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Psychopathic Personality Misunderstood by Potential Jury Members

Jury members misunderstand certain aspects of psychopathic personality, appearing to believe that psychopathy is characterized by psychotic symptoms. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2014, Vol. 38, No. 5, 490-500lhb

“So, What Is a Psychopath?” Venireperson Perceptions, Beliefs, and Attitudes About Psychopathic Personality

Authors

Shannon Toney Smith, Texas A&M University
John F. Edens, Texas A&M University
John Clark, University of Texas-Tyler
Allison Rulseh, Texas A&M University

Abstract

This study surveyed over 400 individuals attending jury duty regarding various perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs they had concerning psychopathic personality (psychopathy). The protocol included (a) prototype ratings of what participants considered to be core features, using the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP) prototype rating scale; (b) questions concerning knowledge and beliefs about psychopathy (e.g., prevalence in society); and (c) attitudinal scales concerning potential associated features (e.g., criminality, rehabilitation potential), etiological underpinnings, and moral judgments and legal sanctions. Consistent with results of earlier studies using expert raters, jury panel members rated most of the 33 individual CAPP items and all 6 CAPP scales as at least moderately prototypical, with Self and Dominance domains obtaining the highest mean ratings. Many participants also strongly endorsed symptoms of psychosis (e.g., delusions) as prototypical of psychopathy. Despite this, they viewed psychopaths as responsible for their own actions, as capable of determining right from wrong, and as generally not “insane.” Our findings indicate that jury panel members view the prototypical psychopath as highly dominant, self-focused, and lacking in remorse and empathy and reinforce the need for expert witnesses to clearly differentiate between psychopathy and psychotic-spectrum disorders.

Keywords

psychopathy, jurors, CAPP, legal decision-making, attitudes

Summary of the Research

The current research surveyed 400 individuals who had been summoned for jury duty regarding their beliefs and perceptions of psychopathy using the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP).

Existing research regarding public perceptions of psychopathy reveal confusion between psychopathy and psychosis/psychotic disorders. The Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) has received widespread support as a means of operationalizing and assessing the features of psychopathy. Earlier research by Edens and colleagues (2013) asked individuals who were summoned for jury duty to read a vignette about a convicted capital murderer, and later rate the extent to which this defendant was psychopathic using PCL-R-like labels and other relevant traits. The results revealed that, “community members associate some nonpathological and even potentially adaptive traits with [psychopathy] that have not been emphasized in the PCL-R model” (p. 491).

The current research study utilized the Comprehensive Assessment of Psychopathic Personality (CAPP), as it “differs from the PCL-R in its more extensive focus on cognitive style and other personality traits argued to be central to psychopathy” (p. 491), thereby encompassing a broader array of characteristics more readily thought of by a wider span of individuals.

Participants in this study were given the opportunity to score CAPP items on a 7-point scale, rating how typical they believed each item to be of psychopathic personality (1 = not typical; 7 = very typical). A set of items were intended to be used as content foils, “that are for the most part inversely related to traits theorists typically have associated with psychopathy” (p. 493). Embedded in this list of items were traits that represented psychotic symptoms, since there is a history of laypersons using psychosis to describe a psychopath. Additional open-ended questions were included to gain a sense of where most individuals get their ideas about psychopaths, who they think of when they hear this term, whether they believe they know a psychopath, and how common this construct is in society.

The five highest rated items, most typical of psychopathy, were Manipulative, Lacks Remorse, Self-Centered, Self-Justifying, and Domineering. A few CAPP items were not viewed as particularly indicative of psychopathy, with mean ratings below four on items such as Lacks Planfulness, Lacks Concentration, and Lacks Perseverance.

“In contrast to the generally high rating of CAPP items, participants rated none of the foil items as highly prototypical, though one (Strange) approached this cutoff. Only one foil (Perfectionistic) was rated as moderately prototypical. Consistent with the relatively high ratings for Strange, however, participants rated the three psychotic spectrum (Delusional Beliefs, Peculiar Behavior, Disturbed Thinking) items as highly prototypical—with Delusional Beliefs actually rated as the third highest item in the entire protocol” (p. 494).

Translating Research into Practice

“Layperson perceptions of psychopathy are an understudied and important area of research because community perceptions and attitudes about mentally disordered offenders in general can impact public policy, and there is both experimental and naturalistic evidence that juror attitudes about whether a defendant is psychopathic influence the outcome of civil and criminal cases” (p. 497).

“Overall, jury panel members tended to view the prototypical psychopath as highly dominant (manipulative, domineering, and deceitful), self-focused (self-centered, entitled, self-justifying, and unique), and lacking in remorse and empathy for others—consistent with many classic models of the core features of psychopathy” (p. 497).

An “important finding [of this research] relates to jury panel members’ high endorsement of psychotic items as prototypically psychopathic. This is generally consistent with previous findings indicating that laypersons might fail to discriminate between psychopathy and psychosis but goes a step further to suggest a more pronounced confusion over specific symptoms (e.g., delusions) rather than simply conflating labels with a root term ‘psycho.’ This suggests a more basic misunderstanding of the disorders at a conceptual level” (p. 497).

“These findings reinforce the necessity for expert witnesses to clearly elucidate during testimony that psychosis and psychopathy are not comparable disorders and that the latter is not associated with being out of touch with reality” (p. 497).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Interestingly, despite participants’ relatively high endorsement of psychotic features as prototypical of psychopathy, they still tended to view psychopaths as responsible for their actions, not insane per se, and not generally in need of hospitalization. This suggests that even if jurors do tend to conflate psychopathy and psychosis, they continue to view these individuals as having a relatively high degree of cognitive or volitional control over their behavior. If anything, [these] results suggest that individuals suffering from genuine psychosis who become involved in the legal system may be unfairly disadvantaged by their disorder being confused with psychopathic traits (e.g., deceitful, self-centered, and remorseless) by the typical juror” (pp. 497-498). It remains crucial for experts to be clear in delineating what psychopathy is and how it might impact and individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

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Special Contributor

ZappalaMarissa - PictureContributions to this post were made by Marissa Zappala.

Marissa is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice located in New York City. She completed her undergraduate work at Penn State University, where she obtained a B.A. Psychology and B.A. Criminology. Her aspirations involve the pursuit of a Clinical Forensic PhD program, and an eventual career in Forensic Psychological Evaluation. To contact Marissa, please e-mail marissa.zappala@gmail.com.

1 thought on “Psychopathic Personality Misunderstood by Potential Jury Members

  1. […] Jury members misunderstand certain aspects of psychopathic personality, appearing to believe that psychopathy is characterized by psychotic symptoms. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Check out the full Translating Practice into Research post from CONCEPT Professional Training, here. […]

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