Monday, June 10, 2013

"Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy"

To address some of the misconceptions I've been seeing recently about sociopaths, a peer-reviewed academic article on public policy implications of sociopaths. From the summary to: "Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy" co-authored by Jennifer Skeem, among others:

Few psychological concepts evoke simultaneously as much fascination and misunderstanding as psychopathic personality, or psychopathy. Typically, individuals with psychopathy are misconceived as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity and as inalterably dangerous. Popular portrayals of “psychopaths” are diverse and conflicting, ranging from uncommonly impulsive and violent criminal offenders to corporate figures who callously and skillfully manuever their way to the highest rungs of the social ladder.

Despite this diversity of perspectives, a single well validated measure of psychopathy, the Psychopathy ChecklistRevised (PCL-R; Hare, 1991; 2003), has come to dominate clinical and legal practice over recent years. The items of the PCL-R cover two basic content domains—an interpersonalaffective domain that encompasses core traits such as callousness and manipulativeness and an antisocial domain that entails disinhibition and chronic antisocial behavior. In most Western countries, the PCL-R and its derivatives are routinely applied to inform legal decisions about criminal offenders that hinge upon issues of dangerousness and treatability. In fact, clinicians in many cases choose the PCL-R over other, purpose-built risk-assessment tools to inform their opinions about what sentence offenders should receive, whether they should be indefinitely incarcerated as a “dangerous offender” or “sexually violent predator,” or whether they should be transferred from juvenile to adult court.
Despite the predominance of the PCL-R measurement model in recent years, vigorous scientific debates have continued regarding what psychopathy is and what it is not. Should adaptive, positive-adjustment features (on one hand) and criminal and antisocial behaviors (on the other) be considered essential features of the construct? Are anxious and emotionally reactive people that are identified as psychopaths by the PCL-R and other measures truly psychopathic? More fundamentally, is psychopathy a unitary entity (i.e., a global syndrome with a discrete underlying cause), or is it rather a configuration of several distinguishable, but intersecting trait dimensions? 

Although these and other controversies remain unresolved, theory and research on the PCL-R and alternative measures have begun to clarify the scope and boundaries of the psychopathy construct. In the current comprehensive review, we provide an integrative descriptive framework—the triarchic model—to help the reader make sense of differing conceptualizations. The essence of this model is that alternative perspectives on psychopathy emphasize, to varying degrees, three distinct observable (phenotypic) characteristics: boldness (or fearless dominance), meanness, and disinhibition. The triarchic framework is helpful for clarifying and reconciling seemingly disparate historical conceptions, modern operationalizations, and contemporary research programs on psychopathy.

In many cases, the findings we review converge to challenge common assumptions that underpin modern applications of psychopathy measures and to call for cautions in their use. For example, contemporary measures of psychopathy, including the PCL-R, appear to evidence no special powers in predicting violence or other crime. Instead, they are about as predictive as purpose-built violence-risk-assessment tools, perhaps because they assess many of the same risk factors as those broader-band tools. Specifically, the PCL-R and other psychopathy measures derive most of their predictive utility from their “Factor 2” assessment of antisocial and disinhibitory tendencies; the “Factor 1” component of such measures, reflecting interpersonal and affective features more specific to psychopathy, play at best a small predictive role. Similarly, current measures of psychopathy do not appear to moderate the effects of treatment on violent and other criminal behavior. That is, an increasing number of studies suggest that psychopathic individuals are not uniquely “hopeless” cases who should be disqualified from treatment, but instead are general “high-risk” cases who need to be targeted for intensive treatment to maximize public safety.

Misunderstandings about the criminal propensities and treatability of individuals achieving high scores on measures like the PCL-R have been perpetuated by professionals who interpret such high scores in a stereotypic manner, without considering nuances or issues of heterogeneity. A key message of our review is that classical psychopathy, whether measured by the PCL-R or other measures, is not monolithic; instead, it represents a constellation of multiple traits that may include, in varying degrees, the phenotypic domains of boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. Measures such as the PCL-R that do not directly assess features of low anxiety, fearlessness, or boldness more broadly tend to identify heterogeneous subgroups of individuals as psychopathic. As a consequence, efforts to apply one-size-fits-all public policies to psychopathic individuals may be doomed to failure. In aggregrate, these conclusions may help to shed light on what psychopathy is, and what it is not, and to guide policy interventions directed toward improved public health and public safety.


