March 28, 2013

Evaluating juveniles: Grisso's classic updated for new era

In the 1990s a moral panic swept through the United States over juvenile "super-predators," ruthless youngsters devoid of empathy or morality who would terrorize the good citizenry -- raping, looting and murdering with abandon. Although the hysterical, racially coded predictions proved unfounded (the spike in violent crime was just a historical blip on the radar screen), politicians passed harsh new laws that set the U.S. apart from all other nations in the magnitude of penal warehousing of children.

At the pinnacle of this frenzied "get-tough era" in juvenile justice, the eminent forensic psychologist Tom Grisso authored Forensic Evaluation of Juveniles, a groundbreaking text that guided practitioners into the burgeoning niche of psychological evaluations in delinquency cases.

Now, in a major overhaul of that influential 1998 text, Grisso writes optimistically of a new trend in juvenile justice that he labels the "developmental era." Social science evidence about adolescent brain development and social maturation will contribute to greater judicial and societal recognition that much delinquency is time-limited, he believes. Although this new direction comes too late for the youths and families shattered by the get-tough policies of the past few decades, Grisso hopes that forensic psychology can help judges, probation officers and policy makers understand the potential of rehabilitation for today's wayward youth.

Photo from Richard Ross's Juvenile In Justice photography project
I'm a little less sanguine about a newer, gentler era. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, life without parole for crimes other than murder, and mandatory sentences of life without parole for murder.* But such reversals are a drop in the bucket so long as the punitive architecture remains in place that allows, for example, prosecutorial "direct-files" of juvenile cases to adult courts. We are living in an increasingly repressive culture. About 70,000 young people -- disproportionately poor and non-white -- are currently incarcerated in the U.S., many serving ridiculously long sentences that give them no chance of ever leading productive lives. 

Grisso's practical guide strikes a humanistic tone, refreshing in a field increasingly infiltrated by a gloomy, pathologizing, technocratic worldview. The award-winning director of the Law-Psychiatry Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for example cautions evaluators to avoid simple tallies of actuarial risk factors in informing the court of a youth's risk. Rather, evaluators should understand and incorporate the two broad, and complementary, theories of delinquency: The biological and personality-oriented theories of psychology, and the social-environmental theories of criminology, such as the notion of "drift" into delinquency. Evaluators should also understand the individual child's context, and the factors that contribute not only to pathology but also to resilience in the face of adversity.

Perhaps the most radical departure from the first edition is a newfound emphasis on understanding racial, ethnic and cultural factors, historically a major blind spot in forensic psychology. With non-white children comprising the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated in America, this principle cannot be overstated. Grisso addresses the barriers to even basic communication that will become all the more challenging as young immigrants arrive from far-flung lands, many carrying inside them the weight of untold traumas. Although he proffers no facile solutions, he preaches greater awareness of cultural blinders and of the inherent limitations of forensic tools that were not normed on diverse populations.

Disappointingly, given this humanistic tenor and discussion of racial and cultural issues, Grisso soft-pedals criticism of the growing practice of labeling juveniles as psychopaths. He describes evidence for the validity of the psychopathy construct in juveniles as "mixed," yet omits mention of the calamitous -- and often self-fulfilling -- consequences to youths when the psychopathy label is introduced in court.

Like the first edition, this is a practical manual that provides a clearly written historical overview of the field for novice practitioners, and useful review material for more seasoned juvenile evaluators. Chapters address specific types of evaluations, including competency to stand trial, waiver of Miranda rights, risk assessment, waiver to adult court, and rehabilitation and treatment recommendations. New statutes, case law, scientific findings and assessment methods are interwoven throughout, making this an indispensable addition to the juvenile evaluator's bookshelf.

If you found this review helpful, I would appreciate your taking a moment click to visit my Amazon review (HERE) and click on the "YES" button at the bottom ("this review was helpful"). This helps boost the review's ranking. Thanks in advance. 

*The cases are Roper v. Simmons (2005), Graham v. Florida (2010), and Miller v. Alabama (2012), respectively.

