time in prison for the original crime, I'd've got five years. I've been in Broadmoor for 12 years.


RAZ: Hold on one sec. How could he explain this in such a calm way? I mean, he was taking this in stride, like this is, well, you know, I just — I guess I'm stuck here.

RONSON: Well, no, I mean, he never was happy to be stuck there, you know. He saw me as a possible way out of Broadmoor, so he was actually very friendly and cheerful about faking to make me an ally in some way.

RAZ: He was just supposed to be there for five years he was there for 12 years. I mean, that would drive him crazy.

RONSON: Oh, my God. And also, the way Broadmoor's set up, if you engage with the therapy, it means they can detain you indefinitely. I mean that's the kind of sort of weird catch-22 that they have at Broadmoor. So one way that Tony thought, you know, that he could get out was to completely disengage in every single way with everybody there. So, he refused to make small talk, he refused to, you know, sort of war of noncooperation, he thought that would be his way out. But of course, you know, that made him seem crazy too, so there was no winning. It turns out that you called his clinician, who told you that actually a — like a telltale sign of being a psychopath is faking madness.

RONSON: Exactly, so Broadmoor accepted after a while, that yes he had faked madness to escape a prison sentence because his hallucinations had seemed quite clichéd, they vanished the minute he got to Broadmoor. But they assessed him and they determined that what he actually is, is a psychopath.


RONSON: And in fact faking madness is exactly the kind of cunning and manipulative act of a psychopath, it's on the checklist, cunning and manipulative. So faking your brain going wrong is evidence that your brain has gone wrong. And I spoke to other experts and they said the pinstripe suit, classic psychopath, speaks to items one and two on the checklist. Glibness and professional charm, a grandiose sense of self worth. And I said, well, I said, well, what, he didn't want to hang out with the other patients? Classic psychopath, speaks to grandiosity, and also lack of empathy.

So, all things that seemed most normal about Tony was evidence, according to this clinician, that he was mad in this new way, he was a psychopath. And this clinician said to me, if you want to know more about psychopaths you can go on a psychopath spotting course written by Robert Hare who invented the psychopath checklist, so I did. I went to the psychopath spotting course and I am now a certified, and I have to say extremely adept, psychopath spotter. So here's the statistics — one in 100 regular people is a psychopath. So there's 1,500 people in this room, 15 of you are psychopaths. Although, that figure rises to 4% of CEOs and business leaders, so I think there's a very good chance there's about 30 or 40 psychopaths in this room, there could be carnage by the end of the night.


RONSON: When I got back to London, Tony phoned me. He said, why haven't you been returning my calls? I said, well they said that you're a psychopath. And he said, I'm not a psychopath. He said, you know what, one of the items on the checklist is a lack of remorse, but another item on the checklist is cunning-manipulative. So when you say you feel remorse for your crime, they say typical of the psychopath to cunningly say he feels remorse but he doesn't. It's like witchcraft, they turn everything upside down.

He said I've got a tribunal coming up, will you come to it? So I said, okay. So I went to his tribunal, and after 14 years in Broadmoor, they let him go. They decided that he shouldn't be held indefinitely because he scores high on a checklist that might mean that he would — has a greater than average chance of recidivism. So they let him go. And outside in the corridor, he said to me, you know what John, everyone's a bit psychopathic. He said, you are, I am, obviously I am, I said, what are you going to do now? He said, I'm going to go to Belgium because there's a woman there that I fancy, but she's married, so I'm going to have to get her split up from her husband.


RONSON: Anyway, that was two years ago and that's when my book ended and for the last 20 months everything was fine. Nothing bad happened. He was living with a girl outside of London, he was according to Brian the Scientologist making up for lost time.

And which I know sounds ominous, but isn't necessarily ominous, unfortunately after 20 months he did go back to jail for a month, he got into a fracus in a bar he called it, and took him to jail for a month, which I know is bad but at least a month implies that it's — whatever the fracus was wasn't too bad. And then he found me.

And you know what, I think it's right that Tony is out, because you shouldn't define people by their maddest edges. And what Tony is, is he's a semi-psychopath. He's a gray area in a world that doesn't like gray areas. But the gray areas are where you find the complexity, it's where you find the humanity, and it's where you find the truth. And Tony said to me, Jon, can I buy you a drink in a bar? I just want to thank you for everything you've done for me. And I didn't go. What would you have done? Thank you.


RAZ: Do you regret it — not going?

RONSON: No, I don't. Because for all the ambiguities of this story and I, you know, remain pleased that Tony managed to get out of Broadmoor, he is a psychopath and I've got a family. You've got to be careful. I mean that's just the terrible truth of it. And again for all of the ambiguity of the story, and for all the criticisms that you can have of the culture of labeling, the culture of checklists, the, you know, the ever burgeoning nature of the DSM. Conditions exist. Psychopathy exists, whatever you want to call it, it exists. And I think it's really important actually that — you know, I've always wanted this my book, and my TED talk to stay very firmly in the middle ground, to see the truth and the problems on both sides of the argument.

RAZ: Cause it seems like writing this book was almost like a journey of self-discovery, you know, and I mean, I don't mean that in like, you know, in like an Oprah way, but in like a — like you started to see psychopathic things in yourself.

RONSON: Absolutely, I saw that to get on in journalism, I need to adopt certain psychopathic character traits. I need to be manipulative in my introductory e-mails, I need to not care about how people come over. And so it certainly became a book about return to work out my own sense of personal morality. It's also very much a book about how I became drunk with my psychopath spotting abilities, and misused the psychopath checklist, and how confirmation bias, which is the way that people will only see things that confirm that pre-existing beliefs, is a huge problem. And I think the book is a kind of a cautionary tale about — don't succumb to confirmation bias.

RAZ: It's almost like there's two ends of the spectrum. And as — and you said this, most of us are in that gray area between madness and sanity.

RONSON: Yes. Yes. Very real conditions, I mean obviously everybody knows, you know, these conditions really exist, a lot of people really do have something. But there seems to be an increasing move towards conformity and so the boundary of what it's — of what is normal is getting narrower and narrower and narrower to the extent that more than 50% of Americans soon will be diagnosable with a mental disorder. So being not normal is the new normal.

RAZ: Where are you in the spectrum, are you closer to madness or sanity?

RONSON: A little crazy.

RAZ: Me too. Should we get a drink?


RAZ: Writer Jon Ronson. His book is called "The Psychopath Test." Thanks for listening to the show this week, if you missed any of it or you want to hear more, or want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit You can also find many more TED Talks at, and you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smart phone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.