  1. So much for my wish of a blog post entitled "celebrities I think are sociopaths". :(

    1. Narcissists most likely.

      My picks: Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie

    2. Bono, Bill Clinton narcs?

    3. I knew someone would say Angelina. Typical. I disagree completely. I did think of Tom Cruise though. Maybe. Maybe Robert Downey Jr. But he might just be the definition of a narcissist.

    4. Why do with disagree on Angelina? Would have thought it pretty obvious.

    5. No offense, but you must be female ^^^
      I think its typical of women to say her because women are still bent out of shape over her and Brad Pitt. Let me guess, you're also Team Jen....

      I don't think its obvious. I think she was reckless at a time in her life but she seems to be pretty normal now. Obviously I don't know her and I don't know what's in her head but she doesn't even seem like a narc to me. She just seems maybe jaded from issues with her mom and dad's divorce and his cheating. She might just be eccentric. I happen to like her and admire her. Sociopath or not she puts a lot of time into service for others. That's attractive.

      I've thought Michelle Rodriguez might be a SP.....

    6. Oh for Pete's sake, Team Jen, what are you 10? I couldn't care less about her and Brad Pitt, that's just media-manufactured BS to sell their rags.

      No, it's an observation based on her promiscuity (way back at least), attention seeking (did you see leg-gate, I'm still cringing for her), eating disorder etc. Of course I could be wrong, it's just speculation.

      Here's a book on Bono's power grabbing in the guise of philanthropy if anyone is interested:

    7. No. I'm 12.

      Promiscuity, leg gate, eating disorder.

      Lots of people are promiscuous and aren't sociopaths. Take me for example. ;) Leg gate means she wants attention, yes. So did every other moron who walked the red carpet. I didn't know eating disorders meant sociopathy. I guess the chick from The Carpenters was a sociopath. :/

      Now Bono on the other hand....

      That sounds more like it.

  2. "The items of the PCL-R cover two basic content domains—an interpersonalaffective domain that encompasses core traits such as callousness and manipulativeness and an antisocial domain that entails disinhibition and chronic antisocial behavior...Specifically, the PCL-R and other psychopathy measures derive most of their predictive utility from their “Factor 2” assessment of antisocial and disinhibitory tendencies; the “Factor 1” component of such measures, reflecting interpersonal and affective features more specific to psychopathy, play at best a small predictive role."

    I score very high on the Factor 1 component of the PCL-R, which encompasses core psychopathic traits, though I score very low on the Factor 2 component. I don't run around ruining people or breaking hearts, but I am very polite in conversation, try to crack jokes, and I always try to make people around me feel comfortable. Underneath the affable facade, I am carefully scrutinizing every aspect of the conversation. I never try to come out ahead by putting anyone down. I will perform altruistic actions such as giving people without cars a ride home, but after I drop them off I estimate the value of my altruism and am pleased with the positive image it gives me.

    Nobody, not even empaths, are pro-social all the time. When smiles and jokes fail to deliver, I take what I need in a cold and callous manner. It's like making a withdrawal from a social bank account. I make sure to have a positive balance with everyone, and I'm not a big spender, but unspent social resources decay, not accrue, over time.

    I am not dangerous. By all appearances, I follow the same rules as everyone else. The only difference is that I'm playing a game, and most other people are living one.

    1. “Nobody, not even empaths, are pro-social all the time.”
      The division of the world in sociopaths and empaths can be useful but it can also lead to confusion because there is not such a division in reality. Sociopath is just a term given in order to help mutual understanding of experts. If a person conduct follows a concrete pattern, they are identified as sociopaths not the other way round. So it is not that sociopaths have antisocial behavior (whether legally punishable or that can be hidden in a more private sphere) and some other psychological traits, is that if someone shows antisocial behavior and other psychological traits, they are recognized as “sociopaths”.