March 25, 2013

Miracle of the day: 80-year-old man recaptures long-lost youth

(Or: How committing a new sex crime can paradoxically LOWER risk on the Static-99R)

"How old is the offender?"

 Age is an essential variable in many forensic contexts. Older people are at lower risk for criminal recidivism. Antisocial behaviors, and even psychopathic character traits, diminish as criminals reach their 30s and 40s. Men who have committed sex offenses become at considerably lower risk for further such misconduct, due to a combination of decreased testosterone levels and the changes in thinking, health, and lifestyle that happen naturally with age.

Calculating a person's age would seem very straightforward, and certainly not something requiring a PhD: Just look up his date of birth, subtract that from today's date, and -- voila! Numerous published tests provide fill-in-the-blank boxes to make this calculation easy enough for a fourth-grader.

One forensic instrument, however, bucks this common-sense practice. The developers of the Static-99R, the most widely used tool for estimating the risk of future sexual recidivism, have given contradictory instructions on how to score its very first item: Offender age.

In a new paper, forensic evaluator Dean Cauley and PsyD graduate student Michelle Brownfield report that divergent field practices in the scoring of this item are producing vastly different risk estimates in legal cases -- estimates that in some cases defy all logic and common sense.

Take Fred. Fred is 80 years old, and facing possible civil commitment for the rapes of two women when he was 18 years old. He served 12 years in prison for those rapes. Released from prison at age 30, he committed several strings of bank robberies that landed him back in prison on six separate occasions.

At age 80 (and especially with his only known sex offenses committed at age 18), his risk for committing a new sex offense if released from custody is extremely low -- something on the order of 3 percent. But evaluators now have the option of using any of three separate approaches with Fred, with each approach producing quite distinct opinions and recommendations.

Procedure 1: Age is age (the old-fashioned method)

The first, and simplest, approach, is to list Fred's actual chronological age on Item 1 of the Static-99R. Using this approach, Fred gets a three-point reduction in risk for a total of one point, making his actuarial risk of committing a new sex offense around 3.8 percent.

Evaluators adopting this approach argue that advancing age mitigates risk, independent of any technicalities about when an offender was released from various periods of incarceration. These evaluators point to the Static-99R's coding manuals and workbook, along with recent publications, online seminars, and sworn testimony by members of the Static-99 Advisory Committee. Additionally, they point to a wealth of age-related literature from the fields of criminology and psychology to support their scoring.

Procedure 2: Reject the Static-99R as inappropriate

A second approach is not to use the Static-99R at all, because Fred's release from prison for his "index offenses" (the rapes) was far more than two years ago, making Fred unlike the members of the samples from which the Static-99R's risk levels were calculated. Evaluators adopting this approach point to publications by members of the Static-99 Advisory Committee, generally accepted testing standards and actuarial science test standards to support their choice to not use the test at all.

Procedure 3: The amazing elixir of youth

But there is a third approach. One that magically transports Fred back to his youth, back to the days when a career in bank robbing seemed so promising. (Bank robbery is no longer alluring; it is quietly fading away like the career of a blacksmith.) The last five decades of Fred's life fade away, and he becomes 30 again -- his age when he was last released from custody on a sex offense conviction.

Now Fred not only loses his three-point age reduction, but he gains a point for being between the ages of 18 and 34.9. A four point difference! The argument for this approach is that it most closely conforms to the scoring methods used on the underlying samples of sex offenders, who were scored based on their date of release from their index sexual offense. These evaluators can correctly point to information imparted at training seminars, advice given by some members of the Static-99R Advisory Committee, and sworn testimony by developers of the test itself. They can also point to an undated FAQ #27 on the Static-99 website to support their opinion.

Fred could rape someone to reduce his risk!

Back-dating age to the time of the last release from a sex offense-related incarceration allows for a very bizarre twist:

Let's say that after Fred was released from prison on his most recent robbery stint, back when he was a vigorous young man of 61, he committed another rape. Being 60 or over, Fred would now get the four-point reduction in risk to which his age entitles him. This would cut his risk by two-thirds -- from 11.4 percent (at a score of 5) all the way down to a mere 3.8 percent (at a score of 1)!

