The Psychopath Test

by Jon Ronson

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
The Psychopath Test
The Psychopath Test

What are the big ideas? 1. The concept of a missing piece in the puzzle of consciousness, as presented in "Being or Nothingness," is unique because it reveals how a

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The concept of a missing piece in the puzzle of consciousness, as presented in "Being or Nothingness," is unique because it reveals how an obsession can manifest in a way that appears to be a puzzle to others, but is actually a reflection of the author's own fixation.
  2. The distinction between psychopathy and madness, as discussed in this book, provides a nuanced perspective on mental health disorders by acknowledging the differences between symptoms of various conditions and emphasizing the importance of avoiding overdiagnosis and overmedication.
  3. The role of genetics in psychopathy is presented as a significant factor, but the book also emphasizes that psychopaths are not automatically violent or criminal, challenging common stereotypes and assumptions about this condition.
  4. The concept of corporate psychopathy sheds light on how individuals with psychopathic traits can rise to power and influence in organizations, providing insights into ethical concerns related to business practices and leadership.
  5. The book's exploration of the manipulation of truth, as seen in the story of "Toto," highlights the importance of understanding the nuances of language and communication in interpreting information and forming judgments about individuals and situations.




  • The author of Being or Nothingness was a Swedish psychologist named Petter Nordlund.
  • Nordlund is not a crackpot, but he is an obsessive man who became interested in the idea of how consciousness is created and how it relates to the world.
  • Nordlund sent out copies of the book to people he thought would be interested in its themes and who had the power to influence others with their own ideas.
  • The recipients of the book became obsessed with finding a missing piece of the puzzle, but in fact there was no missing piece: the book was a manifestation of Nordlund’s own obsession.
  • The recipients formed a community around this obsession, and it was only when they assumed the author to be mad that they were able to come up with an explanation for the book’s existence.
  • This explanation, in turn, became more interesting than the book itself: it was an exploration of how rationality and madness interact and affect each other in the human mind.


“A stab had clearly once been made at de-uglifying these public spaces by painting a corridor a jaunty yellow. This was because, it turned out, babies come here to have their brains tested and someone thought the yellow might calm them. But I couldn’t see how. Such was the oppressive ugliness of this building it would have been like sticking a red nose on a cadaver and calling it Ronald McDonald.”

“Who’s that?” I asked James. “Essi Viding,” he said. “What does she study?” I asked. “Psychopaths,” said James. I peered in at Essi. She spotted us, smiled and waved. “That must be dangerous,” I said. “I heard a story about her once,” said James. “She was interviewing a psychopath. She showed him a picture of a frightened face and asked him to identify the emotion. He said he didn’t know what the emotion was but it was the face people pulled just before he killed them.”

“I vaguely remembered hearing psychologists say there was a preponderance of psychopaths at the top—in the corporate and political worlds—a clinical absence of empathy being a benefit in those environments.”

“The days that followed passed slowly. I lay in my hotel room and watched the kind of strange European TV that would probably make perfect sense if I understood the language, but because I didn’t, the programs just seemed dreamlike and baffling. In one studio show a group of Scandinavian academics watched as one of them poured liquid plastic into a bucket of cold water. It solidified, they pulled it out, handed it around the circle, and, as far as I could tell, intellectualized on its random misshapenness. I phoned home but my wife didn’t answer. It crossed my mind that she might be dead. I panicked. Then it turned out that she wasn’t dead. She had just been at the shops.”

“‎I have panicked unnecessarily in all four corners of the globe.”

“People who are normal (i.e., sane, sensible) don’t try to open lines of communication with total strangers by writing them a series of disjointed, weird, cryptic messages.”

“Suddenly, madness was everywhere, and I was determined to learn about the impact it had on the way society evolves. I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn't? What if it is built on insanity?”

“Psychopaths [make] the world go around...society [is] an expression of that particular sort of madness...I've always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn't? What if it is built on insanity?”



