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Is your boss a psychopath? (Are you?)

Jon Ronson has just written a book, titled, ‘How to Spot a Psychopath’, in which he says they’re everywhere, from Broadmoor to the boardroom, and he investigates the traits common to them all.

Broadmoor is the most famous of England’s three high-security psychiatric hospitals. It is the place Ian Brady, the Moors murderer and Peter Sutcliff, the Yorkshire Ripper, were sent to. Ronson visits the hospital for his research.

The majority of inmates wore T-shirts and sweatpants, but when he is introduced to Tony, a man in his late 20s, he is wearing a pinstripe suit and looking very much like a man trying to give the impression of sanity.

Tony had committed GBH (badly assaulting a homeless person) and believed he would receive a sentence of around seven years, so he decided to tell the authorities that he was mad, hoping to be sent to a comfortable, safe hospital. He had, by now, been in Broadmoor for 12 years.

Tony said faking madness had been easy, he was a drug-taking 17 year-old who watched lots of scary movies and he had modelled his madness on Denis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet. His acting worked and Tony was frequently visited by psychiatrists, who sent him to Broadmoor.

When Tony arrived at Broadmoor, he realised he had made a very bad decision and quickly told the psychiatrists that he was not mad, but as he told Ronson; “It’s a lot harder to convince someone that you’re sane, than to convince them you’re crazy”.

Tony tells Ronson: “I know that people are constantly looking for nonverbal clues to my mental state. They love to analyse body movements, but that is very hard for the person who is trying to act sane. How do you sit in a sane way, how do you cross your legs in a sane way?”

He found himself in a catch-22 position and his files said; “Tony is cheerful and friendly. His detention in hospital is preventing deterioration of his condition.” After reading that, he decided on a policy of non-co-operation, remaining in his room most of the time.

He said that on the outside, not wanting to spend time with criminally insane neighbours would be seen as perfectly rational, but inside it demonstrated he was withdrawn and had a grandiose opinion of himself. In Broadmoor, not wanting to hang out with insane killers is a sign of madness.

Tony says: “I arrived here when I was 17; I’m 29 now. I grew up wandering the wards of Broadmoor. I’ve got the Stockwell Strangler on one side of me and the Tiptoe Through the Tulips rapist on the other. These are supposed to be the best years of your life. I’ve seen suicides, I’ve seen one man take another man’s eye out.”

Ronson wrote to Professor Maden, to ask him if Tony was, in fact sane or insane. Prof Maden said: “Tony did get here by faking mental illness, because he thought it would be preferable to prison, but most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered that he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy.”

Maden said that faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you would expect of a psycopath and when Ronson mentioned the pinstripe suit to another psychiatrist, she said: “Classic psycopath.”

Tony rang Ronson and said: “I haven’t heard from you in a while?” and Ronson told him: “Professor Maden says you’re a psycopath”, to which Tony replied; “I’m not a psycopath. They say psychopaths can’t feel remorse. I feel lots of remorse, but when I tell them, they say psychopaths pretend to be remorseful when they’re not. Trying to prove you’re not a psycopath is even harder than trying to prove you’re not mentally ill.”

Tony tells him they diagnose psychopaths with the Robert Hare Checklist; “They assess you for 20 personality traits. Superficial charm, proneness to boredom, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, grandiose sense of self-worth. That sort of thing. For each one they score you a 0, 1 or 2. If your total score is 30 or more out of 40, you’re a psycopath. That’s it, you’re doomed. You’re labelled a psycopath for life. They say you can’t change, you can’t be treated. You’re a danger to society and then you’re stuck in a place like this.”

Bob Hare, a former prison psychiatrist, developed the PCL-R (Psycopathy Checklist Revised). In the mid-60s, he conducted a series of tests with psychopathic and non-psychopathic prisoners. He strapped them to various body measuring machines and an electricity generator and told them he was going to count down from 10 and when he reached one, they’d receive a nasty electric shock.

The difference in responses stunned Hare. The non-psycopathic volunteers steeled themselves and showed fear, whereas the psychopaths showed nothing. The tests indicated the amygdala, the part of the brain that should anticipate the unpleasantness and send appropriate fear signals, was not working properly. This was Hare’s first proof that the brains of psychopaths were different from regular brains.

When he repeated the test and the psychopaths knew what level of pain they would suffer, they still didn’t flinch. Hare said: “Psycopaths are likely to reoffend. They had no memory of the pain of the electric shock; so what’s the point of threatening them with imprisonment if they break the terms of their parole? The threat has no meaning for them.”

In the 70s, electric shocks were banned, so he organised a conference on how to determine psycopathy without the use of shocks. The conclusions became the now-famous 20 point Hare PCL-R:

• Glibness/superficial charm

• Grandiose sense of self-worth

• Need for stimulation/prone to boredom

• Pathological lying

• Cunning/manipulative

• Lack of remorse or guilt

• Shallow affect

• Callous/lack of empathy

• Parasitic lifestyle

• Poor behavioural controls

• Promiscuous sexual behaviour

• Early behaviour problems

• Lack of realistic long-term goals

• Impulsivity

• Irresponsibility

• Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

• Many long-term marital relationships

• Juvenile delinquency

• Revocation of conditional release

• Criminal versatility

Ronson attended one of Hare’s three-day courses, in Wales, and lost any cynicism he may have had and felt he was equipped to spot psychopaths. Hare told Ronson: “I should not have done my research just in prisons, I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well. Serial killers ruin families, but corporate, political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

Ronson spoke to plenty of psychiatrists, who all agreed psychopaths were inhuman, wicked whirlwinds of malevolence, forever harming society and impossible to identify unless you are trained in the subtle art of spotting them; which Ronson now was.

An American CEO, Al Dunlap, reclassified many psycopathic traits as “business positives”, saying; “Grandiose sense of self-worth? You’ve got to believe in yourself. Cunning/manipulative? That’s leadership.”

Tony finally was released on appeal and the independent reports told him things he hadn’t previously known about Tony. His mother had been an alcoholic, who used to beat him, most of her boyfriends were drug addicts and criminals, Tony had been expelled from school for threatening a dinner lady with a knife. It seemed to Ronson that the difference between a psycopath in Broadmoor and one on Wall Street, was the luck of being born into a stable and rich family.

Nigel Phillips

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