While such a scenario might seem far-fetched, it is not at all unusual for an offender to be released from prison at, say, age 58 or 59, but to not undergo a civil commitment trial for a couple of years, until age 60 or 61. Such an offender's score will vary by two points (out of a total of 12 maximum points) depending upon how the age item is scored. And, as Cauley and Brownfield describe, the members of the Static-99R development team have, at different times, given contradictory advice on how to score the age item.

By completely negating the very substantial body of research on age and crime, this technocratic method creates other very concerning -- and paradoxical -- implications, Cauley and Brownfield argue: As the risk estimate for a more persistent offender is lowered, the offender who does not reoffend is stuck with a risk score that is forever jacked up.

Back-dating an offender's age is also at odds with the research that generated the test itself, they say, because the offenders in the samples used to construct the Static-99R had finished serving their sentences on their index sexual offenses within two years of being studied. In other words, none of the offenders had been released many years earlier, and there was none of this curious time-travel business in regard to their ages. As the instrument's developers noted in a publication just last year, the Static-99 "was developed on, and intended for, sexual offenders with a current or recent sexual offense."

So, if you are evaluating an old geezer in the local pen and he tells you that he is only 30 years old, don't assume that he has a delusional belief that he has discovered the elixir of youth -- or that he's pulling your leg. He just might be reciting the age that he was just assigned by a technocratic Static-99R evaluator.

The paper, "Static-99R: Item #1 -- What is the Offender's Age? A lack of consensus leads to a defective actuarial," is available for download both HERE and HERE.

March 19, 2013

California high court upholds parolee confidentiality right

Two years ago, I reported on a California appellate opinion upholding the sacredness of patient-therapist confidentiality even for convicted felons who are mandated to treatment as a condition of parole. Today, the California Supreme Court upheld the gist of the ruling -- but with a proviso. Using strained logic, the court held that the breach of confidentiality was not so prejudicial as to merit overturning Ramiro Gonzales's civil commitment, as the Sixth District Court of Appeal had done.

Gonzales is a developmentally disabled man whose therapist turned over prejudicial therapy records to a prosecutor seeking to civilly detain him as a sexually violent predator (SVP). Forensic psychology experts Brian Abbott and Tim Derning testified for the defense; called by the prosecution were psychologists Thomas MacSpeiden and Jack Vognsen.

As I wrote two years ago, the ruling is good news for psychology ethics and should serve as a reminder that we are obligated to actively resist subpoenas requesting confidential records of therapy.

Today's California Supreme Court ruling is HERE. My prior post, with much more detail on the case, is HERE. The Sixth District Court of Appeal opinion from 2011, available HERE, provides a nice overview of both federal and California case law on confidentiality in forensic cases.
Hat tip: Adam Alban

Note: Updated version of Sunday's post on "narcoanalysis"

For those of you following the case of Aurora Colorado mass murder suspect James Holmes and the judge's order that he be subjected to a "narcoanalytic interview" if he pleads insanity, I have updated the Psychology Today version of the post. The updated version explains where Judge Sylvester got the idea for this order, and discusses the fascinating landmark case of Ramona v. Ramona, in which a father successfully sued his daughter's therapists for implanting false memories of child sexual abuse during a sodium amytal interview; I've also referenced a curious side note in the Michael Jackson case involving sodium amytal.  Thanks to psychologist Evan Harrington of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology for alerting me to the Ramona opinion, which features an interesting discussion of relevant case law.

March 17, 2013

"Narcoanalytics" order in Aurora massacre case unprecedented

News flash: There is no such thing as 'truth serum'

The next time the court appoints you to conduct a sanity evaluation, don't forget to order up a vial of truth serum.

In a court order that breaks new legal ground, the judge presiding over the trial of James Holmes ordered the Aurora Colorado massacre suspect to submit to polygraph testing and a "narcoanalytic interview" if he decides to put his mental state at issue.

Chief District Judge William Sylvester ruled that if Holmes elects to pursue an insanity defense, "medically appropriate" drugs can be administered during a forensic examination at the state hospital, presumably to determine whether the mass murder suspect is feigning insanity.

