June 30, 2010

Response bias: Faith or science?

Most extensively studied topic in applied psychological measurement

After one hundred years and thousands of research studies, perhaps we are no closer than ever to understanding how response bias -- a test-taker's overly positive or negative self-presentation -- affects psychological testing. Perhaps what we think we know -– especially in the forensic context -– is mostly based on faith and speculation, with little real-life evidence.

That is the sure-to-be controversial conclusion of a landmark analysis by Robert E. McGrath of Fairleigh Dickinson University, an expert on test measurement issues, and colleagues. The dryly titled "Evidence for response bias as a source of error variance in applied assessment," published in Psychological Bulletin, issues a challenge to those who believe the validity of testing bias indicators has been established, especially in the forensic arena.

The authors conducted an exhaustive literature review, sifting through about 4,000 potential studies, in search of research on the real-world validity of measures of test response bias. They sought studies that examined whether response bias indicators actually did what we think they do -- suppress or moderate scores on the substantive tests being administered. They searched high and low across five testing contexts -- personality assessment, workplace testing, emotional disorders, disability evaluations, and forensic settings. Surprisingly, out of the initial mountain of candidate research, they found only 41 such applied studies.

Of relevance here, not a single study could be found that tested the validity of response bias indicators in real-world child custody or criminal court proceedings. Indeed, only one study specifically targeting a forensic population met inclusion criteria. That was a 2006 study by John Edens and Mark Ruiz in Psychological Assessment looking at the relationship between institutional misconduct and defensive responding on test validity scales.

Does the "Response Bias Hypothesis" hold water?

The authors tested what they labeled the response bias hypothesis, namely, the presumption that using a valid measure of response bias enhances the predictive accuracy of a valid substantive indicator (think of the K correction on the MMPI personality test). Across all five contexts, "the evidence was simply insufficient" to support that widely accepted belief.

McGrath and colleagues theorize that biased responding may be a more complex and subtle phenomenon than most measures are capable of gauging. This might explain why the procedure used in typical quick-and-dirty research studies -- round up a bunch of college kids and tell them to either fake or deny impairment in exchange for psych 101 credits -- doesn't translate into the real world, where more subtle factors such as religiosity or type of job application can affect response styles.

It is also possible, they say, that clinical lore has wildly exaggerated base rates of dishonest responding, which may be rarer than commonly believed. They cite evidence calling into question clinicians' widespread beliefs that both chronic pain patients and veterans seeking disability for posttraumatic stress disorder are highly inclined toward symptom exaggeration.

Unless and until measures of response bias are proven to work in applied settings, using them is problematic, the authors assert. In particular, courts may frown upon use of such instruments due to their apparent bias against members of racial and cultural minorities. For example, use of response bias indicators has been found to disproportionately eliminate otherwise qualified minority candidates from job consideration, due to their higher scores on positive impression management. (Such a finding is not surprising, given Claude Steele's work on the pervasive effects of stereotype threat.)

"What is troubling about the failure to find consistent support for bias indicators is the extent to which they are regularly used in high-stakes circumstances, such as employee selection or hearings to evaluate competence to stand trial and sanity," the authors conclude. "The research implications of this review are straightforward: Proponents of the evaluation of bias in applied settings have some obligation to demonstrate that their methods are justified, using optimal statistical techniques for that purpose…. [R]egardless of all the journal space devoted to the discussion of response bias, the case remains open whether bias indicators are of sufficient utility to justify their use in applied settings to detect misrepresentation."

This is a must-read article that challenges dominant beliefs and practices in forensic psychological assessment.

June 29, 2010

Tweet, tweet!

I was checking out the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog series on "the bloggers behind the blogs." The series features Vaughan Bell, the man behind the Mind Hacks blog that I admire, and Jesse Bering, whose Scientific American blog Bering in Mind is always fascinating. I noticed that all of these bloggers report that they now "tweet" as well. Not to be left behind, I decided to sign up, too. So now I'm on Twitter. Athough, like Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice, I worry about de-evolution -- "Orwell's nightmare on steroids." Also, I confess that I don't know what I'm doing.

APA 2010: Exciting forensic programming

I was vacillating about whether to attend the upcoming American Psychological Association convention in San Diego, but browsing through the schedule sold me. The American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41) is sponsoring almost two dozen top-notch sessions featuring timely topics and appearances by many forensic psychology luminaries. Especially timely is the focus on juvenile justice issues. Here's a sampling of the great offerings:

