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ppi-rWe wrote about this scale in our last post when researchers (trying to convince the reader there is such a thing as a good psychopath for you to hire) used it in a study of German adults. The PPI-R is apparently a measure of psychopathy that is able to “detect relatively mild levels of psychopathy traits in non-forensic samples” (the Psychopathy Personality Inventory—Revised—the measure is on page 82 of the pdf to which this link takes you—although it has more than 180 questions on it which is different from what is advertised for the final scale).

The researchers featured in our last post also say this scale is useful for workplace settings since it measures subclinical psychopathy and thus, will not run afoul of the ADA with regard to employment discrimination. We question their conclusion and should perhaps mention the scale has 154 questions on it and some of them are quite odd. We think you could use the administration time for this test much more productively with more face-time spent with your applicant.

Respondents are asked to answer each item with four choices: False, Mostly False, Mostly True, or True. They are also given the following instructions: “Even if you feel that an item is neither false nor true as applied to you, or if you are unsure about what response to make, try to make some response in every case. If you cannot make up your mind about the item, select the choice that is closest to your opinion about whether it is false or true as applied to you.”

The items on the test range from mundane to fairly odd. Here’s a random selection of 10 consecutive items from the many, many questions on this scale.

I would not mind wearing my hair in a “Mohawk.”

I occasionally forget my name.

I rarely find myself being the center of attention in social situations.

It might be fun to belong to a group of “bikers” (motorcyclists) who travel around the country and raise some hell.

I tell many “white lies.”

I often hold on to old objects or letters just for their sentimental value.

I am a good conversationalist.

A lot of people in my life have tried to stab me in the back.

I am so moved by certain experiences (e.g., watching a beautiful sunset, listening to a favorite piece of music) that I feel emotions that are beyond words.

I often find myself resenting people who give me orders.

Some of the more odd questions in the measure include those like “I look down at the ground whenever I hear an airplane flying above my head”, or “I have had “crushes” on people that were so intense that they were painful”, or “I frequently have disturbing thoughts that become so intense and overpowering that I think I can hear claps of thunder or crashes of cymbals inside my head”, or even “When I am under stress, I often see large, red, rectangular shapes moving in front of my eyes”. These are not really the sorts of questions one would think bear much relationship to work environment behaviors.

[NB: As we read over our work on this blog we are occasionally concerned about a critical edge that many posts have toward the research done by social scientists, and its lack of applicability to the legal arena. We own our guilt in that regard, but it has nothing to do with the value of much of the research, such as today’s post, that is worthwhile but not useful for litigators. In every endeavor (chemistry, engineering, genetics, sociology, etc.) there are many milestones that have no practical application, apart from their value as stepping stones for the next innovation. While we don’t see many psychological assessment indexes or personality tests as making a contribution to trial practice, we don’t mean to suggest that it has no value in another context or as a research tool. It is simply that our focus is intended to be more narrowly aimed, and very practical.]

From a law office management perspective, we don’t see this as a useful tool for screening new associates or staff. To the contrary, anyone who does not find this sort of employment test disturbing and intrusive would likely not be someone you would wish to hire. You have no real reason to be assessing an applicant for level of psychopathy and it would be difficult to justify why you turned people down for employment based on a psychopathy score on a screening test. A very slippery slope.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Widows, M. R. (2005). Psychological Assessment Inventory–Revised (PPI-R). Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

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danger will robinsonWhile those of you who have worked with (or lived with) functional psychopaths before may want to scream “Danger, Will Robinson!” — an international group of researchers (studying German research participants) have identified a “good psychopath” and a “bad psychopath” (when it comes to employment) and they even suggest a scale measuring sub-clinical forms of psychopathy (and earnestly tell the reader this will get around that pesky US ADA restriction against measuring psychopathy on “clinical” scales in an employment setting). They take issue with even the label psychopathy as it loosely means “disease of the soul”. We can quibble about terminology, but their results highlight factors to consider when hiring anyone.

Here’s a brief look at how they came to their conclusions and recommendations for hiring people, some of whom are likely to fall on the troubling end of a psychopathology continuum. First, they explain the differences between primary and secondary psychopathy.