This may be the first time that a court has mandated use of so-called "truth serum" in a sanity evaluation. Indeed, courts have generally taken the opposite stance, of being gatekeepers who exclude the results of both sodium amytal and polygraph examinations from court due to their lack of reliability.

"Mythical aura of infallibility"

In a seminal case, Harper v. State (1982), the George Supreme Court ruled that the use of "truth serum" (sodium amytal) was inadmissible to establish that a murder defendant was being truthful in proclaiming his innocence. "We agree with the trial court that, until it is proven with verifiable certainty that truth serum compels a person to tell the truth, neither the results of truth-serum tests nor the opinions of experts based on the results of these tests shall be admissible in evidence," ruled the court.

Similarly, a defense-retained psychologist published an account of another case from the 1980s in which an appellate court upheld exclusion of "a sodium amytal test" to bolster an insanity defense. The defendant had walked into a nightclub and shot to death a dancer who had jilted him. Under the influence of the barbiturate, the man claimed he thought he was shooting Satan, because the victim had appeared to morph into the devil, "with pitchforks … and fire and everything." In excluding mention of the test, the trial judge expressed worry that a jury "might be overwhelmed by the use of the term 'sodium amytal' and/or 'truth serum' and attribute to it a mythical aura of infallibility."

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when sodium amytal was all the rage, laypersons and professionals alike believed that people could not lie when under the drug's influence. It turns out that this faith was misguided. Empirical testing showed that although sodium amytal and related drugs lower inhibitions, people remain perfectly capable of lying, withholding information, and exaggerating psychiatric symptoms.

"While it is clear that these substances lower inhibitions and increase loquacity, they provide no assurance as to the truthfulness of the information obtained,” noted attorney Jason Odershoo in a Stanford Law Review analysis focusing on whether such chemicals may legally be deployed against terrorism suspects in the post-9/11 world.

Sodium amytal, or amobarbital, belongs to the same class of barbiturates as Nembutal, Seconal, and Pentothal. As psychiatrist August Piper Jr. describes the procedure, a physician intravenously administers small amounts of the drug (sometimes in tandem with other intravenous drugs like Valium or Ativan) until the subject enters a "twilight state" in which he is relaxed and drowsy but still awake. The drug causes a feeling of warmth and "closeness to the interviewer" that breaks down inhibitions, similar to the effects of acute alcohol intoxication.

However, while sodium amytal makes people more loquacious, it also disrupts memory and increases suggestibility, according to the research summarized by Piper. Reality and fantasy may become hopelessly tangled, such that people cannot distinguish between the two.

Cultural fascination with truth serum in the mid-20th century completely ignored this flawed reality. Rather, the mythology helped to shape the public's understanding of memories as robust and accurate, stored verbatim in the mind just awaiting proper retrieval and extraction. As Alison Winter writes in a 2005 essay on the cultural history of truth serum:
"This view contributed to the production of a public understanding of memory that both diverged from previous claims about memory and recall, and ran counter to the direction of current psychological research. It thus helped lay the groundwork for claims about memory permanence and scientific recall techniques later in the twentieth century."

Perils in Holmes's case

James Holmes's new look
The empirical research suggests not only that Holmes could lie while under the influence of the drugs, but also that subjecting him to a "narcoanalytic interview" could introduce false memories and render his subsequent recall of information potentially even less reliable. As with post-hypnosis statements, this could be a big problem if Holmes decides to testify on his own behalf, either at a trial or a sentencing hearing. Similarly, unreliable information recounted to evaluators during a "narcoanalytic interview" could be given too much credence, thereby jeopardizing the validity of forensic opinions in the case.

But maybe such contamination is the point, writes a commentator at the American Everyman blog. Under the alarmist headline, "Holmes to be Drugged Into Confession -- Apparently Waterboarding is Off the Table," Scott Creighton theorizes: "This 'truth serum' CIA trick will be used to convict Holmes in the court of public opinion before his Vichy lawyers plead him out to life in prison rather than taking it to trial to evaluate the evidence against him." 