Juvenile justice track
  • "Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders: Current Legal, Developmental, and Psychological Issues" features Thomas Grisso, Bryan Stevenson, Barry Feld, and Chrisopher Slobogin, dissecting the recent Sullivan and Graham cases and discussing the role of forensic examiners.
  • Judicial Panel on Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality, hosted by forensic psychology scholar Richard Wiener, features three juvenile court judges and an attorney from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
  • "The Construct of Empathy in the Treatment of Adolescents in the Juvenile Justice System," moderated by Lois Condie of Harvard Medical School, will include a presentation by forensic psychologist and professor Frank DiCataldo, whose outstanding book The Perversion of Youth I reviewed here.
Other Div. 41 hot picks
  • "Forensic Assessment": Scholars Daniel Murrie, Richard Rogers, and others will discuss the reliability of forensic evaluations in sanity evaluations, misassumptions regarding Miranda waivers, evaluating the competence of violence risk assessors, and other timely forensic assessment issues.
  • "Mental Health Courts -- The MacArthur Research" features stalwarts John Monahan, Hank Steadman, and others.
  • "Long-Term Solitary Confinement's Impact on Psychological Well-Being -- The Colorado Study" looks to be an especially powerful panel including presentations by Stuart Grassian, an early scholar of segregation psychosis, AP-LS fellow Joel Dvoskin, and Jamie Fellner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch, talking about "Supermax Confinement and the Mind."
  • "Juror Decision Making": Margaret Bull Kovera and other scholars will present recent empirical findings in jury research.
  • "Social Cognition in Court -- Understanding Laypersons' Interrogation Schemas and Prototypes" features false confession scholars Saul Kassin, Solomon M. Fulero, and others.
Early registration ends Wednesday (after which the price goes up), so register now if you plan to attend. Now that you know which panels I am attending, I hope to see many of y'all down in sunny San Diego in just a couple of months.

June 28, 2010

How sex offender registries endanger kids

"Shred Your Sex Offender Map"
-- Forbes.com

That's the advice of Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free-Range Kids and founder of the movement with the same name. Writing in her "Oddly Enough" column at Forbes, she gives three reasons why "the sex offender registry is making our kids LESS safe":
Recently I consulted my local Serial Killer Registry and found out I'm living next door to a guy who killed three lunchroom ladies when they refused to give him seconds on the chili!

Oh please. I'm kidding. There's no registry of murderers out there. There's no armed robber registry either. Not even one for drunk drivers. No, the only easily available registry for all Americans to consult is the Sex Offender Registry. Because ex-sex offenders are so much scarier than murderers?

No, the reason there's now a sex offender registry in every state ... is that sex offenders have become the focus of intense parental fear. Who could blame us moms and dads, when we hear about kiddie kidnappings 24/7 on the news? The problem is not with nervous parents. The problem is with the registries. Turns out, they're worse than useless.

They are making our kids LESS safe. How? Well, there are three big problems with the registry.
Skenazy's column, explaining the three essential problems, continues HERE.

June 25, 2010

Oodles of free criminology articles

Sage journals wants you … and they are offering a wide array of taste treats from more than a dozen different journals, in the hopes of luring you in. Just click on any of the below links to download the free article(s) of your choice:

Journal: Youth Justice
Criminalizing Sociability through Anti-social Behaviour Legislation: Dispersal Powers, Young People and the Police

Journal: Sex Abuse
Psychological Profiles of Internet Sexual Offenders: Comparisons With Contact Sexual Offenders

Journal: Police Quarterly
The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior

Journal: European Journal of Criminology
Girls, gangs and violence: Assessing the evidence

Journal: Punishment Society
The relevance of inmate race/ethnicity versus population composition for understanding prison rule violations

Journal: Homicide Studies
A Multidimensional Analysis of Criminal Specialization Among Single-Victim and Serial Homicide Offenders

Journal: Feminist Criminology

Journal: Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
Internet Development, Censorship, and Cyber Crimes in China

Journal: Trauma Violence and Abuse
Understanding Human Trafficking in the United States

Journal: Criminal Justice and Behavior
Violent Video Games and Aggression: Causal Relationship or Byproduct of Family Violence and Intrinsic Violence Motivation?

Journal: Crime Delinquency
Opportunities, Rational Choice, and Self-Control: On the Interaction of Person and Situation in a General Theory of Crime

Journal: Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
Youthful Suicide and Social Support: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Suicide-Related Behav
ior and Attitudes Within a National Sample of US Adolescents

Thanks to Jarrod Steffan, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Wichita, Kansas who specializes in criminal forensic psychology, for sharing this special offer with us.

June 24, 2010

Rape as psychiatric illness: Battle heats up

Prosecutor lobbying for new diagnosis

Even after writing and teaching about the pretextual use of psychiatric diagnosis for legal purposes, I found this one jaw-dropping:

The committee tasked with revising the sexual disorders in the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes a prosecutor who specializes in prosecuting sex offenders as an invited advisor.

The prosecutor, Paul Stern of Washington, is now lobbying for a new psychiatric disorder for rapists, something that was considered and rejected from an earlier DSM. In an upcoming article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, he reassures readers that creating this new "Paraphilic Coercive Disorder" would not increase the number of men involuntarily detained as Sexually Violent Predators. Au contraire: It would reduce the number of SVP commitments by improving diagnostic precision.

Stern lambastes psychologists and psychiatrists for engaging in "dangerous" legal analysis, while in the next breath asserts that he knows better than scientists about the validity of a psychiatric diagnosis for rapists! He dismisses concerns about the reliability and validity of the proposed diagnosis from two leading scientists, Raymond Knight and Vernon Quinsey. Likewise, he dismisses as an ideologue Dr. Allen Frances, psychiatry professor emeritus at Duke University and chair of the DSM-IV Task Force.

This article certainly did not seem good evidence of psychiatry as objective, value-neutral science, as Stern argues it should be.

Frances critiques "Paraphilia NOS"

Dr. Frances, meanwhile, continues to sound the alarm over poorly thought out diagnostic proposals for the DSM-5. His concerns arose out of his experience heading up the DSM-IV revision process. Witnessing the many unintended consequences of diagnostic expansion, such as epidemic stigmatization of children, he now regrets that he did not more carefully examine the reliability and validity of proposed diagnoses before approving them for inclusion.