  • Psychopaths are born with a brain that’s different from the rest of us. They have less activity in the part of the brain that controls impulses and emotions, and more activity in the part that controls planning and decision-making.
  • Psychopaths can be identified by their actions and not by their words. The key is to look for patterns of behavior.
  • Psychopaths are very good at lying and manipulating people. They are often charming, charismatic, and convincing.
  • Psychopaths are not mentally ill. They are not insane. They do not have hallucinations or delusions. They know what they are doing, but they don’t feel bad about it.
  • Psychopaths cannot be cured. There is no pill to make them better.
  • Psychopaths will never feel remorse for their actions, though they may say they do to get out of trouble or to make other people feel better.
  • Psychopaths don’t usually kill people, but they can be violent and dangerous if they think it will get them what they want, such as money or power.
  • If you encounter a psychopath, be aware that he or she might be trying to manipulate you into doing something you wouldn’t normally do, like helping them commit a crime or giving them money or property without getting anything in return.


“The DSM-IV-TR is a 943-page textbook published by the American Psychiatric Association that sells for $99...There are currently 374 mental disorders. I bought the book...and leafed through it...I closed the manual. "I wonder if I've got any of the 374 mental disorders," I thought. I opened the manual again. And instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones.”

“I suspect it was probably unusual to suffer from both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Malingering, unproductiveness tending to make me feel anxious, but there it was. I had both.”

“Even sleep offered no respite from my mental disorders. There was Nightmare Disorder, which is diagnosed when the sufferer dreams of being "pursued or declared a failure." All my nightmares involve someone chasing me down the street while yelling, "You're a failure!”

“I was much crazier than I had imagined. Or maybe it was a bad idea to read 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.”

“It may very well be that the frotteurist is a helpless victim in the clutches of his obsession, but it’s equally possible that he’s simply a bored creep looking for a cheap thrill.”

“predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse. What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony.”

“Trying to prove you’re not a psychopath is even harder than trying to prove you’re not mentally ill,’ said Tony.”



  • Psychopaths are not curable.
  • Psychopaths are not rehabilitated by traditional therapy.
  • Psychopaths may be made worse by traditional therapy.
  • Psychopaths may be able to manipulate therapists and other patients.
  • Psychopaths can be dangerous to others when released from institutions.
  • Institutionalized psychopaths may be kept in check by the institution itself, and their release should be carefully considered.


“Well,” he said, “the downside of having no barriers between doctors and patients was that everyone became a patient.” There”

“That's an incredibly depressing thought," I said "that if you're in a room and at one end lies madness and at the other end lies sanity it is human nature to veer towards the madness end.”

“One of my dad’s colleagues said, “She wants to paint with her shit. Maybe we should give her paints.” And it worked.’ Mary Barnes eventually became a celebrated and much-exhibited artist. Her paintings were greatly admired throughout the 1960s and 1970s for illustrating the mad, colourful, painful, exuberant, complicated inner life of a schizophrenic.”

“They seemed perfectly ordinary. This, Elliott deduced, was because they were burying their insanity deep beneath a façade of normality.”

“This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first-ever marathon nude psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths. Elliott’s raw, naked, LSD-fueled sessions lasted for epic eleven day stretches. The psychopaths spent every waking moment journeying to their darkest corners in an attempt to get better. There were no distractions—no television, no clothes, no clocks, no calendars, only a perpetual discussion (at least one hundred hours every week) of their feelings. When they got hungry, they sucked food through straws that protruded through the walls. As during Paul Bindrim’s own nude psychotherapy sessions, the patients were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for one another...”



  • Psychopaths have a neurological brain anomaly that prevents them from feeling empathy or remorse.
  • This anomaly means that they are incapable of experiencing guilt, which is why they can do terrible things and then sleep like babies.
  • The amygdala, which plays a crucial role in processing emotions, does not function properly in psychopaths, and this is why they are so cold and unfeeling.
  • They are often charming and charismatic and can be found in all walks of life, including high places.
  • It’s not their fault that they are like this—they were born this way—but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to get away with the terrible things they do.
  • Psychopaths are often able to recognize their condition when they are young and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage, which is why they can get away with so much for so long.
  • The world would be a much better place if we could spot these people before they cause too much harm.
  • And if we could do that, we would need to lock them up for the safety of society.