Given the recent dispositions of other similar cases such as that of Arizona mass shooter Jared Loughner, maybe the conspiratorially minded blogger is not so far off the mark.

The CIA and a zombie idea

The notion of a magical drug that can ferret out malingering represents a "zombie idea," to borrow a phrase from New York Times essayist Paul Krugman. That is, it is a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead -- but stubbornly refuses to stay dead because it serves a political purpose or appeals to public prejudices.

Indeed, Judge Sylvester's court order harkens back to the early to mid-20th century, a time when -- as legal analyst Odershoo recounts -- "the idea of such a magical substance seemed a very real possibility, one holding profound significance for criminal investigation, foreign intelligence, and national security."

The term "truth serum" was coined in the early 1920s by an obstetrician named Robert House, who advocated the use of the barbiturate Scopolamine -- now known as a date-rape drug because of its amnestic properties but at the time administered to women during childbirth to induce a 'twilight sleep' -- in criminal interrogations. Time magazine's 1923 piece, "Medicine: The Truth-Compeller," helped popularize the idea and turned House into a one-hit wonder. In the 1930s, police use of barbiturates on witnesses and criminal suspects became more widespread. During World War II sodium pentothal was used both to treat soldiers suffering from "shell shock" and to detect malingerers trying to duck the military draft.

Then, during the Cold War, the CIA launched a feverish quest for the ultimate "truth drug." Clandestine campaigns with code names such as Projects Chatter, Third Chance, Derby Hat and Bluebird culminated in the ill-fated MK-ULTRA, in which a doctor who was administered LSD leapt to his death from a hotel room window. Revelations of this secret experimentation led to public antipathy towards the spy agency, and a demise in the use of sodium amytal and sodium pentothal as truth serums.

The drugs remain in use as anesthetics, and have also been used by psychotherapists seeking to recover repressed memories. This use has its own sordid history. In 1992, a former patient of eminent Chicago psychiatrist Jules Masserman published an account claiming that the good doctor had repeatedly raped her after administering sodium amytal, purportedly to retrieve her repressed memories of incest. The patient, Barbara Noel, was not the only woman to win a lawsuit over such nefarious abuse.

Legal use officially repudiated 

Use in law enforcement fell rapidly in the wake of a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a confession produced under the influence of truth serum was unconstitutionally coerced, and therefore inadmissible. The case of Townsend v. Sain involved a heroin addict who was interrogated after being administered phenobarbital and hyoscine (Scopolamine) to alleviate his withdrawal symptoms. Although India and some other countries still use these drugs in criminal investigations, in the United States their use for that purpose has been "officially repudiated," according to Odershoo.

A scan of the case law suggests that this is by far the most serious case in which narcoanalysis has ever been proposed. Holmes is awaiting trial on 166 felony charges for an attack on Batman moviegoers last July that killed 12 people and wounded 58. His attorneys have mounted a heretofore unsuccessful challenge to Colorado's insanity statute and the judge's interpretation of it. Under Colorado law, the test for insanity is whether the person "who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act." Judge Sylvester has ordered that, if Holmes pleads insanity, he must divulge all information from past mental health treatment. Holmes was seen by a psychiatrist and at least two other mental health professionals at the counseling center of the University of Colorado, where he was a PhD student in neuroscience before withdrawing from school, and his treatment records may contain potentially incriminating information. Such forfeiture of doctor-patient privilege is standard in criminal law when a defendant puts his mental state at issue.

Malingering detection

Holmes's elaborate degree of planning for his attack over at least a four-month period certainly raises a distinct possibility that any claim of mental illness may be feigned. But while no method is foolproof, other techniques have a far better track record at sniffing out deception.

Judge William Sylvester
We have a constantly growing arsenal of formal tools for the assessment of various types of malingering. Especially in high-stakes cases such as this, formal tests are typically augmented by 24/7 observation in psychiatric facilities. It's pretty hard to consistently masquerade as insane when one is under around-the-clock observation by everyone from the doctors and nurses to the janitors. Even one of the most slippery malingerers of insanity, a Mafia don named Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, eventually tripped up and got nailed. 

