In The Psychopath Test, the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats explores the idea that people who like to win often do, and that psychopaths like to win.
Is power a sign of madness? Author Jon Ronson thinks it might be
Jon Ronson's new book, The Psychopath Test, has the intriguing subtitle, A Journey Through the Madness Industry. On a baking hot summer's evening in Sheffield he certainly seems as if he might have taken his explorations of the depths of the human psyche a little too far.
He's a wonderful combination of wired and drained, after a mad dash from a train on which the air conditioning had broken down. He downs a pint of water and tells me he'll be all right in a minute. And then he starts telling me about his evil superpower.
"I'm really good at reading people," says the journalist, writer — most famously of The Men Who Stare at Goats — and documentary-maker.
"I feel as if I can totally burrow inside people and read their frailties. It's what's made me a good writer, I think. I can spot the nuances of people's behaviour, their sadnesses. I realise this sounds completely pretentious but I can seize on a moment of weakness, contradiction or whatever and know that's where the story is when I need to go back to it. None of this is cruel, by the way..."
Immediately, of course, I wonder what he's thinking of me. I hope it's nice. It probably is, because Ronson's great gift is that - as he says - he is not at all cruel. His books feature brilliantly enjoyable interviews with people operating on the margins of what's acceptable or normal but very, very rarely does he criticise them. Instead, because of his disarming manner and genuine interest in the human condition, he lets their absurdities speak for themselves.
His first book on extremists, Them, opened with a chapter on Omar Bakri, the Islamist leader and former UK resident, who had recently declared a very public holy war on Britain. Somehow, Ronson became a friend and confidant of this outwardly fearsome figure and painted a picture of a man who was actually remarkably silly and, whisper it, quite funny.
In The Men Who Stare at Goats, memorably made into a feature film by George Clooney, he got right to the heart of the farcical methods used in psychological warfare. And in The Psychopath Test, Ronson speaks to famous psychiatrists, business leaders and Scientologists in a fantastically enjoyable journey to understand the nature of psychopathic behaviour and how it infiltrates society.
Oddly, the inspiration for such interest was an episode that isn't in the book. Ronson interviewed Mary Turner Thompson (the woman who thought she had married a CIA spy, Will Jordan, only to find seven years later that his "trips to Gaza" were a front for living with his other wife and five children down the road).
"He was a psychopath," says Ronson. "I asked her how she felt about it and she said she couldn't hate him because that's just the way he was. I thought that was extraordinary. And then I met Martha Stout, who is in the book. She is a psychologist who says that because psychopaths love winning, you'll find a preponderance of them at the top. That always stayed with me as a 'big thought', if you like. What if our lives are perhaps being controlled by a psychopathic fraction?"
So, in Ronson's inimitable way (his books are as much about his anxieties as those of his subjects) he tried to find out. To understand the traditional idea of a psychopath, he gained access to Britain's most notorious psychiatric hospital, Broadmoor - home, as he puts it, to "the serial killers and the child-murderers, the ones that can't help themselves".
Journalists are off limits, but somehow Scientologists (who refuse to believe in psychiatry) get Ronson access to a patient who believes he's there under false pretences. Such delightfully odd scenarios were also a feature of Them; Ronson was attempting to find out more about the Bilderberg Group, a cabal of the rich and influential who conspiracy theorists believe rule the world from inside a secret room, but found himself being followed.
So he called the authorities for help, uttering the immortal line: "I am a humorous journalist out of my depth." Does he still like to cultivate that persona?
"Yeah, kind of. Well, maybe something like a nerdy, thoughtful but not very brave journalist trying to work out why the world is the way it is. I don't hang out with politicians, I don't go to the right private members' clubs, I don't know how the elite operate. But I'm really interested in how they do. I sometimes get this faux-naïve label, but I don't agree with that at all. It's just genuine curiosity. I don't have an agenda."
There may be no agenda, but Ronson does like an adventure. "Both Them and The Psychopath Test have got a high-concept mystery," he agrees. "I did enjoy the detective elements to The Psychopath Test. I felt a bit like Columbo."
Ronson is referring to the first chapter of the new book, in which he tries to solve the mystery of an anonymous, cryptic package sent to neurologists and scientists. What did it mean? Who was the madman who sent it?
Ronson finds out pretty quickly, actually, but it does send him on a typically rambling adventure into the meaning of madness, which quickly alights on the criminal psychologist Robert Hare's checklist of personality traits, extensively used by mental health professionals to "score" potential psychopathy and thus treat it correctly.
He prints it in the book and it's great fun - assuming, of course, that you are not a pathological liar or criminally versatile - to try to score yourself, not least because some of the traits, such as proneness to boredom or impulsivity, are foibles we can all identify with. Taking the test also seems to be an implicit recognition that we're fascinated by madness - even if it's as seemingly harmless as being entertained by an unhinged pop star.
"Well, the media are fascinated, that's true," he says. "But not if you're completely mad. Then you're bad news for live television. If you want to be a villain, if you want to rule the world, then my advice is to be boring. Journalists are never going to write about you because they want their prose to be interesting. Which is a chilling thought, really."
I ask Ronson whether he'd mind flinging his drink across the café in a fit of rage, just to give me a better story.
"Exactly! That's the way the media works, isn't it? It's hideous. And of course, there's the flip side: I think we're all nervous that we're a bit mad, so when we see it on television it reassures us that we're not."
The Psychopath Test is undoubtedly more successful when it talks about how psychopaths often need the validation of media attention. There is a sobering chapter towards the end about the excessive medication of any American child who doesn't appear "normal". In the end, it doesn't, really tell us whether Barack Obama and Rupert Murdoch are psychopaths - although Ronson did tweet this week that News International's closure of the News of the World was "straight out of the psychopath checklist - try and emerge unscathed and hundreds of innocents lose their jobs". Ronson doesn't, then, quite answer his original question - are we being controlled by psychopaths? - but he has a lot of fun along the way.
"But then, I'm not a polemicist," he says. "I'm not going to sweep uncomfortable ideas under the carpet and tell partial truths to fit an argument. I'm more about the muddy, complicated reality. I'm genuinely interested in this absurd and frail way we behave as humans, and I think people talk to me because they don't feel threatened.
"Either that," he laughs, self effacing to the last, "or they're just incredibly impressed that George Clooney turned one of my books into a movie."