“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.”

“But surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial-killer psychopaths,’ I said. ‘Serial killers ruin families,’ shrugged Bob. ‘Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

“You're standing on an escalator and you're watching the people go past on the opposite escalator. If you could climb inside their brains you would see we aren't all the same. We aren't all good people just trying to do good. Some of us are psychopaths. And psychopaths are to blame for this brutal, misshapen society. They're the rocks thrown into the still pond.”

“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.”

“At the end of our conversation she (Martha Stout) turned to address you, the reader. 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.”

Chapter 5. - TOTO


  • Psychopaths are highly skilled at imitating emotions and manipulating people to get what they want.
  • The most common indicator of psychopathy is a lack of empathy, which can be seen in statements such as "I don't feel sorry for people" or "I don't feel remorse."
  • Psychopaths may also display a lack of empathy by not being able to understand how other people feel, often making them unable to connect with others on an emotional level.
  • Psychopaths often have difficulty understanding how their actions affect others and may not fully grasp the consequences of their behavior.
  • Psychopaths may also exhibit a lack of empathy by not being able to understand how their actions affect others and may not fully grasp the consequences of their behavior.
  • Psychopaths often have difficulty understanding how their actions affect others and may not fully grasp the consequences of their behavior.
  • Psychopaths are often very charming and charismatic, which can make it difficult to spot them at first. However, they often become increasingly manipulative and controlling over time as they gain more power in a relationship.
  • People who are close to psychopaths may feel like they are constantly walking on eggshells, never knowing when the psychopath will explode or lash out at them.
  • Psychopaths are often very intelligent and can be quite cunning, making it difficult to recognize their true nature until it's too late.
  • Psychopaths often have a deep-seated need for control and power, which can lead them to engage in harmful behaviors in order to maintain that control.
  • Psychopaths may also be extremely impulsive, acting without thinking about the consequences of their actions and often leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
  • Psychopaths often have a grandiose sense of self-importance, believing that they are special or superior to others and entitled to act accordingly.
  • Psychopaths may also exhibit a lack of remorse or guilt for their actions, often feeling justified in their behavior and blaming others for any negative outcomes that result from it.
  • Psychopaths are often very persuasive and can easily convince others to do things that they would not normally do, including engaging in illegal or dangerous activities.
  • Psychopaths are often very confident and self-assured, which can make them seem very appealing to others who may be drawn to their seemingly strong personality traits.
  • Psychopaths may also use charm and manipulation to get what they want, often making them seem very likable and trustworthy at first glance but then becoming increasingly aggressive and controlling over time as they gain more power in a relationship or situation.


“Shall we go?' he murmured, perhaps regretting his decision to show me his army of plastic cartoon figurines.”

“I couldn't see where the collection of Burger King figurines fit in, but I supposed there was no reason why psychopaths shouldn't have unrelated hobbies.”

“That’s the psychopath: somebody who doesn’t understand what’s going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened.” But”



  • The tall poppy thing is real.
  • In the corporate world, psychopaths are rewarded with money and power.
  • Psychopaths are often very loyal to their families, but not to their friends or employees.
  • A CEO who makes a lot of people cry when he fires them might not be a bad person—he might just be a psychopath.
  • Corporate psychopaths are not necessarily criminal or violent, but they do have a propensity for deception, manipulation, and reckless risk taking.
  • Corporate psychopaths may be more common than we think—perhaps as many as 4 percent of executives and up to 20 percent of corporate leaders fall into this category.
  • Corporate psychopaths are not neurologically impaired or mentally ill; they’re just genetically predisposed to act in ways that harm other people for their own benefit.
  • Psychopaths do not see themselves as bad people; rather, they see themselves as survivors in a hostile world, and they’ll do whatever it takes to win at any cost.
  • If you find yourself working for a CEO who fits the profile of a corporate psychopath, your best bet is to keep your head down and get out while you can.


