Thursday, June 16, 2011

You don't need to be crazy to be happy, but it probably helps

On a This American Life episode from a few weeks ago, author Jon Ronson (whose latest book is The Psychopath Test also served as inspiration for this previous post) talked about interviewing a corporate CEO renown for firing people mercilessly, and who'd been alleged to be psychopathic. He went through the list of traits used in the determine psychopathy with the man, and although the man did exhibit many of those traits, Ronson could not conclude that the man scored way above the level of a "normal" empathetic person, the man did not score high enough to be clinically psychopathic.

At the end of the piece, Ronson had to admit that there was something about the man's lack of regret, the man's self-confidence, that was appealing; Ronson was a little envious, as not being plagued by neuroses (as the author admitted to being) would be nice.

Obviously there's quite a spectrum from neurotic to psychopathic, but I grasped Ronson's point. The doubts and fears that most of us have are hardly admirable, and overcoming them is a necessary part of being able to conduct any sort of normal life. Still, doing so moves us closer to psychopathy—not that we're apt to get there, but in doing so we are essentially changing the way our brain works (suppressing fear conceivably would eventually alter that part of the brain that sends out signals of fear). (I have no idea if physiologically that happens; it merely sounds reasonable, at least in the moment I'm writing this.)

I've had conversations with others who, like me, have similarly semi-neurotic personalities and dry senses of humor and tendencies toward overanalysis, and we have agreed that those who exhibit these psychopathic traits do seem to be pretty happy; our tendencies to worry certainly did not seem to be enhancing our satisfaction. How marvelous must it be for the actual psychopath to be psychopathic (not so much for everyone else, of course, but the lack of empathy presumably prevents the psychopath from being concerned with that). We, too, are envious of that element of psychopathy. At least, we figure that contentedness (in a manner of speaking) must be the key upside to being that way.

Granted, psychopaths would not step back and think about what must it be like for another, so we're nowhere close enough to be psychopathic to be actually psychopathic—and if we're brutally frank, that is somewhat to our chagrin… and to our disappointment.

I'm not suggesting these pages fail to reveal immense psychological issues, as undoubtedly they do. They merely fail to indicate psychopathy. Alas.


  1. I heard that story too. I think it deliberately confuses "psychopath" with "self-centered," and it was written more as a vehicle to smear successful, wealthy businesspeople than it was as an actual study or trend that has any merit.

  2. I like how I more or less empathized with those who have an abject lack of empathy, which probably was imprudent on my part, and Marvin, you focus on the book that's only connected in a slim, ancillary way. This could have gotten awkward otherwise.


So, what do you think?