Ask The Expert: Dr. Scott Lilienfeld

Scott Lilienfeld, Ph.D.  —  Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor  — Department of Psychology, Emory University

Ask The Expert:

How did you get involved in the area of psychopathy research?

As an undergraduate, I found myself fascinated by both personality and psychopathology.  I was interested in the question of what makes people “tick” as well as the question of how healthy adaptation to everyday life fails.  In my third year of undergraduate work, I took a wonderful course on research methods in psychopathology from psychologist Bob Dworkin.  There, Bob exposed me to the ingenious laboratory work of a psychologist named David Lykken, who in many ways launched the experimental investigation of psychopathy.  When I applied to graduate school in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota, I ironically had no idea that David was there, as he was then in the Department of Psychiatry.  So soon after I was accepted at Minnesota, I learned that David was at “the U” as it is affectionately called, and I went over to meet him.  I also learned that he occasionally mentored clinical psychology graduate students, and I asked him if I could work in his lab.  He said yes, and from there I learned more about the psychopathy literature and became hooked. I received my Ph.D. under his tutelage and have always been extremely grateful for his support.  He was one of the most creative psychologists I’ve ever known, and he taught me the importance of intellectual courage and intellectual integrity.

What are some of the misconceptions about psychopathy?

There are many misconceptions surrounding psychopathy.  In my experience, perhaps the most pervasive in the general population are that psychopathy is similar to, if not synonymous, with psychosis, and that psychopathy is associated with a dramatically increased risk of violence.  Many people also believe that psychopathy is identical to antisocial personality disorder, which is an overlapping but quite different condition that is little more than a broad umbrella diagnosis encompassing several conditions that differ in their causes.

Part of the problem stems from the term “psychopathy,” which means nothing more than “diseased mind.”   The vagueness of this term lends itself to all manner of confusion.   Maybe it’s time for us to find a different name.

You have developed a self-report scale to assess psychopathic traits. What are the strengths and limitations of using this methodology to assess for psychopathic traits?

Self-reports, like all methods of assessment, have their strengths and weaknesses.  On the positive side, they are easily administered and economical; moreover, they afford us a glimpse at psychopathic individuals’ self-perceptions and attitudes.  In addition, self-reports eliminate an important source of error that is present in interview-based measures, namely, disagreements among evaluators.  On the negative side, psychopathic individuals tend to lack much insight into the nature and extent of their psychopathology, as well as the impact of their behavior on others.  So in using questionnaires to detect psychopathic traits, one must be careful to focus concretely on what participants do, what their attitudes are, and the like; one should avoid questions that require insight into who they are or how their behavior affects others. Of course, psychopathic individuals also frequently lie with impunity.  So, when using self-report measures in incentivized contexts (e.g., insanity determinations, custody or disability evaluations), all bets are off, and one must be sure to corroborate self-reported data with data from other sources, especially informants who know the individual well.

Are there “successful” psychopaths? How would you define these people?

We think so, although not everyone agrees with us.  I’m not sure there is a single definition, but I strongly suspect that certain people with marked psychopathic personality traits, such as lack of guilt, lack of empathy, narcissism, and risk-taking, can and do function well in society, at least in the short-term.  Some of them may even have a competitive edge over the rest of us in some contexts, such as politics, business, and high-risk sports.  But we don’t know much about what makes these individuals different from less successful psychopaths, nor about whether their short-term success may often be purchased at the expense of long-term failure.

Considering research is generally ahead of application in the field, what is one improvement in the field of psychopathy that you hope to see take place over the next five to ten years?

I’d like to see the field of psychopathy move away from the widespread assumption that psychopathy, whatever it is, is a single “thing” with one cause.  I think it’s becoming increasingly likely that psychopathy, rather than being a monolithic condition, is instead a combination or even configuration of several largely distinct personality attributes that come together in an interpersonally malignant fashion.  So rather than striving to identify “the cause” or “the treatment” for psychopathy, we may instead need to be breaking psychopathy into its subcomponents and studying each of them in turn.


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