“Manipulative?” I said. “I think you could describe that as leadership,” he said. “Inspire! I think it’s called leadership.” “Are”

“Feeling no remorse must be a blessing when all you have are your memories”

“So, yeah, the psychopath might cry when his dog dies and you think that’s misplaced because he doesn’t cry when his daughter dies.” I”

“As I glanced at the phraseology of the research report, dull and unfathomable to outsiders like me, I thought that if you have the ambition to become a villain, the first thing you should do is learn to be impenetrable. Don’t act like Blofeld—monocled and ostentatious. We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.”



  • Journalists often focus on the extreme aspects of people's personalities, which can be seen as a form of "madness" or mental disorder.
  • There is a tendency to dehumanize interview subjects in order to cope with tragic stories.
  • Some people in the media industry use medication lists to assess if someone is "mad enough" for their show, avoiding those with severe mental disorders like schizophrenia.
  • The wrong sort of madness can have devastating consequences, as seen in the story of Kellie McGee, who suffered from bipolar disorder and died after being coaxed to insult her sister on a TV show.
  • Over-emphasizing madness or mental disorders can lead to overlooking people's sanity and well-being, including that of journalists themselves.



  • Psychopaths have a genetic predisposition to be psychopaths.
  • Madness is a symptom of a mental illness, not the illness itself.
  • The media, and society as a whole, have a tendency to glorify madness in order to make people feel better about themselves.
  • Madness is not the norm, but it is more common than we think it is.
  • Psychopaths are not the only people who can be dangerous, but they are the most likely to be dangerous due to their lack of empathy and remorse.


“Oh, you know what bloggers are like, they write and write and write. I don't know why, because they're not being paid.”

“TV is just troubled people being booed these days.”

“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 than 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.”

“We don’t want obvious exploitation. We want smoke-and-mirrors exploitation.”

“Maybe it was the trying so hard to be normal that was making everyone so afraid they were going crazy.”

Chapter 9. - AIMING A BIT HIGH


  • Colin Stagg was convicted for the murder of Rachel Nickell, but he did not commit it.
  • The real murderer, Robert Napper, lived in Plumstead, 17 miles away from Wimbledon Common, where Rachel was killed.
  • Colin Stagg lived in a bedsit a short walking distance from Wimbledon Common.
  • Britton claimed that he told the Metropolitan Police that the Plumstead rapist (who eventually turned out to be Robert Napper) was their man, but they wouldn't listen.
  • Britton said that at no point during the operation did he cross the line, and that his rule throughout was that "the suspect, Colin Stagg, must be the person who introduces every single element."
  • Britton also said that he doesn't know Colin Stagg and doesn't have an opinion about him.



  • The DSM-III checklist for bipolar disorder is a list of symptoms that can be found in many children, and the checklist has been used to diagnose millions of children with bipolar disorder.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder are based on the assumption that the symptoms are caused by a genetic predisposition to the disorder, and therefore the diagnosis is considered to be lifelong and unchangeable.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder have been criticized for being too broad and for including normal childhood behaviors as symptoms of the disorder.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder have been used to diagnose children who are too young to have developed the disorder, and the diagnosis has been associated with stigma, discrimination, and reduced opportunities for education and employment.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder have also been used to justify the use of powerful psychiatric medications in children, despite the lack of long-term safety data and the risk of serious side effects.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder have contributed to an increase in the number of children diagnosed with the disorder, which has led to concerns about overdiagnosis and overmedication.
  • The DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder have not been updated since 1980, and there is ongoing debate about whether they should be revised or replaced with a new set of criteria that are more scientifically grounded and clinically useful.
  • The limitations of the DSM-III criteria for bipolar disorder highlight the need for a more nuanced and developmentally sensitive approach to understanding and diagnosing mental disorders in children.
  • A more developmentally sensitive approach would take into account the complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that contribute to mental disorders in children, as well as the importance of considering cultural and contextual factors in the assessment and diagnosis of these disorders.
  • A more developmentally sensitive approach would also recognize that mental disorders in children are not always lifelong and unchangeable, but rather are often transient and responsive to treatment.
  • A more developmentally sensitive approach would also acknowledge that children are not miniature adults, but rather are developing individuals who are in the process of growing and changing, and that their mental health needs to be understood and addressed in this context.
  • Ultimately, a more developmentally sensitive approach to understanding and diagnosing mental disorders in children would help ensure that children receive appropriate and effective treatment, while minimizing the risk of stigma, discrimination, and other negative consequences associated with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on outdated and overly broad criteria.