      Now, forget the sociopath debate; I would like to ask you, what is in your opinion an “evil person”? How would you describe it? If it is not easy to make a succinct definition for you, wouldn’t you make a list of actions that you consider characteristic of an “evil person” in order to describe it? What would be in that list?

      I think the term sociopath describes in a very politically correct way what in other times the world called an evil person, but we have become more structured, more diplomatic and more scientific. Which means that possibly one day there is going to be an objective and validated measures were sociopaths will score higher. We will not call it “evilness” and we will fight it in more modern ways, like finding something comparable to chemical castration.

    2. "I will perform altruistic actions such as giving people without cars a ride home, but after I drop them off I estimate the value of my altruism and am pleased with the positive image it gives me."

      Actually they're the ones doing you - and your future children - a favor, going without a car. Think of your carbon footprint next time you start to feel smug.

    3. Look M.E., your blog is attracting hippies!

    4. shut up andy, you pretentious douche.

    5. Did a hippie just call me a pretentious douche? Sit down, my friend, and let me help you to understand the meaning of irony.

    6. By all appearances, I follow the same rules as everyone else. The only difference is that I'm playing a game, and most other people are living one.

      I couldn’t have said it better myself. That difference is decisive.

    7. You are faking a life, others are living one.

    8. ^Get with the program random anonymi! Naivety went out in the 50s.

      All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players...

    9. I am going to give my opinion because I appreciate all ME has done for me, personally, via this blog.

      I think all was going well with the book until she went on Dr Phil because Dr Phil could not understand that ME really did want to contribute something to the field of Psychology and had a unique and valuable contribution.

      Dr Phil tried to demean her. With that, ME lost much of Dr Phil's audience as they are groupies and sheeple. That resulted in the lower stars on Amazon.

      However, where I think ME is wrong is expecting people to accept sociopaths as a normal variant. Many sociopaths will try to hurt you, so there is a natural guard which is up and this guard is not a bad thing.

    10. @ Jessi

      "Now, forget the sociopath debate; I would like to ask you, what is in your opinion an “evil person”? How would you describe it? If it is not easy to make a succinct definition for you, wouldn’t you make a list of actions that you consider characteristic of an “evil person” in order to describe it? What would be in that list? "

      Evil is such a subjective term, but I'll give it a shot.

      An evil person follows the antithesis of the golden rule, which of course is 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' I'll call it the iron rule.

      Visit upon others horrors you would rather die than experience.

      A person who embodies that rule and lives by it could nearly be called objectively evil.

  3. Andy- You're a decent human being, fully worthy of being treated with respect, who is committed to acting with foresight and wisdom in an often capricious world.

    1. Right back at you, except in your case you probably don't have strong psychopathic tendencies :P

    2. I mostly reserve my homicidal tendencies for anyone who'd willfully cause harm to my kids. If that happens, all bets are off.

    3. and what if one of your kids happends to be a psychopath?

    4. I suppose I'd lock them in a cage and feed them only beef jerky and water. (KIDDING)

      A good question, Jessi. The child development researcher Bruno Bettleheim stated that if a child has at least one person in their life who is absolutely crazy about them, they generally turn out ok. I can't control genetics and I can't control the world, but I make it my life's work to make a safe home for my family where there is both (not physical) discipline and unconditional love. I have been lucky enough to have 4 kids who do not have conduct disorder- so I recognize that I might feel very differently about child rearing if I was scared that I might be raising a menace to society.

    5. Did you read the NYT article I recommended you?

    6. not only did I read it- I've quoted that same article in a column I wrote last year. That particular article had a lot to do with igniting my interest in this subject area. It gave me chills- and yet- it also made me think carefully about the different factors (beyond genetics) that create the 'perfect storm' of full blown antisocial personality disorder.

      In today's posting the author asks "More fundamentally, is psychopathy a unitary entity (i.e., a global syndrome with a discrete underlying cause), or is it rather a configuration of several distinguishable, but intersecting trait dimensions? "

      I tend to think that malignant personalities are formed through the second option, and that is why I feel it's so important to consider intervening early with vulnerable children. I see it like this: the genetics provide the psychopathic wiring, but it is environmental influences that flip the switch.

