Psychopath researcher threatens to sue critics

Photo by Flickr user Profound Whatever. Click for sourceRobert Hare is a psychologist who studies psychopaths and is best known for developing the ‘Hare Psychopathy Checklist’ or PCL-R, a standard diagnostic tool for assessing offenders. He is currently threatening to sue two psychologists who wrote an article critical of the theory underlying the checklist, as well as the academic journal, Psychologist Assessment, that accepted the piece for publication after it was peer-reviewed.

There’s an account of the affair over at the excellent forensic psychology blog, In the News, who note that the article was authored by respected researchers Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke and was titled “Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate”. As a result of the legal threat the article has never come to light.

The letter from Hare’s lawyers apparently claimed that the he would:

“have no choice but to seek financial damages from your publication and from the authors of the article, as well as a public retraction of the article” if it was published. The letter claimed that Skeem and Cooke’s paper was “fraught with misrepresentations and other problems and a completely inaccurate summary of what amounts to [Hare’s] life’s work” and “deliberately fabricated or altered quotes of Dr. Hare, and substantially altered the sense of what Dr. Hare said in his previous publications.”

It’s probably worth noting that the PCL-R is big business. At current prices, each assessor who uses the checklist needs their own copy of the manual ($123) and the rating booklet ($68.50) and each individual assessment requires an interview guide at $5 each and a scoring form at about $3 each.

However, to use the assessment, each person needs to attend a training workshop at about $350 per person and workshops can easily involve 100 people at a time. Additionally, there is a follow-up correspondence course, price unspecified.

Because the assessments are used in the legal system, it is important that no-one (like an opposing lawyer in court) can find fault in the process and attending the ‘official’ training from the PCL-R company is considered the gold standard.

Recently, the affair has caught the attention of two lawyers and legal scholars who have just published their own analysis of the situation in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health.

They express regret that Hare has chosen to use legal threats to counter his critics rather than to refute any points he felt were unfair in print himself, but also note that his strategy may actually undermine the usefulness of the PCL-R in court as opposing lawyers “may attempt to discredit that testimony by arguing that the literature relevant to evaluating the PCL-R has been tainted”.

Link to In the News on the case.


  1. Posted June 1, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Sigh. I hope this is just a temporary lapse of judgment on his part because it’s hard to imagine something that could be more damaging to his reputation.

  2. Posted June 1, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Well he may be a jerk that is letting dollar signs cloud his scientific judgment but that’s hardly reason to call him a psychopath.

  3. Posted June 1, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Woah, thats really bad news. Using the legal system to attack your critics rather than responding with a letter or article of your own in the same journal really undermines the whole scientific method in this area.
    Its a real shame because I’m actually quite a fan of Hare’s PCL. Its only the second factor that includes criminal behaviours, whereas the first factor refers to selfishness and narcissism, which “successful” psychopaths may have in abundance whilst not engaging in criminal activity. The second factor describes some behaviours which are in fact similar to those encountered in brain injured persons with orbitofrontal injury. Hare himself makes a big distinction between “true” psychopathy (factor 1) and criminal antisocial personality disorder (factor 2). Only the antisocial psychopath is high in both factors, and those are the types that do tend to be incarcerated, as the “axe murderer” type.
    If Skeem and Cooke are claiming that criminality is not central to psychopathy, they are actually agreeing with Hare. However, if they are doing so in a way which is criticising his work, I can only imagine that they must be presenting a “straw man” of his arguments and misrepresenting them. This might be what is pissing him off so much.
    Still, it would be better, more professional, more scientific and better for Hare’s reputation if he published a harsh rebuttal of their article, pointing out that they have either misunderstood or misrepresented his work.
    I suppose that if they have actually fabricated quotes and attributed them to him, then they are actually lying about his work, which might warrant a libel suit.
    In my work, Alan Baddeley’s central executive is always misrepresented, mainly because very few people have read his 1986 chapter in which he introduced the term. I found that reading the original work, politely emailing the author for clarification, and citing the response as personal communication was the best approach. I hope that Skeem and Cooke tried this with Hare and that they have saved any emails they recieved back!

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