Primary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “fearless dominance” (which they describe as wanting to get your own way no matter what the consequences of your actions). Their traits, say the researchers, include “an egotistical personal style characterized by self-promotion and prioritization of one’s own needs before those of others”. Yet, primary psychopaths, they say, are often described by coworkers as helpful, cooperative and pleasant if and only if, the psychopath also had good social skills that were present in the workplace (and those social skills helped them keep their arrogance , egocentrism, and prioritization of own needs and wants over those of others at bay). Or, we imagine, as long as their views are supported by others.

Secondary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “self-centered impulsivity”. These psychopaths, according to the researchers, lack an inner braking system and thus have no self-control—they also have no consideration for others. Their traits, say the researchers, include “behavioral impulsivity characterized by disregard for rules and responsibilities”, thrill-seeking, and blaming others for their misfortunes. Consistent with this trait description of secondary psychopaths, coworkers often characterize the secondary psychopath as destructive, not helpful to others, and weak in terms of work performance when it comes to self-disciplined behaviors such as working hard, following workplace rules, taking initiative, being considerate and cooperative, or helping others with their tasks.

By definitions embraced elsewhere, Primary psychopathy might be considered more narcissistic, while the lack of control and the heartlessness of Secondary psychopathy is more aligned with the traditional view of psychopathy.

The researchers think our tendency is to assume that all psychopaths have “the malevolent, exploitive, agentic, and callous personality traits” characterizing heinous criminal offenders. However, they say, that description is only relevant for the “clinical psychopaths” which comprise only about 1% of the entire population of psychopaths. Psychopathy, like other human traits, lies on a continuum and the researchers believe that about 10% of individuals with psychopathic traits have “subclinical” levels of psychopathy. (They do not indicate what this means about the remaining 90% of people in the pool of psychopaths—although they do conclude they do not consider “cold-heartedness” in their model since it was not statistically related to what they we’re trying to measure.)

The issue with employment, the researchers say, is not whether you have multiple (sub-clinical) psychopathic tendencies—but rather, how well your particular form of psychopathy fits with your job description (as well as, naturally, your level of social skill). They opine in their 30+ page paper that primary psychopaths can “be selfless heroes in everyday life, such as life-savers, emergency physicians, or fire-fighters” and think we should differentiate more carefully in the large class of psychopaths—both primary and secondary types.

Again, the paper has to be read with a willingness to accept their use of the term “Primary Psychopath”, which by its definition is a milder form.

The researchers used a measure of psychopathy that is able to “detect relatively mild levels of psychopathy traits in non forensic samples (the Psychopathic Personality Inventory—Revised, we’ll blog about this scale in our next post) and they mention the scale is useful for workplace settings since it measures subclinical psychopathy. (We should perhaps mention the scale has 150+ questions on it and some of them are quite odd—but more on that in our next post.)

Overall, say the researchers, the primary psychopath with good interpersonal skills is a good bet for the workplace but if they do not have good interpersonal skills, they will likely be as destructive as the secondary psychopath for workplace productivity and morale.

From a law office management perspective, we really would not recommend this sort of strategy. What they seem to intimate is that you want to find the 10% of the psychopathic population who have moderate psychopathic tendencies and then, divide them into primary and secondary psychopaths and then, figure out which of the primary psychopaths have really good social skills so their behaviors will not wreak havoc in your workplace.

Putting on our duly licensed Psychologist hats for a moment, the distinction seems to be a very slippery slope. Secondary psychopaths are trouble from the beginning. Primary psychopaths have better social skills so they can manage the day to day more successfully, but under stress they are going to create havoc, too. And we have never seen a trial team that isn’t under terrific stress. It is the nature of litigation, and stress tolerances need to be higher than average, not a potential area of weakness.

The authors put a troubling amount of faith in a psychological trait scale, when you can assess the same things by looking at work history, length of relationships, and having your own warning signs on high alert during the interview process. Use your intuition about whether someone will be a good fit. It is also risky to assume you can “get around” the Americans with Disabilities Act by using the PPI-R scale with job applicants when what you are measuring is psychopathy and resulting goodness of fit in your workplace.

And a high-functioning psychopathic attorney is just the kind of person to drag you through a lawsuit by claiming that you rejected him or her based on an ADA protected factor.