    7. I don't believe that any environment can dramatically affect the intrinsic nature of an individual.

      But, going back to the article, what are your guesses about that particular kid?

    8. With a child like that, I am not sure his interests are served best by being in a home environment with a consistently antagonistic relationship with the mother. Some children would be devastated by a separation from a primary attachment figure, but given the level of antagonism (and danger to his brother in particular), this strikes me as a bad environment. The father seems to be a slightly positive influence, and if he were the primary caregiver I think he home might be a better fit.
      I agree that this child is "trouble". I believe that he needs to be highly supervised, encouraged to channel aggression/need for stimulation into activities that are rewarding to him that do not allow for the abuse of other children. I mentioned an "explorer program"- in an ideal world perhaps this child could select a career path like pilot, soldier, surgeon, or funeral home director (whatever he seemed most fascinated by) and then he would spend hours in flight simulators, doing surgical simulations, military training, or even assisting with the processing of human remains. He would be rewarded by feeling achievement of a skill, not in being forced to cooperate with others.

    9. His environment was completely normal, far from your idea of abuse. He was the abuser. And he also went unsuccessfully to a treatment program. The fact that a kid gets easily bored doesn’t mean that there is an interesting activity for him. Actually, if sociopaths would like the reward of achieving a skill they would not cheat, because that would be against their goal.

    10. As a mother, I had a different take on the situation. The mother was exhausted and locked into an unfruitful power struggle with her son. It was impossible for her to dial back her own emotions to the point she could give the best care. Had she been less at the end of her rope, she could've interacted more constructively with her son. It's a negative feedback loop, and one I am not blaming the mother for. I am recognizing the extraordinary demands on her.
      Notice I did not suggest a residential camp like the one in the article. That camp put a bunch of conduct disordered kids together and worked on social skills. What a nightmare- they feed off of each other. What might work better is to limit peer contact so they can't be bullies, and to teach them in a non humiliating fashion to get along with older peers who do not have sociopath wiring. Their age can help protect them. In the meantime, focus the energy and boredom on learning a skill.

    11. Machavellianempath, about your 6:13 entry, I think that is just what my mother did to me back then, and I turned out ok for society until now, but I'm not so sure if the conditioning turned out good for me.

      I wonder if you would mess with your child's mind for the sake of society knowing that it will result in damage.

    12. I'm not sure what you mean, Leilvie- I certainly am not advocating "messing with a kids mind" for the theoretical greater good of society. I am referencing a particular case study where a burnt out and resentful mother who feared for the safety of younger children was growing increasingly panicked at being the primary caregiver to a sociopathic son she was locked in a power struggle with. I'm not advocating abandonment- or violation of the child through some sort of control based conditioning program. What I am advocating for is the burnt out caregivers of vulnerable kids finding more support (I would also suggest that parents of other special needs categories have this option as well, but feel that parents of sociopaths should be first in line because of utilitarian reasoning- to benefit the greeter good)
      It's possible that I misunderstand you and that you also have the same negative response I do to an angry, stressed out mom getting into a power struggle with a kid who doesn't respond well to that. But I am not sure what you mean. What happened to you?

    13. I didn't mean to sound hostile, sorry if you got it that way. You sound just a little bit like my mother and I was curious. And I really don't know what you and Jessi are talking about, I haven't read the article.

      What struck me about your 6:13 entry was "if a child has at least one person in their life who is absolutely crazy about them, they generally turn out ok". That describes my mother.

      The concept of unconditional love as therapy for the abnormal child kind of worked on me, somewhat, even when I think it was not applied consciously. In the end I feel I was conditioned to behave, through my desire to please her. I believe that she programed a kind of moral compass in my mind that works even now, not with my physical mother anymore, but with a sort of virtual mother that was injected in my mind.

      The problems arise when this program conflicts with this primal impulses of mine. But then again, maybe it is better this way. Who knows what would have been of me otherwise.