In this week's Psychiatric Times, Frances squarely tackles the creation of psychiatric labels to justify the involuntary detention of criminal rapists.
The most disturbing turbulence at the boundary between psychiatry and the law is the misuse of a makeshift psychiatric diagnosis (“Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified, nonconsent”) to justify the involuntary, indefinite psychiatric commitment of rapists. This is a disguised form of preventive detention (often for life), a violation of due process, and an abuse of psychiatry. The mental health professions have been placed in the position of providing a dangerous fig leaf to cover an unfortunate correctional gap created by fixed sentencing….

The Supreme Court has chosen to dance around the legal definition of a qualifying mental disorder. It has left this critical question up to the inconsistent and largely uninformed discretion of each lower court. This has led to huge confusion and very questionable practice. Many evaluators in SVP hearings have been led astray by a complete misunderstanding of the intent of the DSM-IV. They have applied the essentially made-up diagnosis ... to justify the psychiatric commitment of rapists who without this "diagnosis" would be regarded as no more than common, if particularly heinous, criminals….

This paradoxical gulf between the original intention of DSM-IV and SVP forensic evaluator misinterpretation of it leads to great confusion in the handling of expert mental health testimony in individual cases. The diagnosis "Paraphilia NOS, nonconsent" is clearly misguided -- almost always incorrect and inappropriate in forensic proceedings, but it has been accepted by enough mistrained "experts" to have acquired a patina of undeserved respectability that may (in a perverse self fulfilling prophecy way) lead to its acceptance.
Wisconsin exemplar: Bartow v. McGee

Frances urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of convicted rapist Michael McGee in order to clarify this issue. McGee's civil commitment rested on two contested diagnoses, "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified-Nonconsent" and "Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified."

McGee argued in his appeal that these "NOS" diagnoses are "bogus," invented by government psychologists to justify the continued confinement of men like him after they have completed their criminal sentences. He pointed out that the diagnosis of Paraphilia NOS-Nonconsent represents a minority fringe viewpoint that was specifically rejected by mainstream psychiatry.

In its Jan. 27, 2010 decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals used tortured logic to reject McGee's appeal:
We must inquire only whether the diagnosis was so patently lacking in credibility and validity that its consideration by the factfinder in the Wisconsin courts resulted in a denial of constitutional rights…. We cannot conclude that the diagnosis of a rape related paraphilia is so empty of scientific pedigree or so near-universal in its rejection by the mental health profession that civil commitment cannot be upheld as constitutional when this diagnosis serves as a predicate.
This case represents a perfect opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the nature of a "mental disorder" that justifies civil detention, Frances wrote:
The Court should resist the great temptation to continue to dodge this thorny, but basic, constitutional rights issue.... The Supreme Court must step up to the plate and provide clarity about what qualifies legally as a mental disorder in I was responsible for writing the final version of Paraphilia section in DSM-IV) that the diagnosis "Paraphilia NOS, nonconsent" is indeed 'patently lacking in credibility or validity' and is 'empty of scientific pedigree.' But I cannot argue that it is 'near universal in its rejection by the mental health profession' SVP commitments.

Lower courts have faced a peculiar difficulty in interpreting expert testimony in SVP cases. The wording used by the appeals court in the McGee case clearly illustrates the problem. I would argue (with some authority sincebecause a sizable segment of the community of SVP evaluated have been mistrained into believing that "Paraphilia NOS, nonconsent" is a valid DSM-IV diagnosis.

Clearly, the Supreme Court should accept McGee for review and dispel confusion on what constitutes a mental disorder in SVP cases. McGee is a perfect test case raising a crucial constitutional question that should not be decided haphazardly and inconsistently based a basic misunderstanding of psychiatric diagnosis.
Frances's plea was published a little late. On June 7, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

If prosecutor Stern gets his way, the Paraphilia NOS-Nonconsent controversy will be moot, as the DSM-5 (due out in three years) will include the more legitimate-sounding twin, Paraphilic Coercive Disorder. But the DSM-5 task force may be shooting itself in the foot by publicly aligning itself with a partisan advocate. If an SVP defense attorney had co-authored the opinion piece with Stern, it might appear less partisan and, by implication, pretextual.

To put that in scientific terms, if lobbyists look at least superficially nonpartisan, their claims of scientific legitimacy for this new disorder might have more face validity. Which, as we know, is still a far cry from construct validity.

The abstract of Mr. Stern's article, "Paraphilic Coercive Disorder in the DSM: The Right Diagnosis for the Right Reasons," is HERE, along with contact information if you want to request the full article.

Dr. Frances' article in Psychiatric Times, Rape, Psychiatry, and Constitutional Rights -- Hard Cases Make For Very Bad Law, is HERE. (You must first register, but it's free and easy.)

Related blog posts:

Scientist razes proposed "Paraphilic Coercive Disorder" (Nov. 6, 2009 blog post explaining scholar Raymond Knight's position on this diagnosis - RECOMMENDED)
Fed court OK's unorthodox diagnoses for sex offenders
Graphics credit: DSM-5 (a Spanish punk rock band!)