“I’d always wondered why there had been no mention of psychopaths in the DSM. It turned out, Spitzer told me, that there had indeed been a backstage schism—between Bob Hare and a sociologist named Lee Robins. She believed clinicians couldn’t reliably measure personality traits like empathy. She proposed dropping them from the DSM checklist and going only for overt symptoms. Bob vehemently disagreed, the DSM committee sided with Lee Robins, and Psychopathy was abandoned for Antisocial Personality Disorder.”

“Psychiatric diagnoses are getting closer and closer to the boundary of normal,” said Allen Frances. “That boundary is very populous. The most crowded boundary is the boundary with normal.” “Why?” I asked. “There’s a societal push for conformity in all ways,” he said. “There’s less tolerance of difference. And so maybe for some people having a label is better. It can confer a sense of hope and direction. ‘Previously I was laughed at, I was picked on, no one liked me, but now I can talk to fellow bipolar sufferers on the Internet and no longer feel alone.’” He paused. “In the old days some of them may have been given a more stigmatizing label like conduct disorder or personality disorder or oppositional defiant disorder. Childhood bipolar takes the edge of guilt away from parents that maybe they created an oppositional child.”

“But they’re being labeled bipolar. That’s an enormous label that’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life.”

“He fulfilled the bipolar checklist. See? And so they gave him some pretty heavy-duty medication. It slowed him way down, to a drooling fat kid. And they declared the meds a success.” It”

“When I asked Robert Spitzer about the possibility that he'd inadvertently created a world in which ordinary behaviours were being labelled mental disorders, he fell silent. I waited for him to answer. But the silence lasted three minutes. Finally he said, 'I don't know.”

Chapter 11. - GOOD LUCK


  • The difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street may be the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.
  • Actions taken out of anger or dislike can have long-lasting consequences, as seen in Tony's character creation and the avatar created by Joel.
  • People, especially children, may express their dislike or disrespect through humor or jokes, but these expressions can still be hurtful and damaging to the recipient.
  • Overlabeling can occur when people are reduced to their maddest edges, particularly in institutions like hospitals or prisons.
  • Everyone has the capacity to be manipulative and charming, but it is important to consider the intentions and motivations behind such behavior.
  • People should be careful about the jokes they make and the targets of their jokes, as they can reveal underlying feelings and emotions.
  • It is essential to take responsibility for one's actions and not blame others for one's mistakes or failures.
  • One's destiny is often in their own hands, and it is up to the individual to make the most of their opportunities and choices.


“The killer's name was Michael Stone and he was a known psychopath. He had previous convictions. But the law stated that only patients whose mental disorders were considered treatable could be detained beyond their prison sentences. Psychopaths were considered untreatable and so Michael Stone had to be free.”

“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 would also say you can never reduce any person to a diagnostic label.”

“Bedlam: an institution with a history so fearsome it gave its name to a synonym for chaos and pandemonium.”

“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.     Bob”

“Ask a victim to look at the positive things and she’ll say, ‘I can’t. My eyes are swollen,”

“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.”


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