    14. Bruno Bettlelheim Is a pathological liar who believed Autistics were caused by their mothers.

      "Refrigerator Mothers" he called them.

    15. Not sure that Bettleheim was a pathological liar. I think that the field of child development was incredibly primitive and he helped move it forward.
      As far as "refrigerator mothers" goes- he's hardly the only psychologist to blame the mother. What about Freud?
      Bettelheim was one of the first voices to say that the way we treat small people has a long term impact on the people they become as adults.

    16. @Leilivie-
      I love a good debate- be as hostile as you want! When someone calls you out they are doing you a favor because they are exposing the weaknesses in your point of view. Your comment helps me understand that I should be more clear in my argument. My basic point is that when young potential sociopaths get locked into power struggles with isolated caregivers, the situation is not a good one. A "normal" home environment that involves resolving to lock a child in an enclosed room so you can sleep in peace has passed the point of being rational. I think the mother/child bond is most important in the first six years of life. After that, it's more a question of "does the child's environment frustrate or enhance the potential of a child?" The child in the article was clearly exasperated because something in that environment was not working for him. Clinging to a sentimental idea that kids are always best with biological parents is lunacy, in my mind.
      If I had stayed with my ASPD ex (I prefer that terminology to psychopathic) - then even as a loving mom I would not be able to provide a stable environment for my kids. That's why I think our culture on the whole would do well to consider the importance of making sure young sociopaths (and all kids, for that matter) wind up in environments that do not encourage maladaptive behaviors that will likely persist beyond the time frame the child is in that environment.

    17. @ for the record when I say ex I mean ex boyfriend, not ex husband. My ex husband is a good guy who provides well for his kids.

    18. Machavellianempath, Jessi, any of you could please provide the URL for the article you are talking about?

    19. @ Leilivie

  4. Has anyone else HAD to give their phone number to keep their Google account?

    1. Yes, it said there was suspicious activity.

    2. Me, too. What did you do, Andy? Did you give your phone number?

    3. Yes, and Google texted me a code. It was legitimate and happened just yesterday.

    4. Me, too but how do you know it was legitimate?

    5. It happened back in February with a different account. My personal e-mail (that I actually use) is different from my SW e-mail account, so I switch back and forth a lot. If I ever posted accidentally from my personal account, everybody would know my name :P

      I think Google gets pissed that I switch back and forth so much.

      Of course, it's possible that there's a serial killer who stalks SW and uploads viruses into everybody's computers so he can trick people into giving him phone numbers, which he can then use to track us down and murder us.

      I think it's pretty much a 50/50 chance between Google and crazy serial killer.

    6. or it could be a Nigerian scam. I lost an email address (locked out forever) that had 10 years of my life in sent emails on it last spring as part of a scam targeting hotmail/outlook accounts.
      I'd be more concerned about my banking info and credit than some Dexter-esque villain.

  5. Dear M.E.,
    I just finished reading your book. It was an enjoyable read. Very well
    written and informative but, I try as I might, I just don't see you as a
    "classical" sociopath. You've got too much self introspection and discilpine.
    You CAN tone down on the wild behaviour when you have reason to.
    Ted Bundy was a REAL sociopath. He had absolutely no insight into why he
    killed, (He wouldn't assume ownership of his crimes until the very end.)
    And he blaimed the whole thing on porongraphy.
    You, on the other hand can pratace restraint. You said in your book that
    you work with your family. Sociopaths have no compunction against either
    hurting or even killing thier family members. I think it is more likely
    that you are either a narcasist or an "Almost Psychopath" to quote the
    title from a book I read. The difference between a real sociopath and
    a person like you, is that a real sociopath would have found a way to
    kill that annoying guard at the airport wearas you could pitcher your-
    self killing him.
    I think that psychological labeling is a bunch of "hoey" anyway. There
    is NO consensis on what a particular individual is anyway.
    Take Casey Anthony. Was she Psychopath, sociopath, naracist, histrionic
    boaderline or perfectly normal? Depends on which "expert" you ask.
    Why, I can tell you more about a person if you give me the percise time
    and location of thier birth and the name on thier birth certificate then
    anything that a "mental health professional" could. I've "pegged" Casey
    eight ways to Sunday using: Western and Oriental Astrology, Chaldean
    numerology, Chinese facereading, the Enneagram, graphology and many others. Psychologists who are bound by thier "scientific" methods could
    never do that. All they can do is bicker and babble on H.L.N.
    There's plenty of information through out the internet using the above
    methods on Casey and Jodi. Just read the describtion of the Fire Tiger
    personality in "The New Chinese Astrology" by Suzane White or a book
    called "Personality Types" by John Riso. If you want to know how a car
    works you study it. If you want to know how a person works, you study
    them. Read what Riso says about the number 7 personaliy and tell me that's not Casey. Look what he says about number 3, and tell me that's
    not Jodi.

