Jon Ronson’s new book The Psychopathy Test has gained substantial attention in the media. The book is no doubt an entertaining read; Ronson is well practiced in his craft. However, those contacted by Ronson during his collection of material for the book, were taken aback to find that the book contained "liberal" and/or fictional accounts of their interactions with him. Perhaps artistic license is an inevitable part of Ronson’s chosen profession, although it is disappointing when it is used dishonestly and in a manner that undermines other people’s professional credibility.
As psychopathy researchers our primary concern rests with the book’s treatment of psychopathy and its measurement. The “psychopathy test” in Jon Ronson’s new book is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The PCL-R is a clinical instrument designed for use by qualified clinicians authorized by law and professional organizations to administer and interpret psychological tests, or by researchers who report only group scores. Many clinicians and researchers, as well as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and investigators attend PCL-R Workshops, in some cases merely to learn something about psychopathy. This does not qualify them to use the PCL-R unless they meet the appropriate legal and professional standards. We are concerned that Ronson describes the workshop he attended as providing him with a powerful tool to pick out psychopaths. It does nothing of the sort.
We were particularly surprised at an apparent contradiction: Ronson queried the use of the PCL-R as a diagnostic instrument in the prison/special hospital setting, yet embarked on a journey in which he diagnosed various members of the general public, using his “power to identify a psychopath merely by spotting certain turns of phrase”. PCL-R assessments require the integration of information from interview, file, and collateral sources. Information from these various sources is rarely available unless someone is already in the mental health or criminal justice systems. Further, the scoring of items requires close adherence to the formal item descriptions contained in the manual. Ronson is not legally or professionally entitled to have or use these scoring criteria, and his tactic of pulling up one- or two-item titles to label someone is sharply at odds with the appropriate use of the instrument. It also is stigmatizing for those so identified. The threshold score for psychopathy is very high and certainly cannot be reached by a layman's assertions that someone scores high on a few items. We fear that Ronson's book does a disservice to the clinicians and researchers who use it properly, and serves to undermine their efforts to ensure that the PCL-R should be used properly or not at all.
In short, we think that Ronson’s book trivializes a serious personality disorder and its measurement, which is not helpful to those who have the disorder or to their unfortunate victims.
Robert Hare, University of British Columbia
Essi Viding, University College London
Adrian Raine, University of Pennsylvania
Joe Newman, University of Wisconsin Madison
Kent Kiehl, University of New Mexico
Dave Kosson, Rosalind Franklin University
Randall Salekin, University of Alabama
Craig Neumann, University of North Texas
Edelyn Verona, University of Illinois
Adelle Forth, Carleton University
Raymond Knight, Brandeis University
Paul Frick, University of New Orleans
Luna Muñoz Centifanti, Durham University