June 22, 2010

Winter's Bone: Crank's ravages revealed

Doing any doing forensic work in rural communities these days? I just got back from a trip to some distal towns of Northern California, where gaunt, straggly haired, gap-toothed phantoms glide through the Walmart aisles and trailer parks. As crack cocaine is to inner cities and alcohol is to Indian reservations, so methamphetamine is devastating rural white communities across the United States.

Winter's Bone, set in the remote Ozark Mountains, hauntingly depicts this plague. The story focuses on 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose father has disappeared after putting up the family home as bail collateral. Unless she can find him, Ree and her younger brother and sister will be without a roof over their heads.

Ree's father is a "cooker" and her mother has been driven into a catatonic state. Ree is on her own in the hostile, clannish, and male-dominated community where she stumbles from trailer to trailer in her frantic search. Crank's ravages are everywhere, in the gaunt and grim faces, the harsh and sudden violence, the cruelty and hopelessness. Her father's only brother, Teardrop (flawlessly played by John Hawkes), holds a spoonful of the white powder out to her and asks, "Gotten the taste for it yet?" "Not yet," she recoils.

Aside from the down-home soundtrack, Winter's Bone is not easy to watch. Its gritty realism never lets up. The characters look like they climbed from Dorothea Lange’s Depression and Dust Bowl images, only with a touch of meth-induced paranoia added to the hunger and despair. The dialogue is sparse, and not once in 100 minutes do we hear laughter or feel much hope for Ree's future. What makes it all bearable is the strength and determination of Ree, movingly played by 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

Winter's Bone is winning awards and earning rave reviews. The acclaim is well deserved. To achieve authenticity, director and co-writer Debra Granik and her team spent two years immersing themselves in the local community. Ree's younger sister is even played by a child who lives in the main house in which the movie is set. The film's power makes me want to see Granik's 2005 debut film, "Down to the Bone," another award winner focused on drug addiction and featuring a strong female lead.

Highly recommended.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this review, I encourage you to visit my Amazon review (HERE) and click on the "YES" button to leave me positive feedback that boosts my reviewer ranking.
Click on the above Movie Review icon to see past forensically focused film reviews.

June 21, 2010

SVP laws bankrupting U.S. states

AP probe: $500 million-a-year hemorrhage

Today's MSNBC website has an excellent report by Martiga Lohn of the Associated Press on the hefty price tag of Sexually Violent Predator laws in the United States. Lawmakers are stymied because they don't want to appear "soft on crime," yet the mushrooming detention facilities are squeezing out social programs such as schools and health care.

The costs of incarceration alone are more than $500 million a year and rising, according to the analysis, and that does not include the "considerable legal expenses" of the actual commitment process. Last year, New York and California spent about $175,000 PER OFFENDER. In the 20 states with SVP laws, the average cost per offender was more than five times that of a regular prison bed, and more than double the cost of a year at an Ivy League university. For a fraction of these costs, imagine how many high-risk offenders could be enrolled in comprehensive "Circles of Support" to protect the public.

As Ms. Lohn reports, "these 'civil commitment' programs are costing states hundreds of millions of dollars more than anyone envisioned, and they've created a political quandary for lawmakers who need to cut spending but don't want to be seen as soft on rapists and child molesters."

Bang for the buck?
In many places, treatment costs are up sharply since 2005, raising doubts about whether the system is still worthwhile in an era of ruthless budget cuts brought on by the recession.

"I've heard people in a lot of the states quietly say, 'Oh, my God, I wish we'd never gotten this law,'" said W. Lawrence Fitch, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "No one would ever dare offer repeal because it's just untenable." …

The heavy financial burden of treating confined sex offenders has left lawmakers with less money as they make agonizing cuts to areas like education and health care. Politicians who spent years cracking down on sex crimes now struggle to pay for their tougher laws.

"It's easy to say, 'Lock everybody up and throw away the key,'" said state Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat who heads a public safety budget panel. "But it's just not practical." …

"They had no idea 10 years ago, seven years ago, what this program was going to cost," said Dennis Benson, a former prison warden who now oversees Minnesota's civilly committed sex offenders.

In most states, the number of confined sex offenders has steadily increased, requiring ever-greater spending….

Some states have steered clear of the civil-commitment system, partly because of financial reasons. In Louisiana, legislation died last year after top lawmakers questioned the cost and constitutional issues. Vermont legislators rejected a similar proposal....
The full story is HERE.

Online alert: Ethics and peer review articles

I said I was done blogging about the psychopathy controversy for awhile. But I did want to alert readers to the fact that the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health has opened up its two articles so that you can download them for free for a limited time. Those articles pertain to ethics and the peer-review process. The articles are:

Click on either title to go to the downloadable pdf.

June 20, 2010

"I'm a criminal and so are you"

We are living in an "age of prohibition," says Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast. Texas, he notes, has 11 felonies just involving oysters. Youth are especially criminalized, for everything from copyright piracy to "sexting" to truancy. As laws proliferate, so do the number of violators, bringing us to the point of this guest essay by author and activist Michelle Alexander:

"I'm a criminal and so are you"

Guest essay by Michelle Alexander*

Who am I? How do I identify?

Lately, I've been telling people that I'm a criminal. This shocks most people, since I don't "look like" one. I'm a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School. I'm a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice -- not the sort of thing you'd expect a criminal to do.

