In psychology, there is a wide range of publications, everything from serious research to self-help manuals.
Close to the “Psychology Lite” end are mass-media popularizations, like those you sometimes find in magazines like Time — or in books like the two which are the subjects of today’s short reviews: Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
I don’t usually bother with reviews of books like these, but they trade on a curiously similar negativity, so I’ll venture one article for the pair and take a short look at both of them.
The Psychopath Test takes its title from the checklist of aberrant traits by which clinical psychologists and psychiatrists “determine” who is and who isn’t a psychopath. Part of Ronson’s book — which, like much popular psychology is based on a series of interviews with “interesting” subjects — deals with the ubiquity and subjectivity of the test itself.
The imprecision of the categories, and the non-empirical judgements upon which assessments are based, can lead, Ronson argues, to arbitrary and sometimes unjust classifications of otherwise inoffensive individuals.
But, like many other books of its type, The Psychopath Test doesn’t have enough real material to justify a book-length treatment, so Ronson devotes part of the book to a related subject: the idea that many business and political leaders exhibit many of the traits of psychopathy.
– * –
Gladwell’s book is similarly superficial, starting off as a clever-sounding examination of the advantages of being born at certain times before delving into the familiar territory of the advantages that adhere to the financial and social elites, then veering into cultural stereotypes.
For a book that purports to be about the outlier, the exception, it curiously spends much of its time explaining how exceptionalism is in fact irrelevant to success.
Hockey stars have the passive advantage of having been born early in the calendar year. Computer billionaires were lucky enough to have been born in 1955. Top Wall Street lawyers were fortunately discriminated against in post-war law firms for being Jewish.
These are amusing explanations. But Gladwell spends too much time “proving,” among other things, that Korean pilots are culturally inclined to have fatal crashes.
– * –
I’d apologize for not getting into either book more deeply than this, but frankly, I don’t believe that they deserve the space.
What did interest me about both books is that they share a deep-seated negativity about the structure of society — and an equally pessimistic view of our opportunities to change our lives for the better.
The Psychopath Test caters to the sense of disentitlement many “ordinary” people feel when they observe the ostentatious privilege and advantage enjoyed by the elite.
One negative lesson drawn from the book is that the super-successful didn’t get where they are through ability or hard work. Rather, they succeeded because they were emotionally aberrant — in a word, psychopathic.
Their singularity of focus didn’t come from admirable dedication to a goal; it came from their lack of human empathy. They succeeded because they’re not like the rest of us. They see the rest of us as things to be manipulated, not as fellow beings.
This depiction obviously feeds and justifies the resentment many on the bottom have for those at the top. It makes the rest of us feel better to know that those who have outcompeted us have done so not through positive qualities but due to an evil nature. “Yes, they’re on top, but look at what kind of people they had to be to get there” goes a long way toward restoring damaged self-esteem.
Outliers deals with somewhat different characters, from a different angle, but it feeds on the same negativity.
One of the book’s primary lessons is that it doesn’t matter how talented you are or how hard you work. What matters is luck. Luck of all kinds — when you were born, where you were born, who your parents were, how much money your family had. Bill Gates is smart, Gladwell writes, but you may be just as smart. He was lucky. He was born at the right time and had just the right educational good fortune to become America’s richest man. He’s no better than you — he’s just luckier.
There is, of course, considerable truth to what Gladwell says about the power of environmental factors to point one toward success or failure. But his tone is no more positive than Ronson’s. “You didn’t get ahead because you didn’t have the advantages that those other guys had. And no matter how hard you work, you’ll never have those advantages.” It’s all about luck and privilege.
Someone who already feels a failure, who already resents the successful, will find in these books little but confirmation of bitterness and envy. “If only I had been a psychopath, or born in a lucky year, or had rich parents, or any number of other things beyond my control — I would have been successful, too.”
Maybe even successful enough to write pop psych books that smartly appeal to people’s frustrations and inadequacy — books like The Psychopath Test and Outliers.