A Faster Way to Help Determine Who’s Psychopathic

New research provides the quickest questionnaire ever for spotting a psychopath.

Posted Feb 18, 2017

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

The possible advantages of being able to detect a psychopath quickly and reliably should be obvious. People who are actual psychopaths, or are simply high in the personality trait of psychopathy, tend to manipulate you and will almost always lie to you. It’s best to know how to avoid being pulled into that web of deceit and exploitation. Toward that end, researchers and clinicians have developed a number of psychopathy scales. The most reliable and valid of these, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), requires extensive training and takes time to conduct. Shorter self-report scales exist, but they, too, have limitations, according to Purdue University’s Katherine Collison and colleagues (2016). Further, according to Collison et al., criminologists regard measures of psychopathy as flawed. Therefore, although psychopathy is clearly related to criminal behavior, those in the business of studying criminals have not relied on these scales. This situation prompted the Purdue University researcher and her team to develop a new “super-short” measure of psychopathy that wouldn’t be plagued by the problems of existing measures.

As background, one of the chief problems of existing psychopathy scales, such as the Hare PCL-R, is that they include antisocial behavior as a criterion of psychopathy. This means that if you’re using the PCL-R to predict criminal behavior, you’ve got a tautological problem — you're using the measure to predict its very own criterion. Another feature of the concept of psychopathy that creates problems for criminologists is the “potentially pejorative connotation of the term ‘psychopath,’ a label which some criminologists argue could lead to harmful stigmatization” (p. 144).

Jon Ronson’s 2011 book The Psychopath Test attempted to destigmatize, to a certain extent, the label of psychopath (or, technically, people high in the trait of psychopathy). However, it’s a term that still gets flung around, both in the popular press and in professional literature. To be able to determine who, truly, is high on psychopathic tendencies would allow for more accurate judgments to be made about individuals who may or may not have a criminal record.

Collison and her co-authors chose, as their approach to developing a new psychopathy scale, to build from existing, well-regarded, and validated general personality trait inventories. They believed that this fresh approach would allow the measurement of psychopathy to be grounded in personality theory more generally, rather than to be derived from current scales that include antisocial behavior in their definition of psychopathy. The Collison et al. team chose, as their starting point, the NEO-PI-R measure of Five Factor Model (FFM) traits. The FFM proposes that there are five basic traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Yes, these spell out “OCEAN.”) Each of these factors contains sub-constructs or “facets,” and within the facets are 18 items that the experts judged to be linked to psychopathy.

In FFM terms, psychopathy is composed of a combination of low agreeableness and conscientiousness, higher anger and low anxiety (from neuroticism), high assertiveness and sensation-seeking and low warmth (from extraversion). Lynam et al. (2011) tinkered with the NEO-PI-R items to capture more disordered responders, forming another scale known as the Elemental Psychopathy Assessment (EPA).

The EPA contains a total of 178 items, however—far more than is practical for administering as part of a larger set of tests that might be used in diagnosing the highly psychopathic. Even its short form (Lynam et al., 2013) it contains 72 items, still too long for use in applied settings. The purpose of the Collison and collaborators' study was to test the validity of an 18-item scale specifically aimed at assessing the items most indicative of psychopathy. To do so, the authors also used measures known to be associated with psychopathy, comparing the EPA short form (EPA-SF) with the EPA “super” short form (EPA-SSF). These measures included other well-established instruments of psychopathy, a version of the NEO-PI-R, and a self-report measure of criminal and related behaviors (e.g., antisocial behavior, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and gambling).

The overall 18-item score related almost as well to external criteria of antisocial behavior as the longer, 72-item version, leading the authors to conclude that the 18-item scale was a suitable swap-out for the lengthier version.

With this in mind, let’s now turn to the super-short psychopathy scale to see what the items are. In the EPA-SSF, each item is rated on a 1-5 scale (disagree strongly to agree strongly):

  1. I deserve special treatment.
  2. I care a lot about my relationships with others (reversed).
  3. Feeling sorry for others is a sign of weakness.
  4. When someone does something nice for me, I wonder what they want from me.
  5. People would say I am a reliable and dependable person (reversed).
  6. I quit things pretty easily.
  7. I could make a living as a con artist.
  8. I have more important things to worry about than other people’s feelings.
  9. My temper has gotten me into trouble.
  10. I am known as a bit of a rebel.
  11. “Act first, think later” describes me well.
  12. I like doing things that are risky or dangerous.
  13. When I’m upset, I will do things I later regret.
  14. I am a bit of a worrier (reversed).
  15. I’m not the type to get depressed about the things I’ve done wrong.
  16. I remain cool, calm, and collected when things get stressful.
  17. I often emerge as the leader in a group.
  18. I’m pretty comfortable when meeting new people.

The authors unfortunately do not provide the statistics that would make it possible to rate your own (or someone else’s) responses in comparison to the average. However, the items do cluster into useful subscales, with items 1-8 measuring the factor of antagonism; 9-13 measuring disinhibition; and 14-18 providing a measure of emotional stability. The intriguing feature of that last factor is that emotional stability reflects some adaptive personality features, such as not being overly anxious, being content with oneself, cool under stress, able to assume leadership, and possessing a sense of self-assuredness. This is because, according to recent thinking in psychopathy, “fearless dominance” is indeed a potentially adaptive quality shown by people who happen, also, to be high in psychopathy.

Being able to hone in on the psychopathic traits of the people in your life can be perhaps the most adaptive message you can take from the Collison et al. study. Not everyone who gets high score on this measure will necessarily be a psychopath, but if you see many of these tendencies emerge in an individual you are close to or are getting to know, they might be very helpful warning signs. 

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017

References

Collison, K. L., Miller, J. D., Gaughan, E. T., Widiger, T. A., & Lynam, D. R. (2016). Development and validation of the super-short form of the Elemental Psychopathy Assessment. Journal of Criminal Justice, 47143-150. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2016.09.002

Lynam, D. R., Gaughan, E. T., Miller, J. D., Miller, D. J., Mullins-Sweatt, S., & Widiger, T. A. (2011). Assessing the basic traits associated with psychopathy: Development and validation of the Elemental Psychopathy Assessment. Psychological Assessment, 23(1), 108-124. doi:10.1037/a0021146\\\

Lynam, D. R., Sherman, E. D., Samuel, D., Miller, J. D., Few, L. R., & Widiger, T. A. (2013). Development of a short form of the Elemental Psychopathy Assessment. Assessment, 20(6), 659-669. doi:10.1177/1073191113502072