This is just a terrific, terrific NPR story on how one crusading psychologist invented a psychological test for Pyscopathy (i.e., psychopaths) and how it has come to be a very important element in the criminal justice system when it comes to parole decisions. Apparently, the test is amazingly predictive about who will re-offend and who will not. As it turns out, though, the creator of the test has very serious concerns with how it is being used and thinks it is probably being over-used. Most distressing fact: the test is on a 40-point scale and psychologist’s for the prosecution find scores 8 points higher on average (a full fifth of the total scale) than psychologists for the defense. Obviously, there’s a whole lot of subjectivity in this assessment. The story personalizes the details with an account of a criminal who appears to be reformed by the accounts of virtually everybody that knows him, yet he scores high on the PCL-R, so he’s not going anywhere. I realize that psychopaths can be charming and manipulative, but I do wonder if he could have completely fooled so many people– many of whom have had life-long relationships (i.e., his father) with him. Maybe so, but I can’t help but be skeptical because all these people seemed to think he was a loser degenerate before, but not now. Can people get way better at being a psychopath? Again, maybe so, but it strikes me as unlikely.
I found the part of the story about the development of the psychological test to be really fascinating. Here’s a tidbit:
In one experiment, he placed the prisoners in chairs and told them that in 30 seconds he was going to zap them with an intense electrical shock. Then Hare measured their heart rate to see if that information bothered them. Most of the prisoners were bothered, but a small subset weren’t.
“Most people show lots of emotional arousal, anticipatory fear, anxiety, while they’re waiting for the shock to occur,” Hare says. “Psychopaths, hardly any.”
Another time, Hare showed prisoners both highly emotional and totally neutral pictures — a picture of a rape, say, versus one of a table. And again, he measured their physical response.
He found that for most prisoners, the emotional pictures prompted a very different reaction than did the pictures of a table or chair.
“But with psychopaths, there’s no difference,” Hare says. “They treat these horrific pictures as if they were neutral pictures — no difference whatsoever between them.”
The #1 item on the PCL-R is “glibness.” Ahh, I get off to a bad start, but fortunately I get better from there.