    1. Sociopaths do consider the consequences of their crimes in their lives and are not that deluded as to think they will not be caught. Ted Bundy began his criminal life before the advent of DNA testing.

  6. I think the key description here is "calculating with diminished affect".
    I often find myself baffled at most peoples' reactions to occurrences which have an extreme clarity to my judgement, yet seem inconceivably complicated to others, emotional wise.
    I can play a self serving altruist without much harm to the general society, but that doesn't mean I should play by their rule book.
    Unsurprisingly every sentence I wrote started with "I".

    1. "unsurprisingly every sentence I wrote started with "I"."

      Why is that bad when most of us here (I think) like to compare other's views and feelings with their own ?

      Me, in real life, I cannot stand when I do the "I" thing, but I don't notice people flinching. I am the only one who tells me it is selfish way to think. I am the one who says it is half, idk bragging. But is it??

      DO you think you are braggart? What do you think or feel after you see you do the "I" thing?

      DO you have a need to connect with people or do you say I I I just to hear yourself talk? Because I do not believe that you do. I believe you reaching out for whatever reason. I am projecting of course . WHo cares? I want to know all about you, Venom, You enthrall me

  7. Replies
    1. Theme for Ellicit ( one of Theme's all time favorite Regulars)

      * PS I hope you come back

  8. Coincidences are sometimes a bit startling.

    Just when I stumble upon this interesting blog and I'm waiting for the book to arrive, my sister gives me Foucault's "Les Anormaux. Cours au collège de France 1974 - 1975" for my birthday. You can find a review in english at

    In this book, really a transcription of Foucault's lectures at the Collège de France during the period, he analizes how the medico-legal system gives birth to the figure of the abnormal individual, different from the criminal and from the mentally ill, and how the system's focus with them is not to punish or cure, but to normalize.

    The abnormals are not judged for their eventual crimes, but for their perceived social dangerousness, even when no crime has been commited.

    All this attempts to invent disorder names, or even call it disorders, looks to me as just an attempt to normalize the different. It is the fear of the abnormal.

    1. Prevention against the harmful, abnormal or not.

  9. Whazzup cocksuckers !!!!!!!!!!?????!

  10. wtf is happening here???????

    1. It's cock time, that's wtf is happening here !!!!!!!!

  11. I will post my question here in case someone is willing to provide a response that can help a legal case going to trial on Monday June 17th.
    Does anyone have input or the ability to point me to research regarding decisions regarding child custody when both parents are sociopaths?
    A six year old boy has two sociopathic parents. One parent is high functioning sociopath and the other is low functioning. Should the degree of sociopathy be considered when deciding who gets custody of the child when the goal is the best quality of life for the child?
    I don't know what issues are relevant to weigh in this matter.
    If, for example, the child is a sociopath, would being raised by a low functioning sociopath provide him with the lowest long term quality of life because he would likely be able to dominate that parent?
    Or, would being raised by a high functioning sociopath be more damaging because the child would be dominated by that parent's sociopathy?
    Or is this perception of dominance ("room to grow") irrelevant in the face of other more important considerations regarding sociopathic parenting styles?

    Also, would the choice of "best parent" change if child is not a sociopath?
    We know and are weighing the pros and cons of other parenting factors in play which are not related to sociopathy. We just don't know if or how relative levesl of sociopathy might influence parenting.
    Any input would be greatly appreciated.

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