The NPR report by Alix Spiegel is, "Can A Test Really Tell Who's A Psychopath?" Here's an excerpt from this must-read:
Canadian psychologist Robert Hare began studying psychopaths in the 1960s, and it's easy to forget now — in part because Hare's work has made the concept of the psychopath so commonplace — but a half-century ago, research on psychopaths was considered both obscure and largely irrelevant to understanding crime.
Back then, Hare says, there was a very clear consensus about where crime came from: Criminals were made, not born.
"In those days, social factors, environmental factors were the explanation for all crime," Hare says. "When you're born, you're a blank slate, and I can train you to be anything you want — a doctor, a dentist."
Hare, for one, didn't fully buy this. He thought inborn personality was important. He says that as a psychologist, when he looked at people, he just saw incredible differences in temperament: differences in impulsivity, differences in the capacity for empathy, for feeling guilt.
"We have individual differences in intelligence," Hare says. "Well, we should have individual differences in the personality traits that are responsible or related to crime."
Robert Hare, the psychologist who created the PCL-R test for psychopaths, at first resisted giving the checklist to people in the criminal justice system. But he ultimately agreed to publish the test officially so anyone could use it.
Hare set out to dissect the personality traits that might predispose people to criminality. To do this, he recruited the help of inmates at a prison some 30 miles down the road from his office at the University of British Columbia.
"The offenders in those days had hardly ever been studied," Hare says, "and they were very interested in what I was doing. They would all volunteer. And in fact, one of the head inmates there — the one at the top of the heap — actually held a public address (because in those days they could congregate in groups of four or five hundred) and said, 'Look, this sounds interesting, I'm in.' And then everybody else said, 'I'm in, too.' "
Hare set up a lab and started pumping out studies on the prisoners.
Ultimately, this work led Hare to theorize that people with psychopathic personalities were essentially emotionally deaf. They simply did not have the capacity to feel, in a firsthand way, emotions like empathy and love and remorse.
"It's sort of like trying to explain to a colorblind person what the color red is," Hare says. "Can we teach a colorblind person how to see red, what red is? You can have all the dictionary definitions you want, but the person will never quite get it."
The NPR series is a topic of a post at the Forensic Psychologist blog post, "PCL-R inventor wringing his hands over forensic misuse."
The first part of NPR's series on the psychopathy industry aired today and the transcript is now online (HERE), along with my sidebar essay on the cultural history of psychopathy (HERE). Most fascinating to me is recent efforts by Robert Hare, inventor of the popular Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), to distance himself from growing evidence of its misuse in forensic contexts:
While Hare remains a strong believer that his test works well for the kind of basic scientific research that it was originally designed for, he and others have begun to wonder if it does as good a job outside the lab.
"I'm very concerned about the inappropriate use of this instrument for purposes that have serious implications for individuals and for society," Hare says. "It shouldn't work that way."
In fact, Hare says, he is so disturbed by some of what he has seen as he has traveled through America training psychologists in use of the PCL-R, that he sometimes has trouble focusing on the way his test could be affecting people's lives.
"I think about this periodically, and I probably try to suppress it," Hare says. "I do disassociate myself from it. I mean, if I thought about every potential use or misuse of the instrument, I probably wouldn't sleep at all."
Hare goes even further in a series of interviews with journalist Jon Ronson, author of the new book, The Psychopath Test. Over late-night drinks at hotel bars, he tells the author that he is especially chagrined at the PCL-R’s use by poorly trained and biased evaluators in Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) cases in the United States:
“ ‘I tried to train some of the people who administer it. They were sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, rolling their eyes, doodling, cutting their fingernails – these were people who were going to use it.’
NPR has also assembled, "Expert Panel: Weighing The Value Of A Test For Psychopaths," by Patrick Waters.
Many psychologists believe that psychopaths are almost bound by nature to commit crime. So if psychopaths can be accurately identified, their menace to society can be contained. That's the hope, at least.
But there is real debate about how to diagnose a psychopath and the usefulness of the tools available to do it. A test developed by psychologist Robert Hare called the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, or PCL-R, is widely used in the criminal justice system -- before trial, during sentencing and even in parole and death-penalty decisions -- to evaluate a person's psychopathic tendencies.
Some psychologists believe the PCL-R is a critical tool in predicting which offenders pose the greatest risk. Others see the test as too vulnerable to human bias and question its place in the criminal justice system. We asked three experts in the field of forensic psychology to weigh in.
The individual essays are:
- Masking Bias With Science by Karen Franklin
- Identifying The Bad Apples by Henry Richards
- An Unreliable And Stigmatizing Tool by John Edens