What'd you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why do you say you're a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.

This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my acquaintances don't think of themselves as criminals. No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else -- in ghettos, mainly.

They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as "law-abiding citizens." I ask them, "Haven't you ever committed a crime?" Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you mean? they say. I mean, haven't you ever smoked pot, didn't you ever drink underage, don't you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven't you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven't you broken the law?

Well, yeah, they say, but I'm not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you, then? As I see it, you're just somebody who hasn't been caught. You're still a criminal, no better than many of those who've been branded felons for life.

Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says "I'm a criminal." Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to check it. If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality, maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying full citizenship to those branded felons.

In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime. Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe. You can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits -- forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind.

This kind of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion may befall you for no reason other than you were once caught with drugs.

I doubt Barack Obama thinks of himself as a criminal, though he should. He has admitted to using illegal drugs during his college years -- lots, in fact. What if he thought of himself as a criminal? What if he identified that way? Would it lead him to feel a bit more compassion for those who are branded drug felons for life, unable to find work or housing, and deemed ineligible even for food stamps?

Maybe if Obama thought of himself as a criminal he wouldn't have just endorsed spending even more money on prisons at a time when scarce resources would be much better spent on education or health care, or just about anything else.

I am a criminal. Coming to terms with this aspect of my identity has helped me to see more clearly -- with blinders off -- the ways in which I have been encouraged not to feel any connection to "them," those labeled criminals. I see now that "they" are me, and I am them.

*This essay was first posted at CNN, and is reposted here with the permission of Michelle Alexander. Ms. Alexander is author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). She is former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California and of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. She holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.

June 18, 2010

New study on juvenile sex offender treatment

Efficacy claimed, but control group questionable

I previously reviewed forensic psychologist Frank DiCataldo's excellent book on juvenile sex offenders, in which he claims there is very little good research to show that sex offender-specific treatment is useful with adolescents. As DiCataldo points out, most of the studies (and the meta-analyses of studies) purporting to show a treatment effect have serious flaws. One big problem is the lack of control groups. This makes it impossible to know whether juveniles who did well after sex-offender treatment would have done equally well without treatment or with generic treatment not focused on sex offending.

But now, a study out of Canada (where else?!) is being trumpeted as methodologically sound proof that -- drum roll here -- treatment works. The study followed 148 adolescents for up to 20 years, which is a very long time for this type of research. Overall, only 17 of the subjects (about 11.5%) picked up a new sex offense as adults, with another 7 getting a new charge only in adolescence, for a total of 24 recidivists (16%). That's in line with a growing body of data on the very low recidivism rates of juvenile sex offenders, ranging from about 4% to 15%.

When they broke it down by those who underwent their specialized treatment, compared with a comparison group that did not, they found that only 9% (5 out of 58) of the youths who had gone through their program got charged with a new sex offense over the next 20 years, compared with 21% (19 out of 90) of those who had not. That's a significant difference.

But here's the rub. The participants were not randomly assigned to treatment (versus no treatment), which is how it's supposed to be done in psychotherapy treatment outcome research. Otherwise, you never know if there is something about the selection process that affected the results. Not only was assignment to groups not random, but the researchers put the kids who refused to undergo treatment, along with those who dropped out of treatment early, into their so-called "control" group! In fact, these bad boys comprised fully half of the non-treatment group. My guess is that these dropouts and refusers were probably a whole lot more delinquent than the other kids in the first place.

So it's possible that what the research really shows is not that treatment works, but that hardcore delinquents who refuse or drop out of treatment are likely to get into more trouble in their later teens and early 20s. It would be interesting to see if the control group still showed a higher recidivism rate if they removed the dropouts and refusers from the analyses. In fact, I would love to see some qualitative analyses of who those 19 recidivists (out of the total of 90 in the control group) are.

Another potential confounder I noticed was that many of the adolescents in the non-treatment control group were apparently in some different kind of treatment at the time. That treatment is not described, so perhaps this study is more of a between-treatments design, rather than a study of treatment versus no treatment.

Again, as I've discussed previously, part of the "problem" both with accurately predicting which juveniles will reoffend and also with designing treatment programs that work is the very low overall rate of recidivism among juveniles who have sexually offended. As DiCataldo and others have pointed out, if you just predict that no juvenile caught for a sex crime will reoffend, you will be correct in the broad majority of cases.

Flattening trajectory

The study, by psychologist James Worling and his colleagues at the Sexual Abuse: Family Education & Treatment Program (SAFE-T) program in Ontario, did have some other interesting findings. The researchers found that most recidivism -- both sexual and nonsexual -- happens within the first few years. Offending flattens out significantly at about the 10-year mark, when folks hit about the age of 25. This is consistent with the recent study by Lussier and colleagues of sex offender trajectories, as well as the general criminology literature on desistance. Crime, including sex offending, is a young man's game.

The finding that only 11.5% of the participants were charged with subsequent sexual offenses as adults is also in line with other research showing very low recidivism for juveniles. A strength of this study is its long course; it followed kids all the way up to an average age of 31.

The study is: Worling, J.R., Littlejohn, A., & Bookalam, D. (2010). 20-year prospective follow-up study of specialized treatment for adolescents who offended sexually. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 28, 46-57.

