Breakthrough in the Diagnosis of Psychopathy

Experts in the field of criminal psychology consider psychopathy to be “the most important forensic concept” of the early 21st century. While people have known about psychopaths for centuries, efforts to diagnose this dangerous disorder only came into their own recently.

Dr. Robert Hare and his colleagues drew on forty years of research to develop a checklist to assess the level of psychopathy in a person. Forensic psychologists can use this list to clinically assess the degree to which a person is a psychopath. The checklist rates a number of personality traits on a score of 0, 1, or 2.

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An article in Psychology Today pointed out that the need to understand this disorder “cannot be overstated” given its importance to law enforcement, the courts, and corrections.

Known as the Psychopathy Check List Revised, or PCL-R, this tool measures personality traits and behaviors in four categories:

  • Interpersonal
    • Glibness
    • Grandiosity
    • Manipulation of others
    • Pathological lying
    • Superficial charm
  • Affective
    • Failure to accept responsibility
    • Lack of empathy
    • Lack of remorse and/or guilt
    • Shallow affect
  • Lifestyle behaviors
    • Impulsivity
    • Irresponsibility
    • Lack of realistic life goals
    • Parasitic orientation
    • Stimulation-seeking behavior
  • Antisocial behaviors
    • Committing a variety of crimes
    • Early childhood behavior problems
    • Juvenile delinquency
    • Poor behavioral controls
    • Revocation of conditional release

Someone who possesses all of these traits is considered a psychopath. Forensic psychologists base a clinical designation of psychopathy on a lifetime of these types of behavior patterns.

Studies to date suggest that there is a continuum of psychopathy that ranges from having all of these traits and scoring highly on them to those that do possess them all but score lower. Forty is the maximum score possible while a minimum score of 30 results in a designation of psychopathy. The average person who is not a psychopath will score around five or six.

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Being able to better define a psychopath enables the authorities to design more effective strategies to interview and interrogate suspects who fit these criteria. This is extremely important, since psychopaths are exceptionally skilled at deceiving people.