Judge Sylvester's order is so far removed from both contemporary scientific knowledge and normal legal procedure that it has left many observers scratching their heads. Where did the judge get the wacky idea that truth serum is the way to go? Did he cook it up himself, or was it fed to him by someone who had read a few too many "true crime" books or spy thrillers? Vaughan Bell over at Mind Hacks went so far as to wonder whether "the judge has been at the narcotics himself."

NOTE: An updated version of this essay appears at my Psychology Today blog. That essay explains where Judge Sylvester got this wacky idea, and also references the landmark case of Ramona v. Ramona, in which a father successfully sued his daughter's therapists for implanting false memories of child sexual abuse during a sodium amytal interview, as well as the role of sodium amytal in the Michael Jackson case.  Thanks to psychologist Evan Harrington of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology for alerting me to the Ramona opinion, which features an interesting discussion of relevant case law.

A full set of court documents in the Holmes case is located HERE.

March 5, 2013

Remarkable experiment proves pull of adversarial allegiance

 Psychologists' scoring of forensic tools depends on which side they believe has hired them

A brilliant experiment has proven that adversarial pressures skew forensic psychologists' scoring of supposedly objective risk assessment tests, and that this "adversarial allegiance" is not due to selection bias, or preexisting differences among evaluators.

The researchers duped about 100 experienced forensic psychologists into believing they were part of a large-scale forensic case consultation at the behest of either a public defender service or a specialized prosecution unit. After two days of formal training by recognized experts on two widely used forensic instruments -- the Psychopathy Checklist-R (PCL-R) and the Static-99R -- the psychologists were paid $400 to spend a third day reviewing cases and scoring subjects. The National Science Foundation picked up the $40,000 tab.

Unbeknownst to them, the psychologists were all looking at the same set of four cases. But they were "primed" to consider the case from either a defense or prosecution point of view by a research confederate, an actual attorney who pretended to work on a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) unit. In his defense attorney guise, the confederate made mildly partisan but realistic statements such as "We try to help the court understand that ... not every sex offender really poses a high risk of reoffending." In his prosecutor role, he said, "We try to help the court understand that the offenders we bring to trial are a select group [who] are more likely than other sex offenders to reoffend." In both conditions, he hinted at future work opportunities if the consultation went well. 

The deception was so cunning that only four astute participants smelled a rat; their data were discarded.

As expected, the adversarial allegiance effect was stronger for the PCL-R, which is more subjectively scored. (Evaluators must decide, for example, whether a subject is "glib" or "superficially charming.") Scoring differences on the Static-99R only reached statistical significance in one out of the four cases.

The groundbreaking research, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, echoes previous findings by the same group regarding partisan bias in actual court cases. But by conducting a true experiment in which participants were randomly assigned to either a defense or prosecution condition, the researchers could rule out selection bias as a cause. In other words, the adversarial allegiance bias cannot be solely due to attorneys shopping around for simpatico experts, as the experimental participants were randomly assigned and had no group differences in their attitudes about civil commitment laws for sex offenders.

Sexually Violent Predator cases are an excellent arena for studying adversarial allegiance, because the typical case boils down to a "battle of the experts." Often, the only witnesses are psychologists, all of whom have reviewed essentially the same material but have differing interpretations about mental disorder and risk. In actual cases, the researchers note, the adversarial pressures are far higher than in this experiment:
"This evidence of allegiance was particularly striking because our experimental manipulation was less powerful than experts are likely to encounter in most real cases. For example, our participating experts spent only 15 minutes with the retaining attorney, whereas experts in the field may have extensive contact with retaining attorneys over weeks or months. Our experts formed opinions based on files only, which were identical across opposing experts. But experts in the field may elicit different information by seeking different collateral sources or interviewing offenders in different ways. Therefore, the pull toward allegiance in this study was relatively weak compared to the pull typical of most cases in the field. So the large group differences provide compelling evidence for adversarial allegiance."