Special journal issue on adolescent sex offenders

NOTE: It looks like this entire special issue of Behavioral Sciences and the Law is available online. Other interesting articles in the issue include:

Inter-rater reliability of the PCL-R total and factor scores among psychopathic sex offenders: are personality features more prone to disagreement than behavioral features?
John F. Edens, Marcus T. Boccaccini, Darryl W. Johnson

Searching for the developmental origins of sexual violence: examining the co-occurrence of physical aggression and sexual behaviors in early childhood
Patrick Lussier, Jay Healey

Assessing risk of sexually abusive behavior among youth in a child welfare sample
Robert A. Prentky, Nien-Chen Li, Sue Righthand, Ann Schuler, Deborah Cavanaugh, Austin F. Lee

Psychological mechanisms underlying support for juvenile sex offender registry laws: prototypes, moral outrage, and perceived threat
Jessica M. Salerno, Cynthia J. Najdowski, Margaret C. Stevenson, Tisha R. A. Wiley, Bette L. Bottoms, Roberto Vaca Jr., Pamela S. Pimentel

Legal, ethical, and methodological considerations in the Internet-based study of child pornography offenders (p 84-105)
James V. Ray, Eva R. Kimonis, Christine Donoghue

June 17, 2010

Psychopathy brouhaha: It's a wrap (I hope!)

Today's Scientific American has more on the censorship controversy I've featured here in recent weeks. As regular readers know, the flap centers around allegations that psychopathy researcher Robert Hare tried to silence critics by threatening to sue. The controversial article was finally published this month in the American Psychological Association publication Psychological Assessment, but the fallout continues.

The column by J.R. Minkel, oddly titled "Fear Review," features a rundown, including commentary by prominent scholar Stephen Hart:
People familiar with the matter say the scale's author, Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, deserves only partial blame for the delay, to be shared with the American Psychological Association (APA), the journal's publisher. But they say Hare's use of legal threats has at best subverted the peer review process that is the crux of modern scientific progress, and could at worst encourage junior researchers in the field of forensic psychology to pursue other lines of research.

"I find this action to be completely inconsistent with the man I had [great] respect and affection for," says Stephen Hart of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, a collaborator and former student of Hare's. "People I speak with automatically think, 'Well, what's in that article that makes him so upset? What's he so afraid of?'
After reading all of the publicly available materials on the controversy, as well as numerous email posts on professional listservs, here's how I boil things down to the essence:
  • The Skeem and Cooke article is an important scientific analysis of the theoretical construct of psychopathy, which is increasingly being used as a weapon in court with grave consequences for those it is deployed against.
  • Not surprisingly, Robert Hare disagrees with Skeem and Cooke. Specifically, he does not agree with their claim that his Psychopathy Checklist or the underlying psychopathy construct centralizes criminality.
  • Hare claims that Skeem and Cooke distorted his work. In a written response, he gives three examples of alleged distortions. Presumably, since he was preparing his response for publication, he picked the best examples he could find to illustrate his complaint. Yet, these are nowhere near as egregious as I had imagined they would be, given his threat to sue.
  • Hare accuses two well respected psychology-law leaders, Norm Poythress and John Petrila, of being biased and misinformed. But nothing in his response supports this. Poythress and Petrila, in their article in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health that set this whole ball in motion, were careful not to take sides in the underlying scientific debate over psychopathy. Rather, they focused on the threat to academic freedom and science posed by threats to sue: "Academic freedom rests on the premise that advances in science can only occur if scholars are permitted to pursue free competition among ideas. This assumes that scholars have the liberty to do their work free from limitations imposed by political or religious pressure or by economic reprisals."
  • Hare has claimed elsewhere that his "lawsuit threat was meant only to get the 'attention' of APA, Skeem, and Cooke and force changes to the article." In his essay, he expresses bafflement at the ensuing, lengthy delay in the article's publication. To claim that his threat to sue did not contribute to the lengthy delay is either disingenuous or na├»ve. Especially in the wake of other controversies, such as the Rind debacle in which the U.S. Congress blasted the APA's publication and peer review process, the Association is undoubtedly very gun-shy and reactive over lawsuit threats.
The bottom line:

After analyzing all sides of the issue, I find that the Skeem and Cooke article is an important and timely contribution to the field, and that threats to sue over such publications set a dangerous precedent. As Poythress and Petrila point out in their commentary, potential negative effects of defamation threats against scientific researchers include -- among other things -- that:
  1. researchers avoid critical research out of fear of lawsuits,
  2. academics avoid volunteering as peer reviewers, and
  3. journal editors self-censor on controversial topics
Censorship -- or even the appearance of censorship -- is especially dangerous when it involves critique of a construct that may be used in a partisan manner in the forensic arena.

Hare is entitled to express his opinion, but nothing in his public response changes these bottom lines. Rather, as Jennifer Skeem notes in today's Scientific American piece, all of this peripheral controversy distracts from the scientific critique of psychopathy, including her critique that was silenced for three years before finally seeing the light of day.

I sure hope this is my last blog post for a while on this topic!

I regret that I had to reject your comment about the pecuniary angle from publication.
While I found it quite interesting, I had no easy way to substantiate its accuracy.

I encourage comments, but it's nice to know who is talking;
please consider signing your name (or at least a pseudonym).

