Reflecting on a psychopath

A psychologist’s personality may affect whether someone is diagnosed as a psychopath or not.

Forensic psychology blog In the News covers a preliminary study on how evaluators with different personality traits systematically differed in their ratings when using the ‘industry standard’ Hare Psychopathy Checklist.

The checklist is often referred to by the abbreviation PCL-R. It is designed to assess and measure psychopathy, a condition where people lack empathy, are impulsive, manipulative and anti-social.

Needless to say, it now features heavily in many legal cases.

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 [of the legal case] 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.


Link to In the News on psychopathy tests and personality.
Link to DOI entry and summary of study.

11 thoughts on “Reflecting on a psychopath”

  1. Being a critical theory student who has also been in and out of the mental health care system, I have always had a feeling that my shrinks’ own emotional landscapes influenced their understanding of me. Goes to show that there is no “normal” or “objective” as such, at least and especially when attempting to find this “norm” and the extent of a person’s departure from it.

    I would like to see this hypothesis/study extended to all diagnoses.

  2. Agreed re: the apparent “subjectiveness” affecting therapists’ evaluations, and perhaps it’s yet another reason for supporting the alternatives, like the emerging neuro-biological models for explaining behavior and personality. I suspect the days of the “talking cure” are numbered.

  3. Mat, I’m not sure if the emerging “neuro-biological model” necessarily means that the talking cure’s days are over. Are you implying that medicating the mentally ill is the only way to go? The state of psychiatry is atrocious at the moment. “What are your symptoms? Take these.” Looking at the problem in such a narrow way can be dangerous.

  4. Hmm.. I agree with Will. I wasn’t proposing an end to the “talking cure.” Rather, I was suggesting that a focus exclusively on symptoms, especially symptoms that do not manifest themselves in some material way, is an insufficient and utterly unreliable way of “diagnosing” an illness. So too is looking at FMRIs and finding co-relation, not causation, between illnesses and brain function.

    I find that a lot of illnesses, as personal as they are, are symptomatic of larger social trends. Depression isn’t just all in people’s heads or “simply” a neuro-biological phenomenon that needs to be “treated”. It is a manifestation of successive personal and socio-political disempowerment, privatisation, the evacuation of the “public sphere” and diminishing of personal agency in an increasingly administered world/society and so on.

    (But hey, I’m no psych major and this is just a hypothesis.)

    1. One of the interesting things with the effect of social factors in psychological illnesses is the effect of westernization on foreign cultures. One of the things they are seeing is a transition from a traditional form of anorexia to one more fitting with the western conceptualization.

  5. “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.”

    I don’t know that this is a valid statement (and I’m not even sure what it means exactly – the “theory of psychopathy” exempts psychologists/psychiatrists?). It seems there are plenty of cases of psychologists with severe deficits in empathy one example

  6. Is it that psychopaths lack empathy? or that they are equipped with “defense mechanisms” to defer the internal pain anyone else might associate with empathy. . . (e.g. rationalization, denial, projection, etc.)

    When I have heard a diagnosed psychopath explain why he did not feel sorry for his victims (assault, theft, fraud), he always had a way of rationalizing that the victim deserved it, that it was their fault, or that he was “teaching them a lesson” – and therefore doing them a favor.

    This kind of thinking can be adopted by anyone. In particular – when one is dealing with another person who lacks empathy for others, it is easy to dehumanize that person, rationalize how unethical behavior towards this person (or unusually harsh punishments) may be justified.

    Perhaps the defense mechanisms of the psychopath are more well-developed, more well-practiced, more habitual. Perhaps the “lack of empathy” is not the issue, but the lack of perspective in risk assessment, that guides the rest of us in the use of our defense mechanisms. (e.g. “it’s not okay to shift blame, lie, construct fantastic stories, to explain our bad behavior, because the lie will be found out, or we will feel guilty and can’t bear that feeling, or have to answer to our God’s judgment”, or whatever our internal moral guidance supplies). – perhaps the psychopath lacks the ability to consider their own actions on this level.

  7. I still think there is a space for the talking cure. After all people have always talked about their. Its just has to shift to a more relative place. By its definition objectivity in psychology would exclude disorders of any kind. To rule something a disorder is a subjective opinion. That said Gin hit on what is overlooked, which is many of our problems have social roots. Using someone who is well versed with the ways of the brain is not going to solve problems that are generated by poverty.

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