Schutte, N., Blickle, G., Frieder, R., Wihler, A., Schnitzler, F., Heupel, J., & Zettler, I. (2015). The Role of Interpersonal Influence in Counterbalancing Psychopathic Personality Trait Facets at Work Journal of Management DOI: 10.1177/0149206315607967

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psychopath brain 2016This will shock you, or maybe relieve you: Psychopaths are different from the rest of us. Here’s another article saying there are measurable differences in how the brains of how criminal psychopaths work (and look) when compared to non-criminal psychopaths (those who have psychopathic traits but have not been convicted of criminal offenses) and non-psychopaths.

While many criminal offenders have psychopathic traits, there are some psychopaths who never commit offenses (at least, for which they are convicted). Today’s researchers wanted to see if there were “brain differences” visible on an MRI. They tested 14 convicted psychopaths and 20 non-criminals—half of whom who had a high psychopathy scale score but had not been convicted of any offenses. This is a very small group size but as they comment—it is the first time convicted offenders have actually been examined.

They found a few differences and the following is a summary of their findings:

Psychopaths (both criminal and non-criminal) have stronger reward centers in their brains

To clarify, the brain’s reward center—called the nucleus accumbens—“is responsible for recognizing and processing the rewards and punishments that follow from our actions”. The researchers had participants perform various tests while in an MRI scanner to measure brain activity. Those who had no significant psychopathic traits had a weaker response in the brain’s reward center than did both the criminal and non-criminal psychopaths.

Low self-control and less response to reward in criminal compared to non-criminal psychopaths

Good communication between the reward center of the brain and an area in the mid-brain is seen as reflecting good self-control. The authors found that criminal psychopaths did not have as good communication between those brain areas as did non-criminal psychopaths. While this is the first time criminal psychopaths were actually examined in this way (and there were only 14 of them) the researchers think it possible that the tendency to commit a criminal offense stems from a combination of a lack of responsiveness to reward and a lack of self-control.

Among the other lessons learned was a sense that when your reward center is extremely sensitive, you may be more likely to behave impulsively. The researchers think a sensitive reward center may be more predictive than a lack of empathy but obviously follow-up studies are needed. They also think that if future studies continue to show the brain plays an important role in criminal behavior—we may yet see brain scans being used in forensic examinations for diminished responsibility down the road.

While neurolaw advances are not being published as quickly as they were for a while, there are still multiple researchers working on the question of responsibility for criminal acts when your brain is demonstrably different from a non-psychopath. This is an interesting line of research in terms of comparing criminal psychopaths to non-criminal psychopaths and non-psychopaths. The small sample size is a concern and we need to wait for larger samples but the ideas are ones we think likely to continue to spark new research until we have to deal with these questions of responsibility in the courtroom. We’ve written about this area frequently so if you’d like to see what our mock jurors say in pretrial research, take a look at the neurolaw category in our blog.

Geurts DE, von Borries K, Volman I, Bulten BH, Cools R, & Verkes RJ (2016). Neural connectivity during reward expectation dissociates psychopathic criminals from non-criminal individuals with high impulsive/antisocial psychopathic traits. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11 (8), 1326-1334 PMID: 27217111

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secondary psychopathyMost of us find the behavior of the true psychopath frightening enough that we have few issues with locking them up and throwing away the key. They seem so very different from us and hearing the facts of their behavior is frightening and leaves us feeling unsafe. If you are not afraid of the psychopath, read a few of our posts on psychopathy and watch your mind change.

Now that you have accepted the reality that all psychopaths are cold, callous and untreatable, here’s something to ponder. A new study tells us that contrary to popular belief, there are some psychopaths who have feelings and might be amenable to treatment—especially if they have intervention while they are young [and that by itself might challenge their being categorized as a psychopath].

Researchers examined 150 male and female juveniles ages 11 to 17 (60% male; 85% White, 5% Hispanic, 3% African-American, and 6% multiracial or other; average age of 15.2 years) who had been classified as “callous and unemotional” and had severe anti-social behaviors that put them at risk of developing psychopathic traits as adults. What they found was that many of these juveniles did fit the classic definition of psychopathy—but others did not. Instead, say the researchers, some of the budding psychopaths had feelings. They call this group with higher internal emotionality “secondary psychopaths”.