June 16, 2010

"Killing and culpability" sentences handed down

You readers who completed the "Killing and Culpability" exercise a while back may be interested in the sentences that were handed down:

"Avenging a Wrong"

Remember Aaron Vargas? He was the man who went to the home of the older man whom he said had molested him as a child, shot the man once in the chest, and then waited half an hour to be sure he died. The Northern California community of Fort Bragg had rallied around Vargas, and he was expecting a lenient sentence after his guilty plea to manslaughter.

The judge said no dice; the fact that the victim was a child molester was largely irrelevant. "To grant probation in this case would put a stamp of approval on the defendant's actions, which I cannot do," he told a courtroom packed with Vargas supporters. "The use of violence to correct a wrong only encourages more violence."

The sentence: 9 years in the state pen.

"Street Brawl"

The other case featured in the exercise was that of Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield, age 20, who stabbed a University of California at Berkeley fraternity man to death during a drunken street brawl. A jury had rejected his plea of self defense, and convicted him of second-degree murder. Although he cried and pleaded for leniency, the judge noted that he fled from the scene after the stabbing, discarded his knife and hid out at a friend's house.

The sentence: 16 years of hard time.

Reactions, readers? Were either of the sentences surprising? Were they just?

The "Killing and Culpability Exercise" is HERE

June 12, 2010

New York Times covers psychopathy debacle

I had no idea when I broke the news of this censorship controversy that it would generate so much mainstream attention. First Science ran with it, and today it's made the New York Times; I am told other major U.S. and international news outlets have made inquiries. I hope this affair will serve as a dramatic lesson to others who might think about making legal threats when someone criticizes their work. The move certainly backfired against psychopathy guru Robert Hare.

Certain theories have weightier real-world implications than others. When a capital case defendant is labeled a "psychopath" in court, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Similarly, the pejorative label has serious consequences for someone facing lifelong civil detention as a sexual predator. Thus, critical analysis of the reliability and validity of the underlying theory is essential. Researchers whose work lends itself to partisan forensic application should expect scrutiny.

Here's what Benedict Carey, health beat reporter at the New York Times, had to say:
Academic disputes usually flare out in the safety of obscure journals, raising no more than a few tempers, if not voices. But a paper published this week by the American Psychological Association has managed to raise questions of censorship, academic fraud, fair play and criminal sentencing -- and all them well before the report ever became public.

The paper is a critique of a rating scale that is widely used in criminal courts to determine whether a person is a psychopath and likely to commit acts of violence. It was accepted for publication in a psychological journal in 2007, but the inventor of the rating scale saw a draft and threatened a lawsuit if it was published, setting in motion a stultifying series of reviews, revisions and legal correspondence.

"This has been a really, really troubling process from the beginning," said Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University and a collaborator with one of the paper's authors. "It has people wondering, 'Do I have to worry every time I publish a paper that criticizes someone that I’ll get slapped with a lawsuit?' " The delay in publication, he said, "sets a very dangerous precedent" and censors scientific discourse….

Dr. Hare's clinical scale, called the Psychopathy Checklist, Revised, is one of the few, if not the only, psychological measures in forensic science with any scientific backing…. Dr. Skeem and Dr. Cooke warned in their paper that the checklist was increasingly being mistaken for a complete definition of psychopathy -- a broader personality construct that includes deceitfulness, impulsivity and recklessness, though not always aggression or illegal acts. The authors contended that Dr. Hare's checklist warps that concept by making criminal behavior a more central component than it really is…. {NOTE: The New York Times later issued a correction of the above portion that is in red; clearly, it's wrong to call the PCL "one of the few, if not the only," forensic psychology measures with any scientific backing!}

"When we first wrote the paper," [Jennifer Skeem] said, "we saw it simply as a call to the field to recognize we were going down a path where we were equating an abstract concept with a checklist, and it was preventing us from looking at the concept more closely."
Carey's full article is HERE. I will be sure to keep readers posted on any further developments.


This evening, readers alerted me that Robert Hare has posted a lengthy response giving his side of the controversy. His essay, "On Fairness in Academic Debate: A Commentary on Poythress and Petrila (2010) and Related Matters," claims that Poythress and Petrila's critical opinion piece in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health (see my May 30 blog post) was biased and one-sided. He presents a timeline of the events surrounding the lengthy delay in publishing the underlying psychopathy article by Skeem and Cooke in Psychological Assessment, and gives specific examples of their allegedly egregious misrepresentations of his work. He comments:
… Poythress and Petrila and Hart failed to give an impartial and complete account of the situation. Their actions resulted in publication and circulation of a seriously biased account of events, and a commentary in the June 11 issue of Science, which noted that there are several sides to every issue…. I have no arguments with their thoughtful and commendable views about the nature of scientific debate and peer review, and about the potential fallout from threats of litigation…. I would welcome a formal investigation of the entire matter by an appropriately impartial body. I also would be willing to engage in open debate with the parties involved…. Contrary to the characterizations of others, I made extensive efforts to use the academic system in this case, but [the Skeem and Cooke] article went beyond the boundary of fair academic debate and criticism. The nature of the issue and the authors' refusal to correct their egregious statements gave me no reasonable alternative….