This is just the latest in a series of stunning findings by this team of psychologists led by Daniel Murrie of the University of Virginia and Marcus Boccaccini of Sam Houston University on an allegiance bias among psychologists. The tendency of experts to skew data to fit the side who retains them should come as no big surprise. After all, it is consistent with 2009 findings by the National Academies of Science calling into question the reliability of all types of forensic science evidence, including supposedly more objective techniques such as DNA typing and fingerprint analysis.

Although the group's findings have heretofore been published only in academic journals and have found a limited audience outside of the profession, this might change. A Huffington Post blogger, Wray Herbert, has published a piece on the current findings, which he called "disturbing." And I predict more public interest if and when mainstream journalists and science writers learn of this extraordinary line of research.

In the latest study, Murrie and Boccaccini conducted follow-up analyses to determine how often matched pairs of experts differed in the expected direction. On the three cases in which clear allegiance effects showed up in PCL-R scoring, more than one-fourth of score pairings had differences of more than six points in the expected direction. Six points equates to about two standard errors of measurement (SEM's), which should  happen by chance in only 2 percent of cases. A similar, albeit milder, effect was found with the Static-99R.

Adversarial allegiance effects might be even stronger in less structured assessment contexts, the researchers warn. For example, clinical diagnoses and assessments of emotional injuries involve even more subjective judgment than scoring of the Static-99 or PCL-R.

But ... WHICH psychologists?!

For me, this study raised a tantalizing question: Since only some of the psychologists succumbed to the allegiance effect, what distinguished those who were swayed by the partisan pressures from those who were not?

The short answer is, "Who knows?"

The researchers told me that they ran all kinds of post-hoc analyses in an effort to answer this question, and could not find a smoking gun. As in a previous research project that I blogged about, they did find evidence for individual differences in scoring of the PCL-R, with some evaluators assigning higher scores than others across all cases. However, they found nothing about individual evaluators that would explain susceptibility to adversarial allegiance. Likewise, the allegiance effect could not be attributed to a handful of grossly biased experts in the mix.

In fact, although score differences tended to go in the expected direction -- with prosecution experts giving higher scores than defense experts on both instruments -- there was a lot of variation even among the experts on the same side, and plenty of overlap between experts on opposing sides.

So, on average prosecution experts scored the PCL-R about three points higher than did the defense experts. But the scores given by experts on any given case ranged widely even within the same group. For example, in one case, prosecution experts gave PCL-R scores ranging from about 12 to 35 (out of a total of 40 possible points), with a similarly wide range among defense experts, from about 17 to 34 points. There was quite a bit of variability on scoring of the Static-99R, too; on one of the four cases, scores ranged all the way from a low of two to a high of ten (the maximum score being 12).

When the researchers debriefed the participants themselves, they didn't have a clue as to what caused the effect. That's likely because bias is mostly unconscious, and people tend to recognize it in others but not in themselves. So, when asked about factors that make psychologists vulnerable to allegiance effects, the participants endorsed things that applied to others and not to them: Those who worked at state facilities thought private practitioners were more vulnerable; experienced evaluators thought that inexperience was the culprit. (It wasn't.)

I tend to think that greater training in how to avoid falling prey to cognitive biases (see my previous post exploring this) could make a difference. But this may be wrong; the experiment to test my hypothesis has not been run. 

The study is: "Are forensic experts biased by the side that retained them?" by Daniel C. Murrie, Marcus T. Boccaccini, Lucy A. Guarnera and Katrina Rufino, forthcoming from Psychological Science. Contact the first author (HERE) if you would like to be put on the list to receive a copy of the article as soon as it becomes available.

Click on these links for lists of my numerous prior blog posts on the PCL-R, adversarial allegiance, and other creative research by Murrie, Boccaccini and their prolific team. Among my all-time favorite experiments from this research team is: "Psychopathy: A Rorschach test for pychologists?"

March 3, 2013

God's Jury: Exploring Inquisitions, then and now

The word "Inquisition" harkens back to medieval Europe - Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Catholic Church. But in Cullen Murphy's frightening account, that repressive past was only prologue: The self-propagating bureaucracies of the modern world contain the seeds of inquisitions potentially far vaster and more destructive than anything wrought by the Catholic Church. 