“They appear callous and unemotional to others but are actually very distressed, have high levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, higher levels of emotion.”

Rather than callous and unemotional, the researchers say these secondary psychopaths are actually callous and emotional. That is, the secondary psychopaths do have high psychopathic traits, but they also have higher anxiety and depression. The researchers believe that those who can be identified as secondary psychopaths experience higher levels of negative emotion, more intense negative emotion, and more intense positive emotion than those in the primary (stereotypical) group of psychopaths. In short, they believe the high psychopathy scores of the callous and emotional secondary psychopaths makes them appear unfeeling to the observer, but internally they are in turmoil.

To identify the subgroup of youths with higher levels of internal emotionality, the researchers used comprehensive diagnostic tests (the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits, Impulsivity Conduct Problems and trait Narcissism subscales from the Antisocial Process Screening device, teacher report scores on screening measures, Behavioral Inhibition Scale, Behavioral Activation Scale, Sensation Seeking Scale, Interpersonal Reactivity Index, Revised Child Anxiety and Depression Scale, Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) and sophisticated statistical analysis to differentiate between those with classic psychopathic traits (i.e., low empathy and insensitivity to the pain of others) and those with a “surplus of unregulated emotion”.

This is the first study to identify girls as especially likely to fall within the high internal emotionality group. In fact, there were more females in the secondary psychopathy group than in the primary psychopathy group. The researchers believe that if we offer treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy that offer strategies for managing emotions—we can actually change the incidence of unwanted behaviors. This would save, according to the authors, as much as $3M across the lifetime of a single young adult.

This is an important first effort and we hope to see more intensive work along these lines. What the article says is not to make assumptions and we would agree. Do not make assumptions that all psychopaths have no internal emotionality. On the other hand, do not make assumptions that all psychopaths have (deep down inside) internal emotionality that makes them amenable to treatment.

Remain curious. And remain wary.

Gill AD, & Stickle TR (2015). Affective Differences Between Psychopathy Variants and Genders in Adjudicated Youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology PMID: 25727716

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evil psychopathsCriminal psychopaths are a common topic we write about here. They are notoriously difficult to treat, but are so disturbing they make for fascinating study (and hopefully reading). Some say they are not treatable. They are highly likely to reoffend after incarceration and prison is neither a deterrent nor a punishment for many of them. So to see a research article on an actual treatment for the adult psychopath is noteworthy.

These researchers recruited 14 criminal psychopaths with long and very violent histories who were serving long-term sentences in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations in Germany to take part in a neurofeedback training program. Neurofeedback involves hooking a person up to an EEG machine to monitor brain activity. The brain activity is displayed on a computer screen as a graphical object and the person involved attempts to move the graphical display by controlling their brain activity—and they are rewarded for so doing, as in a video game.

So the psychopaths had 25 training sessions (each about an hour-long) in neurofeedback spread out over about 3 months and afterwards, they demonstrated “improved control” over their brain activity and reported (in questionnaire completion) having “reduced levels of impulsivity and aggression”. Those with the most “improved control” reported larger reductions in their aggression.

The researchers say that they will need to do more research but these criminal psychopaths were able to improve their brain activity control and reported a decrease in the impulsivity and aggression that varied depending on how much they improved in their ability to control brain activity. I guess it’s comforting that they report lower aggression, but I’m not sure I’d accept the word of a psychopath on that. The researchers think it would be good to have outcome measures that were not reliant on self-reports from severely violent psychopaths and we would agree. Very, very strongly…

Let’s consider the life of the severe criminal psychopath serving a “long term sentence in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations”. They must get very bored and this research presents an opportunity to have 25 hours over the course of three months away from their highly restricted routine. The sample is very small (only 14) and while they did improve in their ability to control their brain activity on an EEG monitor, that makes them completely unremarkable. It isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, it simply requires an effort. And they really have little else to do.

It’s an interesting line of inquiry though and we’ll watch for more on this one. At this point though, it is likely interesting but meaningless in the overall question of what we do with the severely violent criminal psychopath.

Konicar L, Veit R, Eisenbarth H, Barth B, Tonin P, Strehl U, & Birbaumer N (2015). Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 25800672

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