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:
Robert Dixon Jr.,
featured in the NPR storyWhile 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."
"Alarming world of globe-trotting experts"
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.’
“A Coalinga psychiatrist, Michael Freer, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007 that more than a third of Coalinga ‘individuals’ (as the inmates there are called) had been misdiagnosed as violent predators and would in fact pose no threat to the public if released. ‘They did their time, and suddenly they are picked up again and shipped off to a state hospital for essentially an indeterminate period of time,’ Freer said. ‘To get out they have to demonstrate that they are no longer a risk, which can be a very high standard. So, yeah, they do have grounds to be very upset.’
“In the executive bar, Bob Hare continued. He told me of an alarming world of globe-trotting experts, forensic psychologists, criminal profilers, traveling the planet armed with nothing much more than a Certificate of Attendance, just like the one I had. These people might have influence inside parole hearings, death penalty hearings, serial-killer incident rooms, and on and on. I think he saw his checklist as something pure – innocent as only science can be – but the humans who administered it as masses of weird prejudices and crazy dispositions.”
If Hare’s conscience is really bothering him, he could do more than try to distance himself from miscarriages of justice in interviews with journalists after the fact. He could stop training the legions of government SVP evaluators in the United States, and/or issue a policy statement about the misuse of his instrument in court.
Of course, that would mean a significant loss of revenue. Even Ronson, the author of The Psychopath Test, had to pay 400 pounds (media discount) to gain access to Hare at a 3-day PCL-R training course. And that didn’t include the cost of the 30-page manual, another 361 pounds.
My review of The Psychopath Test at Amazon:
The power to label is intoxicating. That’s what Jon Ronson found after taking a 3-day training that gave him license to diagnose people as psychopaths. Armed with a 40-item checklist, the journalist went gallivanting around the globe, sniffing out prospective psychopaths from convicted murderers to corporate job-slashers and Haitian war criminals. Ronson’s chronicle of his two-year quest for the elusive psychopath is at times whimsical, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and always riveting.