Murphy seamlessly traces the 700-year history of successive Catholic Inquisitions to expose their underlying mechanisms, and highlight the fundamental similarities between then and now. The "enhanced interrogation" practiced at Guantanamo is not so different from the Roman rigoros esamine (rigorous examination), he explains. Indeed, modern interrogation methods as outlined in a U.S. Army manual eerily parallel to the sophisticated techniques first outlined in an inquisition manual from the 1300s.

Inquisition waterboarding
Murphy, himself a Catholic, encourages us to broaden our historical lens to see that inquisitions need not necessarily be religious. They can occur any time members of a dominant group - whether religious, political, corporate or national - appoint themselves "God’s jury," believing that they alone are privy to the true and right path. The "inquisitorial impulse" springs directly from moral certainty. Think about the inquisitions over the last century alone, just in the United States: The Palmer Raids (an early Red Scare led by the young J. Edgar Hoover), The Japanese internment, Cointelpro, the Patriot Act. The McCarthy Era alone was more far-reaching than any church inquisition, he argues.

But inquisitions require certain tangible assets, and it is these that the modern world possesses in abundance:  
  • A bureaucratic machinery: Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating and expansionistic. They require no evil conspiracy at the helm. Take the Transportation Security Administration, whose methods since 9/11 have grown ever more "invasive, mindless, and routine": A single "credible tip" can get one's name added to the 440,000 on a secret terrorism watch list; but people are not allowed to find out if their names are on that official list. Shades of the inquisition? Repressive regimes are, at base, record-keeping regimes.
  • Surveillance: As far back as 1796, philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte noted that "the chief principle of a well-regulated police state" was the ability to identify its citizens and keep track of their activities and whereabouts. Murphy shows how the modern surveillance state has expanded to new heights in the wake of 9/11, especially in the United States and in England. As a British surveillance leader justifies it, "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear." The game of surveillance, says Murphy, ratchets forever upward, so that what was heretofore unimaginable is constantly becoming the new normal. 
  • Censorship: Just as the Vatican has its catalogues of banned books (which Murphy spent time examining), the Internet has its "choke points" that can be manipulated to deny the public access to information.  Less obvious but no less sinister are today's "mobious strips of the like-minded," creating an "epistemic closure" in which people are able to avoid exposure to information that might challenge their assumed realities.
Whereas both the targets of an inquisition and the motives of the inquisitors can shift with time and place, these tangible underpinnings - proof of identity, efficient record-keeping, a network of informers, surveillance, denunciations, interrogations - remain constant. And they are all ubiquitous in the modern world. 
The history lessons Murphy is able to impart in God's Jury owe in part to the Vatican's decision to open its archives (although only up to 1939) to outside scrutiny, an unprecedented boon to scholars. Murphy is a fluid writer, and his descriptions of the archives and their contents  contain so many riveting nuggets that the book's pages fairly turn themselves. 

Forensic psychologists may be especially interested in his description of interrogations and false confessions, so parallel in many ways to what we witness today in style, if not in content. Armed with a manual on witchcraft, Mallens Maleficarum (which Murphy describes as a cross between Monty Python and Mein Kampf), inquisitors sallied far and wide in search of purported witches, whom they coerced through now-familiar techniques of shaping to admit to such things as having sex with the devil. 

God's Jury is unsettling. But Murphy does offer a ray of hope. Just as the inquisitions of yester-year were extinguished by the Enlightenment ("the intellectual equivalent of habitat destruction"),  Murphy maintains that there is a remedy for contemporary inquisitions. He does not believe they can be legislated away, although more power to those who are valiantly trying to place legal limits on repression. Rather, he believes that "the most effective ally" against inquisitionism is the "seventh virtue" of humility. Inquisitions can only occur, he argues, when those in power insist with absolute certainty that they hold the one and only absolute truth, and that everyone else is wrong. 

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Of related interest: NPR's "The inquisition: A model for modern interrogators," which includes a downloadable podcast and an excerpt from God's Jury