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Karen Franklin, Ph.D.
Karen Franklin Ph.D.

Psychopathy: A Rorschach test for psychologists?

Empathy deficit: Psychopath or psychologist?

What do these personality traits have in common?

If you are high on any or all of them, you may be less likely to rate other people as psychopathic on the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R).

The PCL-R is the most widely used measure of psychopathy in the world. But in real-world forensic settings, scores vary widely depending upon which side retained the evaluator. This finding is called the "partisan allegiance" effect.

In a new twist, these same researchers that brought you partisan allegiance have found that an evaluator's personality may impact her judgments of psychopathy. Evaluators low on compassion and thrill-seeking as measured by a widely used personality test, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised, are more likely than others to rate criminals as psychopathic.

That's ironic, because according to the theory of psychopathy, it's supposed to be the psychopath -- not the psychologist -- who has a deficit in empathy.

The exploratory study, forthcoming in the journal Assessment, was based on a small sample of 22 individuals who were given nine hours of training by a clinical psychologist with substantial research and forensic practice experience with the PCL-R. "The daylong session was an attempt to replicate typical PCL-R training procedures," the study authors explain.

The researchers emphasize that their findings are preliminary and need to be replicated and extended. But if they hold up, they have intriguing implications not only for the psychopathy measure but also for other psychological tests with elements of subjectivity in scoring or interpretation.

The study did not examine the accuracy of the low versus high scorers. But if low-scoring evaluators are more empathetic, this implies that they may be more accurate in interpersonal assessment contexts.

Subterranean class conflict?

Future research might examine class background, race and philosophical beliefs to see if these influence scoring of the Psychopathy Checklist. In my informal observations, professionals who look for psychopaths under every rock tend to lack understanding of, or empathy for, those on the bottom.

Here's how that looks in practice:

The upper middle-class professional walks into the evaluation room, oblivious to the blinders and unconscious biases she brings to the table. Her subject, in contrast, is far from oblivious. With his more acute empathetic skills, the lower-class or minority individual accurately reads the professional's bias against him, which she transmits through nonverbal and other deniable cues. He also realizes that she holds all the power, and that her judgments will affect his future in very tangible ways.

He reacts with defensiveness, suspicion, or muted hostility -- especially if she is working for "the other side." But not recognizing his reaction as part of an interactional dance that she herself set in motion, the evaluator interprets his stance as evidence of intrinsic personality defect. She may see him as glib, superficially charming, conning, or manipulative -- all facets of Factor 1 (the personality dimension) on the Psychopathy Checklist.

In this interaction, all of the power belongs to the person who gets to do the labeling. Scoring and labeling the offender becomes a circular process through which the evaluator -- especially when primed by adversarial allegiance -- can project her own class- or race-based prejudices, distancing herself from the evil other, while at the same time denying complicity. An obfuscating tautology is proffered as a simple explanation for complex and multi-determined antisocial acts.

There is more to the construct of psychopathy, of course. I focus here on its potential subjectivity because this is a facet that proponents rarely acknowledge, especially in public. Forensic experts owe a duty to explain the subjectivity of the PCL-R when it is introduced in court, where the label "psychopath" can be the kiss of death. When labeled as psychopaths:

  • Juveniles are more likely to face harsh punishment in adult court.
  • Sex offenders are more likely to be preventively detained.
  • Capital murder defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty.

So, the next time a promising young student proposes to study psychopathy or "the criminal mind," you might give her a gentle nudge in a more fruitful direction: Rather than treading this tired old path, she might contribute more to the field by studying the psyches of professionals who assign such diagnostic labels in the first place.

The study is: On Individual Differences in Person Perception: Raters' Personality Traits Relate to Their Psychopathy Checklist -Revised Scoring Tendencies. The authors are Audrey K. Miller, Katrina A. Rufino, Marcus T. Boccaccini, Rebecca L. Jackson and Daniel C. Murrie. Assessment, forthcoming.

Of related interest: Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy, by Michael W. Kraus, Stéphane Côté and Dacher Keltner, Psychological Science, November 2010.

About the Author
Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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