Would I do it again, given similar circumstances? Perhaps not, for like a whistle-blower the focus soon turns to the person who made the complaint and not on the issues and events that led to the complaint. Further, many in the scientific community believe that there are no grounds for litigation concerning academic works, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve learned from this experience that not all academics and scientists play by the accepted rules of science, and that legal redress for those claiming injustice is frowned upon by many as rocking the academic/scientific boat, however leaky it may be; a professional Catch-22 that serves to deny academics the legal rights enjoyed by the rest of the population.
His full statement is HERE. Again, I encourage readers interested in this subject to read Skeem and Cooke's Psychological Assessment article, rebuttal, and surrebuttal and form your own opinions.

June 10, 2010

Psychopathy controversy goes primetime

More than a million people worldwide will get a chance to learn about psychology's internal controversy over psychopathy tomorrow, when Science publishes an article on the censorship allegations that I blogged about May 30.

Perhaps not coincidentally, just as the June 11 issue of the world's leading scientific news outlet hits the presses, the American Psychological Association is suddenly publishing the disputed article that was siderailed for more than three years.

Forensic psychologists Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke submitted the contested article to Psychological Assessment in 2006. It was peer reviewed, accepted, and scheduled for publication in 2007, but was derailed after Robert Hare, inventor of the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL), threatened to sue for defamation.

As you will remember from my previous blog post, the controversy surfaced in an opinion piece last month in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health by two psychology-law leaders.

"[T]he threat of litigation constitutes a serious threat to academic freedom and potentially to scientific progress," wrote attorney John Petrila and psychologist Norman Poythress. "Academic freedom rests on the premise that advances in science can only occur if scholars are permitted to pursue free competition among ideas. This assumes that scholars have the liberty to do their work free from limitations imposed by political or religious pressure or by economic reprisals."

Hare now says he is "upset colleagues are suggesting he squelched academic debate," Science writer John Tavris reports, as his "lawsuit threat was meant only to get the 'attention' of APA, Skeem, and Cooke and force changes to the article."

The Science report is a sidebar to a larger piece on reform efforts over plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the United Kingdom. That country's laws, in which the defendant bears the burden of proof, are under fire from around the world over their allegedly chilling effect on scientific research on controversial topics. Critics say they encourage "libel tourism," in which corporations sue there over alleged offenses that occurred elsewhere.

PCL-R reification hampering science

The contested article by Skeem and Cooke, "Is Criminal Behavior a Central Component of Psychopathy? Conceptual Directions for Resolving the Debate," posits that the field of forensic psychology has prematurely embraced Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) as the gold standard for psychopathy, due in large part to legal demands for a tool to predict violence. Yet the PCL-R's ability to predict violent recidivism owes in large part to its conflation of the supposed personality construct of psychopathy with past criminal behavior, they argue:
[T]he modern justice context has created a strong demand for identifying bad, dangerous people…. [The] link between the PCL and violence has supported a myth that emotionally detached psychopaths callously use violence to achieve control over and exploit others. As far as the PCL is concerned, this notion rests on virtually no empirical support…. [T]he process of understanding psychopathy must be separated from the enterprise of predicting violence.
Criminal behavior weighs heavily in the PCL's 20 items because the instrument emerged from research with prisoners. But using the PCL-R's consequent ability to predict violence to assert the theoretical validity of its underlying personality construct is a tautological, or circular, argument, claim Skeem and Cooke. Or, as John Ellard put it more directly back in 1998:
"Why has this man done these terrible things? Because he is a psychopath. And how do you know that he is a psychopath? Because he has done these terrible things."
Rebuttal and response

Alongside the critique, Psychological Assessment has published a rebuttal by Robert Hare and Craig Neumann, along with a surrebuttal by Cooke and Skeem. Hare and Neumann accuse the critics of erecting a straw-man argument and misrepresenting their work:
The very title of their article is a straw man based on the unfounded claim that Hare and his colleagues consider criminality to be central or fundamental to the psychopathy construct. Their claim is bolstered by arguments misconstruing our published work and that of others and by quotes of our work that have been taken out of context or reconstructed in such a way that it appears that we have said something that we did not say. Skeem and Cooke also made highly selective use of the literature, often omitting published studies that directly contradict or do not support the points they attempted to make, particularly with respect to the role of antisocial tendencies in clinical and empirical conceptions of psychopathy. These tactics are inconsistent with their tutorial on the philosophy of science, compromise their arguments, and divert attention from any legitimate issues raised in their article. We contend that Skeem and Cooke did the field a disservice by presenting an inaccurate account of the role of the PCL–R in theory and research on psychopathy, both applied and basic.
I encourage readers to analyze all three papers, along with the two reports in Science, and draw your own conclusions.

The current issue of Psychological Assessment contains another article pertaining to the controversial psychopathy construct. In their abstract of "Validity of Rorschach Inkblot scores for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths in forensic populations: A meta-analysis," authors James Wood, Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues assert:
Gacono and Meloy (2009) have concluded that the Rorschach Inkblot Test is a sensitive instrument with which to discriminate psychopaths from nonpsychopaths. We examined the association of psychopathy with 37 Rorschach variables in a meta-analytic review of 173 validity coefficients derived from 22 studies comprising 780 forensic participants…. The present findings contradict the view that the Rorschach is a clinically sensitive instrument for discriminating psychopaths from nonpsychopaths.